As several million Americans protested for Black Lives Matter in June 2020, organizations, companies and schools alike published messages to show their support of the movement and set forth initiatives to combat racial injustices.
The University was no different — on June 15, 2020, they released a statement outlining their plan to appoint a Task Force on Anti-Black Racism, signed by President Christina Paxson P’19, Provost Richard Locke P’18 and then-Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow. The Task Force would be led by former Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Shontay Delalue and Associate Professor of Religious Studies Andre C. Willis.
By September 2020, Paxson provided an update to the initial plans, stating that the Task Force co-chairs had already started to “develop a deeper understanding of lived experiences within the Brown community that will serve as the foundation for the work ahead.” Through an application process, the two selected a team of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and staff that convened virtually once a month until April 2021 to discuss ways for the Black community to better thrive on campus.
The Task Force has endured a changing landscape over the past year: Delalue has left for a different university and other undergraduate Task Force members have graduated since the report’s release. But more than a year later, the Task Force has released 19 final recommendations. Thus far, Paxson has responded to 11 recommendations, suggesting either proposals on implementation or alternative plans. While some Task Force members felt frustrated by her response, others were more optimistic about the work ahead.
But all, including Paxson, agree that the University’s work combatting anti-Black racism is not over yet.
Path to making recommendations
The Task Force’s final recommendations are broken down into four categories — Policy, Culture/Climate, Curriculum and Classroom Experience and External Community Engagement — all of which contain between three and seven specific proposals.
These categories were finalized after dozens of “listening sessions” during summer 2020, Willis said. In these sessions, they asked groups of Black undergraduates, medical students, graduate students, faculty, coaches and staff about their experiences being Black on campus.
“When we say anti-Black racism, what comes to mind?” Willis remembers asking them. “Have you had any experiences based on race that you find troubling?”
What Willis and Delalue found, he said, was “quite distressing.”
Willis recalled students lamenting the lack of Black figures studied in their curriculums, prompting the creation of a recommendation category dedicated to Curriculum and Classroom Experiences.
From staff, they heard questions about Brown’s hiring and promotion process, leading them to create a Policy committee to better understand the current systems that are “ineffective or effective at enabling our Black workers, students and staff to flourish here.”
Once the listening sessions were over, the co-chairs invited those attendees to apply to be part of the Task Force, a body that he said would “investigate and interrogate anti-Black racism at Brown.” Delalue and Willis chose members based on their experience and the perspectives they would offer to the group.
In addition to the co-chairs, 12 members joined the Task Force. They included two undergraduates, one graduate student, one medical student, three staff members, three faculty members, one alum and one member of the Providence community. Each member then broke off into sub-committees to tackle a category, Willis said.
“The Curriculum and Classroom Experience sub-committee met approximately every week — sometimes multiple times a week — to hear from academic deans, key academic staff and the Faculty Executive Committee,” wrote Mary Wright, associate provost for teaching and learning and executive director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, in an email to The Herald. “We analyzed institutional data about the student learning experience. A student researcher examined syllabi for key concentration pathways. We pulled together these data sources as a foundation for our recommendations.”
Interviewees were chosen based on who the committee thought would “productive partners” for their conversations. Willis said that practically every department chair he reached out to expressed enthusiasm for creating a required experience in each concentration detailing Black history and contributions to the field.
Task Force members found that their interview outreach was warmly received, and often corroborated their own lived experiences.
“A lot of it was just reinforcing what some of us as Black people at Brown already know. It was just now we have the data to prove exactly how we’ve been feeling,” said Kevin Boyce ’21. The committees crafted their recommendations based on the insights from the interviews, he continued.
The final report and Paxson’s response
On April 28, the Task Force published the 17-page report, outlining 19 recommendations. The report first introduces the mission of the Task Force, the history of activism that predates it and the importance of their work distinguished from prior efforts on campus.
“Relative to the University’s (Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan) goals, the Task Force’s recommendations are both more focused and more expansive,” the report states. “Focused” because anti-Black racism is so foundational to the overarching structures of exclusion within the United States that it requires a specific and targeted response; “expansive” because when conditions are created for Black people to thrive, all marginalized people benefit likewise, the report explains.
The recommendations range from advocating for fund allocation to certain organizations and the creation of new programs to University requirements within academics and culture.
