I have been thinking a great deal about the racial issues that have been on the radar screen of the University of Georgia and the Athens community lately. As a long time UGA African American faculty member, please allow me the privilege of sharing my thoughts.
As a 68-year-old descendant of slaves, it is inevitable that I gained a perspective that others without that background may not have. I have been blessed to have lived in some of the most defining periods in our history. I have marched, advocated and supported virtually all of them since I was a child at the 1963 March on Washington. I should also say that Diversity & Inclusion is my area of expertise, and that informs how I view where UGA stands regarding D&I issues.
Much work remains to be done, but in my 31 years at UGA, I have seen a lot of changes. Despite the idea that the diversity numbers have not changed, UGA’s recruitment and retention efforts have been admirable and have resulted in many more diverse students attending and in them feeling better while here. It has been my mission to do what I came to do at UGA in helping to move UGA forward with these issues. We are not standing still.
I can remember when there were no Hispanic names on my class roll sheets and very few Southeast Asians. I now have both each semester. I have spoken with countless black students who feel comfortable here and know we are working on making it even better. We have a diversity certificate program offered to the University community free of charge that has gone from just a few graduates to entire departments earning certificates.
Painting President Jere Morehead as the bad guy in a dance that began long before his tenure and had been in place hundreds of years before he took over is simply uncalled for, unfair and not helpful. Especially when little to no credit is given for what he has managed to do so far, including a 20% increase in the low wages and increases in so much in the D&I area.
I think we all need to just take a breath, step back, and put things in perspective. Rather than piling on, we need to take a breather. Without commenting on the specifics of any of these issues, all of which deserve a balanced, reasoned airing, I would hope that everyone involved with or interested in these issues would do two things: (1) keep pushing for societal change because so much remains to be done, and (2) be strategic and intentional in how you go about that push for change.
Primarily, recognize that President Morehead is not the enemy. He is a resource and partner in the change we all seek. We are mutually dependent. That is simply a fact. We can accomplish far more together than we can by fighting what is only a perceived enemy. Reaching solutions we can live with will take time, effort, honest communication and trust. On both sides.
If I did not believe every word I am saying, not only would I not say it, but I would not be here. I could have retired long ago. But if I had retired I would have missed engaging in the dramatically increased efforts I came to UGA to strive for in the first place.
I’d like to note for the record that President Morehead does not need me to defend him, and that is not the intent of this letter. He has no idea I am writing this. I am writing because I see how much progress has been made. It is impossible for me to stand silently by and watch as it is minimized, mischaracterized and ignored.
Let’s celebrate the progress made and keep pushing for more but do it from a place of mutual respect, love and trust. Sound ridiculous? Stupid? Naïve? I didn’t get to be a nearly 70-year-old award-winning, accomplished educator being any of those things. Don’t be afraid to try it. What do we have to lose?