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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Looking to the past to inform and direct the future: A glimpse into Butler University

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Watch week 11 podcast here.

It is back to school, college move-in, and families are saying their goodbyes. Children welcome newfound freedoms, and trepidation is worn on parents’ faces. At a time when public and private colleges and universities grapple with Supreme Court rulings to end race-conscious college admission—Butler University (a private university) has decided to return to its roots.

Returning to its roots is a complex statement. The university’s founding mission rested on admitting (and educating) African Americans and women during a time when both were illegal. Seemingly a time that has returned. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (America’s definition of citizenship and affirmation to protect the civil rights of African descent born or brought to the United States), Ovid Butler held firm opposition to slavery for moral and religious reasons and founded the North Western Christian University in 1850. It opened its doors in 1855 and would later become Butler University (1877) with the explicit direction to be fully accessible to African Americans and women.

History of Butler University and race

Over the years, Butler has only sometimes practiced its founding mission. Past University President Robert J. Aley (1927) instituted a quota system relegating the number of Black students to ten per year. During this era, the university matched the social energy of the country divided. However, President James Danko pledged to return the university to its core before the Supreme Court ruling and after he doubled down through a statement indicating, “Butler values diversity in all forms—backgrounds, identities, socioeconomic status, ethnicities, viewpoints, and experiences and will continue to operate within this lens within the admissions process.”

What will returning to the core look like?

When posed the question, Dr. Khalilah Shabazz, who was named Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer in 2022 (started in September), spoke of “fostering a climate of respect among all students, faculty, staff, and administrators from a range of diverse backgrounds, ideas, and perspectives.” She went on to unfurl a new division inclusive of The HUB for Black Affairs and Community Engagement (Dr. Terri Jett), The Efroymson Diversity Center, the Center for Faith and Vocation, Student Disability Services (SDS), and the Office of Institutional Equity.

She wants to create an intentionally diverse, inclusive, and equitable learning and working environment that seeks to solve the challenge of recruiting, retaining, and cultivating students, faculty, and staff from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds and identities.” These recruiting ideas will be deeply answered by (Dr. Elise Edwards – Associate Dean of Faculty & Program Development and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion during the podcast).

Will this process be transparent?

Dr. Shabazz answered, “The mapped DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) plan will create visibility, accountability, and sustained momentum as a priority.” During the conversation, her team introduced the DEI data-driven annual report to faculty and staff. The information is an in- depth glimpse into what is happening in, on, and around campus, connecting scholars with the faculty and faculty with individual schools. She championed the data-driven component noting until this point, everyone worked in silos and had no depth of knowledge as to what was occurring from a scholar perspective or through respective school lenses.

This work aims to improve continually by advancing inclusion and belonging, accepting all students, creating space for all students, and ensuring all students belong. This includes pedagogy and culturally relevant faculty.

Is this an aspirational goal?

It is not only an aspiration but a living goal. DEI work is messy and hard, but the commitment is to get it right and leave the institution better.

Leaving the institution and the world better is what we owe the generations that follow. We (as a culture) do not have to endure half of the atrocities or turmoil our ancestors experienced, but should we be satisfied with where we are? No.

History is among us, and few steps forward can always be thrust backward, as shown by recent Supreme Court rulings. Therefore, we must continue the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging even if it is hard, messy, or grueling work. Remember, the past, make new the future; lest we become immune.

Immune (poem)

Lived in manure

so long, when the smell was gone

I did not know home.

For more local news courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, click here.

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