Campus News

MFSA holds virtual discussion on race, racism at UB

Noemi Waight, associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction, served as moderator of the Minority Faculty and Staff association's virtual town hall.

Noemi Waight, associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction, served as moderator of the Minority Faculty and Staff Association's virtual town hall on July 29.

By CORY NEALON

Published July 30, 2020

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“It’s hard to explain how important representation is to people who have never not been represented. ”
Nelaje Branch, senior
computer science and statistics major

UB is at a pivotal moment, one in which it can embrace anti-racism by investing in programs designed to help Black, Indigenous and other people of color succeed within the university and greater Buffalo area, or it can stay the course it has charted for the past 25 years, which has been largely ineffective.

That was among multiple themes discussed Wednesday during a virtual discussion concerning the state of race and racism at UB.

Presented by the Minority Faculty and Staff Association, the event included roughly 250 faculty, staff and students. It was billed as an opportunity for members of the UB community to “share their lived experiences of racism on campus and offer ways to improve racial injustices and systemic racism” at UB.

Those experiences, as discussed by a panel of three faculty members and two students, include everything from faculty members of color who feel ignored and unappreciated by UB leadership to students who have encountered racism in the classroom from fellow students and teachers.

The discussion addressed the number of Black tenure-track faculty members, which has been declining for more than two decades, including a 40% drop since 2009.

“It’s really important that we increase those numbers,” said Lillian Williams, associate professor in the Department of Transnational Studies, who added that Black faculty members, as well as other faculty members of color, often serve not only as teachers but also as mentors to underrepresented groups at UB and in the community.

Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and director of the Center for Urban Studies, outlined UB’s history in addressing racism on campus and in the community. From the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, UB built an infrastructure, including launching educational programs and hiring faculty members of color, to link UB to the Black community, he said.

But that infrastructure dwindled over the past two decades, a result of declining government support for public education, as well as flawed university efforts to address these issues, Taylor said. He called upon UB leadership to reinvest in these programs, and tackle race and racism in a more direct manner.

“I theorize that whenever race is not explicitly stated, whiteness becomes the default group, and people of color are pushed to the margins,” he said.

Temara Cross, a graduate student in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and Nelaje Branch, a senior majoring in computer science and statistics, discussed how discouraging it can be for students of color at UB.

Branch recounted her first day as a UB student when a professor told her she “didn’t belong in this room.” She recalled other instances of being among only a few people of color in large classrooms and other situations.

“It’s hard to explain how important representation is to people who have never not been represented,” Branch said.

Cross described similar situations and stressed how important it is for members of the UB community to acknowledge that systemic racism exists and then work to dismantle it.

“If you’re uncomfortable” discussing race and racism, “you’re going to have to make yourself comfortable,” she said.

Cecil Foster, professor in the Department of Transnational Studies, said a culture change is needed throughout UB to address racial inequities, especially in hiring processes. In addition to faculty, he pointed to the low percentage of staff who are people of color, and stressed the importance for those in leadership positions to listen and educate themselves regarding systemic racism.

“We really have to fight for UB to recognize that the onus is on the administration and those in leadership,” Foster said.

Both Foster and Taylor noted Provost A. Scott Weber’s goal to double the number of underrepresented minority faculty members in five years — a goal they believe is attainable since the number of underrepresented minority faculty members has fallen to roughly 5%.

Other topics discussed included the importance of naming buildings and spaces in honor of Black people and members of other underrepresented groups, doing more to partner with community organizations, and requiring training of UB employees to recognize systemic racism.

Noemi Waight, associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction, served as moderator of the discussion. Ramelli Choates, senior academic adviser for the Access to College Excellence program and president of the Minority Faculty and Staff Association, provided introductory and closing remarks.

Those who were unable to attend the live event can watch it online.