In the surge of mass attention on the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd in late May, the prevalence of scholarly antiracist material has increased tremendously, according to The New York Times.
Ibram Kendi’s book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” in particular climbed to the top of the charts as he presents discourses on race, racism and individual and systemic antiracist actions. This week, the book is still in the top 20 of Amazon’s most-read nonfiction chart.
In this same surge of attention, AU lost him.
On June 4, Kendi announced he would leave AU and create yet another Center for Anti-Racism Research at Boston University.
“My hope is that it becomes a premier research center for researchers and for practitioners to really solve these intractable racial problems of our time,” he told BU Today.
Kendi declined to comment on his departure from AU.
AU’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center now has the tasks of hiring a new director and making it more accessible for the student body. In an email sent to AWOL, Malini Ranganathan and Christine Platt, the interim co-directors, stressed the goal of reaching internal communities more but clarified the center’s “mission is not focused on campus life and student experiences per se.”
On Sept. 9, the center, in partnership with the student government programming board, announced the Black Lives Matter series to discuss the ongoing movement, marking it one of the center’s first public strides to reach the student body.
Among these events was a keynote speaker event on abolition and antiracism work with renowned civil rights leader and professor, Angela Davis, hosted on Sept. 17.
In the event, Davis called upon “elitist institutions of higher education” to make structural and institutional change.
“Don’t assume that simply by establishing diversity and inclusion offices, that that’s the answer,” Davis told School of Education Dean Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy. “I always ask, well okay, that’s good. Diversity is good. Inclusion is good. But what about justice?”
This necessity resonates with former Black faculty.
Over the past school year, AU also lost Larry Thomas, founder and managing director of the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program, Jason Ottley, assistant director for First Year Advising, and Frederick Engram, manager of Graduate Recruitment Communications and adjunct professor in the School of Education.
All worked to promote and attract Black excellence, fostering physical spaces and mentorship to support the student community.
“I imagineered the FDDS program to prepare a new generation of affluential problem solvers who would make America cleaner, safer and healthier for Black people,” Thomas told The Blackprint in an email. “Being able to build AU's premier undergraduate honors program for BIPOC like me was exhilarating.”
Though Thomas wishes he had engaged with the larger Black community on campus more, he emphasizes the importance of programs dedicated to serving it.
“When done right, these programs provide safe spaces for Black students to celebrate how far they've come, honor who they are and believe in who they're becoming,” he said.
After 10 years of coaching, mentoring and sponsoring students of color, Thomas decided to leave the program in March. Now, as the Founder of LPT Strategies, Thomas utilizes his experiences at AU to aid employers, executives and entrepreneurs in attaining sustainable results to thrive.
“Leaving...was commemorative, restorative and transformative,” he said.
Engram, however, said he left on “weird” terms.
Entering AU in 2016, Engram immediately noticed disparities for Black graduate students.
“In spending time with the graduate students, I noticed that they were often forgotten about whenever we would have situations or scenarios that largely affected the Black undergrads,” Engram said.
During situations of racial strife on campus, he focused on fostering community for Black graduate students and making sure they felt heard, later helping to create the Black Graduate Student Alliance.
In his tenure at AU, however, Engram said there was almost no representation for Black people in graduate offices, no mentorship opportunities and low Black graduate enrollment.
He soon became the “unofficial HBCU whisperer” and often worked to recruit Black students. Engram was the main liaison for the partnership between AU and Florida A&M University and helped re-establish a pipeline that had grown dormant between the universities.
The partnership required AU to secure funding and mentorship opportunities for these students. Because of the lack of Black faculty, however, Engram often carried the bulk of these responsibilities.
For Engram, bringing more Black students was not enough.
“AU is not unlike most institutions that push this initiative of being diverse,” he said. “Right now, a lot of it is very well intentioned whiteness at play...the real work is disrupting the hold that whiteness has on these spaces.”
Engram first attempted this disruption by joining the Faculty Senate Diversity and Inclusion Committee, analyzing the white washing of curriculum and the ways marginalized voices could be included.
This effort, however, was not without challenges. Engram recalled an experience where a white board member objected to increasing diversity in science curricula, arguing race had no impact.
“If you have these kinds of people who are sitting on these committees, how disruptive are you really trying to be?” he said. “Having them on a committee that’s created to create change is super BS.”
Engram also promoted this disruption as a member of President Sylvia Burwell’s Strategic Planning Committee, largely advocating for the hiring of faculty of color and promoting inclusive excellence for students in the 5-year plan.
“I’m not going to be in a space and not advocate for what’s right,” he said. “We had tons of conversations about the experience of Black students and I made sure that I advocated for Black graduate students specifically.”
Unfortunately, the Strategic Plan shifted the university’s budget in a way that necessitated funding and programs cuts in several areas.
In early 2019, Engram and his team were laid off.
This also eliminated Engram’s graduate equity work and the official liaison support system he had maintained for incoming FAMU graduate students.
“One of the hardest parts about separating was that we said that we’re gonna be leaders for these students,” he said. “Part of the agreement was that we would have someone here to serve in the capacity of a liaison for these students like I did.”
During this transition, nothing was created to specifically address this partnership and no new opportunities or positions arose for Engram.
“I had several meetings from the top of the university down to department level,” he said. “I was hoping that, with all of the impactful work that I was doing, somebody would step in so that I wouldn’t be adversely affected by this change. They didn’t.”
Engram had previously obtained an adjunct professorship in 2018 and was equally hopeful he would have the opportunity to teach critical race courses. He didn’t.
Engram had one last route to ease the effects of this transition. In 2018, Engram joined a planning committee for the Summer Institute for Equity and Justice. After nine months, a School of Education administrator alerted Engram he would finally be paid for this work.
He continued to do this work even after he was laid off, but was soon “ghosted” by the administrator. After multiple exchanges with HR and administrators, he was told this was a mistake.
“And I was like ‘sorry is not going to pay these bills,’ ” he said. “That came from not a white person. That was probably the hardest thing because there were people who I really respected and really looked up to.”
This, Engram said, was the last straw. After several months with no income, he received a joint full-time offer from the University of Texas at Arlington to serve as an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and in the Center for African American Studies.
Reflecting on his experiences at AU, Engram says he hopes AU commits to real change, stressing the hiring of Black faculty and institutional support for Black students.
In the 2015-16 school year, The Blackprint reported that, out of 862 full-time faculty, only 41 identified as Black. AU has since increased this to 68 out of 938 total, according to the 2019-20 Academic Data Reference Book. In comparison, the number of full-time white faculty increased from 651 to 709.
Engram says Black hiring must increase, but with intention.
“Representation is everything,” he said. “Part of that is fully understanding that hiring Black people, recruiting Black students and employing Black staff members isn’t sufficient. What’s sufficient is actual institutional change that aligns with the mission and the reality of what diversity work is.”
Diversifying hiring practices, Engram says, must coincide with increased promotional opportunities, institutionalized support of their initiatives and cultural support for faculty and staff, especially Black women, when they report microaggressive or racist actions from their peers.
Among several suggestions for improving the student experience, Engram urges expanding the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, implementing antiracist pedagogy across all curricula and writing language in the student handbook to protect students from hate crimes.
“Being Black and being targeted at AU is a very real experience but there’s no language that addresses it,” he said. “There’s no real fear of students participating in these.”
Black students, however, must not sit idly by in these situations, he says. Students must force themselves into administrative and Board of Trustee spaces until they are heard, hold the institution accountable to make actual change and continue to pass the torch and train other students.
“Never stop using your voice,” he said. “If you keep your foot on their necks, they’re going to have to respond. That is how you create change. Do not let up until you see it.”