The report concluded with two “institutional” initiatives that look “toward a decade-long blueprint for continuous improvement.” The first would be through a distinct administrative entity known as Brown’s Initiative for Black Advancement. BIBA would serve to advocate and keep the University and other entities accountable in maintaining focus on the Task Force’s work.
The second would be to expand Brown’s Building on Distinction strategy plan by creating an Anti-Racist Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine Institute that would provide a place on campus for scientists and engineers to study the effects of racism in their fields.
“We encourage President Paxson to strongly consider the recommendations put forth in this document,” the report concluded. “… We believe the recommendations outlined coupled with the initiatives BIBA and AR-STEMM are innovative, bold and will allow Brown to concretely address anti-Black racism and positively impact our entire community.”
Paxson responded to the report on Aug. 5, about three months after it was released. She noted several reasons for this delay: In addition to delays caused by the University’s earlier-than-usual Commencement, she wanted to consult with the Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Board and with members of the Brown Corporation’s Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, now a permanent standing committee of the corporation.
“And then I didn’t want to release my conclusions so much before the start of the fall semester that by the time September rolled around everybody had forgotten about it,” she said in an interview with The Herald.
Paxson responded to 11 of the 19 total categorical recommendations and addressed the last two institutional recommendations separately; she also provided reasoning for a few of the recommendations she didn’t explicitly respond to, and how the conversation could continue.
“I agree with many of the recommendations, and this letter focuses on the steps the University intends to take or is in the process of taking.” Paxson wrote in her response. “Even where I disagree with the details of the proposed solutions to address concerns, I respect the intentions that motivated the recommendations. In the coming year, I believe that it will be possible to find other ways to meet the overall objectives of the committee.”
In most of her individual responses, Paxson noted an expected timeline as well as the point of contact for further information. In others, she compromised with the Task Force’s request — while the Task Force recommended the University triple the size of their presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship program, Paxson wrote that Brown will commit to doubling it, in one example.
Boyce felt “encouraged” by Paxson’s “thoroughness,” but felt disappointed by what he perceived to be insufficient enthusiasm from Paxson. “I wish there was more support coming from the administration for some of these, despite how hard they may be,” Boyce said.
And while some Task Force members were concerned about what Paxson did not address, she said that she did not have the jurisdiction to advocate for certain recommendations in her role as president of the University.
“As president, I don’t make rules about curricular requirement. I don’t decide that we’re going to start a new academic institute or initiative. We have well-worked processes that engage the faculty, and the department chairs and the faculty executive committee in making academic decisions, and that’s appropriate,” she told The Herald.
‘Institutions move slowly’
When Donnell Williamson GS, a third-year Ph.D. student in religion and critical thought, decided to serve on the University’s anti-Black racism Task Force, he was skeptical that the recommendations they would put forth would actually be acted upon.
Williamson admitted his doubts to Paxson. “I really did buckle down and grill her and say, ‘if we were to move forward with these recommendations, can we trust you to ensure that these recommendations will be acted upon?’” he said.
Paxson responded by saying that she would do her best to make sure everything that comes out of the Task Force would be acted upon, Williamson recalled.
His skepticism, he said, stemmed from what he perceived as a lack of tangible impact taken by the University since the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020.
“We can speak about the work Brown still has to do while also recognizing the very real progress Brown has made. We must not discount the exceptional contributions that staff, students and faculty have made to partner with administrators to make a difference in recruitment of students and employees, financial and social support for students, expansion of curricular offerings, trainings and professional development, and the creation of a range of initiatives and programs. These are true gains over the past five years. But as I said in my response to the Task Force’s recommendations, it should be concerning to all of us if our progress is not felt or recognized by members of our community,” Paxson wrote in an email to The Herald.
On Tuesday, Sept. 7, the Economics department introduced six new professors — none of whom were Black — at a faculty meeting. To Willis, hearing the news was a “slap in the face.”
“We’ve been laboring for a year to try to say we need more Black faculty,” said Willis, adding that out of the department of 45 faculty members, only two of them appear to identify as Black. “We know institutions move slowly, and we respect that. But we need everyone on board, if we’re going to improve the conditions for Black people at Brown, and I’m afraid that some of the people we didn’t talk to (for the Task Force) were the ones who need the most talking with.”
John Friedman, chair of the Economics Department, agreed that the lack of Black faculty is a “continuing problem in economics generally,” writing in an email to The Herald that it is a “department priority to increase the number of faculty who are Black and from other historically under-represented groups.” Still, he believes that the recent hires are not reflective of the improving diversity of the economics department.
“I do think it is unfair, however, to render judgment solely on these six new faculty members, as it misses many aspects of the broader context,” he wrote. “Our department currently includes two Black faculty members (out of 37 tenure-track faculty); while this number is not high enough, it is higher than at other comparable economics departments.”
He added that 14% of recent entrants to the University’s PhD program are Black, and there are 30% more undergraduate concentrators from historically under-represented groups now than five years ago. To address the relatively lower percentage of underrepresented students earning PhDs in economics in general compared to other social sciences, he wrote that the economics department has undertaken “a number of steps to diversify our population of undergraduate and graduate students.”
But despite setbacks, Willis still believes the creation of the Task Force is an accomplishment in itself.
“The fact that she even called this into being is amazing as far as I’m concerned. I appreciate her responses, although I wish a few of them would have been different,” he said. “But I have great respect for Paxson and all she does. I don’t see too many other places (where their presidents are) calling for people to look at anti-Black racism; to me, that was an act of courage on her part.”
Williamson also found the frequency with which Paxson called upon DIAP and DIAP Phase II to take on the Task Force’s work “painful,” as it conflated the work against anti-Black racism with issues of diversity and inclusion of all historically underrepresented groups.
“One of the biggest issues with this Task Force was having to distinguish ourselves between the DIAP and the Task Force ... the DIAP has nothing to do with anti-Black racism, but everything to do with diversity and inclusion initiatives,” he said.
In her response to the recommendations, Paxson rejected the creation of BIBA due to its overlap with existing institutions, including the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity as well as the work of the DIAP.
Without BIBA specifically targeting anti-Black racism, and with the disruption in leadership posed by Delalue’s departure, Williamson felt doubtful that real change would be possible. He also felt strongly that without a specific person charged with overseeing the Task Force’s work, there would be no accountability.
“If we were not able to create some type of initiative or institute that kept these recommendations alive ... then all of our work here would be pointless.”
“Brown has a strong accountability structure already in place through existing bodies that we created out of a deep commitment to this work,” she wrote in response. “... Adding layers of new structures wouldn’t make the work happen more effectively or efficiently.”
This summer, the University introduced Sylvia Carey-Butler as the University’s new vice president for institutional equity and diversity, who Paxson considers a “strong new leader whose office will oversee many of the initiatives in collaboration with partners from across the University.” In two of her responses, Paxson names Carey-Butler as a point of reference.
“My role will play a central role in holding the institution, colleagues across institution, students, as well as other members of the campus community, accountable to ensure that not just the diversity in all the ways that we know it, but in particular the diversity as it pertains to the Black experience on campus,” Carey-Butler told The Herald, adding that she will have the chance to converse with other leadership as well as Paxson on a weekly basis about these issues.
The report “really summarizes what I want to move forward on right away. Again, faculty, departments are encouraged to read this report carefully and get together and think about what they can do,” Paxson said. “The work of combating anti-Black racism is not done. This conversation will continue.”
Carey-Butler also understands that not everyone will ever be pleased with the progress on this issue. But she does hope that people will get to know her and the work she plans to do to address the issues raised in the taskforce report.
“ I know that folks have been here and there’s urgency to the work that they’ve done,” Carey-Butler said. “I’m asking for a little bit of grace, and I’m also asking for their commitment to working with me.”
The discrepancies in response between Task Force members, Willis believes, may be a function of the difference in their backgrounds. An undergraduate student, he says, has a different perspective and investment in the University than he as a professor might have.
“Because you have a broad range of stakeholders, I don’t think you’re going to find a consensus. I think if you talk to all 14 people (on the Task Force), you’re going to get 14 different senses of this,” Willis said.
One thing Task Force members agree on is that the University’s work combating anti-Black racism is far from over.
“Brown is a giant, maybe not so much in terms of its quantity and in its size, but its influence is gigantic,” Willis said. “... But we also know that giants move slowly. None of us ever expected the president to accept all our recommendations. What we hope for is that the president will continue to show a good faith effort on these issues, as she has done.”