Interview with UW-Madison’s chancellor failed to reassure the safety of Black students and clear pathways to progress
(A link to the audio and transcript of the interview is provided for reference.)
We, the editors of The Black Voice, were granted an interview with the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rebecca Blank, on October 28 to address communication between Black students and the administration.
The interview, only 30 minutes long, began with an eight minute statement that was read by Chancellor Blank. This statement was peppered with statistics about COVID-19 and referenced numerous diversity initiatives on UW-Madison’s campus. When asked about addressing student’s immediate needs and strengthening relationships with Black students, Chancellor Blank deferred this responsibility to the dean of students, vice chancellor of student affairs and chief diversity officer.
“That isn’t my job, but that’s someone else’s job,” Blank said.
We wanted to discuss why Black voices are being left out of institutional spaces, why Black students are being made to feel invisible and unwanted and identify whose responsibility it is to bridge the gap between students and the administration.
We feel that the interview failed to clearly address tangible steps UW-Madison has taken to remedy the relationship between the Black campus community and the administration and ensure that these conversations are happening on a regular basis. We are not satisfied with Chancellor Blank’s response to addressing the needs of Black students within this institution.
Left Out — Again
The October 28 interview was organized because of a failure to include The Black Voice during a press conference with two student-run newspapers and the chancellor on September 29 to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, Smart Restart and the protests taking place in downtown Madison. The Black Voice received no invitation. When asked about this oversight, Blank referred the question to Meredith McGlone, the university’s spokesperson and director of news and media relations. McGlone apologized for overlooking The Black Voice.
“That’s my responsibility and I apologize for the impact that it had,” McGlone said. “Going forward, we’ll make sure to always reach out.”
Chancellor Blank also suggested that we “be just as aggressive and put y[our] request in every fall” as the other campus newspapers do.
We did not know this protocol existed — this is another example of the kinds of privilege Black students on this campus are denied. Regardless of protocol, Black voices were left out of a conversation that occurred with the administration surrounding topics that The Black Voice would have benefitted from being a part of. There were no Black student journalists present. Anything pertaining to Black experiences on (and off) campus should have warranted the acknowledgement of Black organizations on campus.
The recommendation that Black students reach out on their own to be included in important conversations suggests that there are no efforts in place to ensure diversity in these meetings to begin with. Placing the responsibility on Black students to self advocate for inclusivity shows that amplifying our voices is not a priority for the administration. This raises concerns about the implementation of diversity initiatives on campus and their effectiveness in creating a supportive environment.
It is not enough, Chancellor Blank.
Accessibility to Admin
We asked why the responsibility should be placed on Black students to reach out and why the chancellor doesn’t take it upon herself to strengthen communication between Black students and administration.
“I do try, I have people whose first responsibility is working daily with students, with both students of color and other students on campus with those responsibilities,” Blank said. “I meet with students when they come to me and say, we think it’s time for you to have a meeting with this group of students. That, I think, is the right way to handle this.”
One concern we have is the rhetoric associated with having these conversations with Black students on campus. Chancellor Blank referenced the offices that specialize in communication with Black students and stated it was the responsibility of the people in those offices to “deal with students on the frontlines with their immediate needs.”
This reactive approach to addressing the needs of Black students is ineffective because it only prepares for the worst and makes change after the harm is inflicted, rather than consistently working towards a better environment. Detrimental incidents like the omittance of Black women from the homecoming video should not have to happen before change occurs. The university shouldn’t anticipate racist incidents on campus, but work harder to create a system that prevents Black students from having to reach out on their own, demand change and relive their trauma.
Changing This Place From Within
The chancellor noted the world’s issues appearing within the university when asked why Black students should feel safe and accepted after several racist incidents occurred on UW-Madison’s campus within the past year.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a world where this is happening everywhere in society, as you well know,” Blank said. “And when it’s happening out there, it’s going to be happening in here. We need to do everything we can to limit and prevent that.”
Acknowledging that racism exists in our own communities is the first part of the battle. Figuring out how to improve the atmosphere on campus and take preventative steps to ensure that Black student’s needs are being met is another.
“We’ve now mandated all incoming students to training on diversity and inclusion, just as they do on alcohol or sexual assault. Lori Reesor’s office has created a new…office for student training and they’re going to be working with mandatory training for student leaders in a variety of different leadership groups,” Blank said. “There’s a lot out there. There’s more that we can and should be doing, including training for faculty in terms of what happens in the classroom.”
In terms of Chancellor Blank’s personal education on issues regarding racism and systematic oppression, she spoke about reading “White Fragility” by Dr. Robin DiAngelo over the summer with her vice chancellors, along with “I’m Still Here” by Austin Channing Brown, who were featured as the keynote speakers for the 2020 Diversity Forum and that it was important to her to be engaging with these texts.
“This is on the backs of those of us who are white, to ask the questions, to do the readings, to engage in the conversations, to think about what and how we’re engaging on this campus and in this society, and to think about how our actions, our policies, and our institutions have to change,” Blank said.
The personal education is important, but it must be implemented in restorative programming. Reading “White Fragility” did not seem to stop our students of color being tear-gassed by police and run over by a UW-Madison employee who still has his job. Chancellor Blank, this is not enough.
Impact of Initiatives
We understand that there are different diversity initiatives in place but we question the effectiveness of the model of deans and department heads communicating to each other when they are not directly experiencing the inherent anti-Blackness that Black students endure every day while those who question the system are often silenced, ignored or given empty promises.
“One of the things that we’ve done in the last year or two is, I have asked every single unit, both schools and colleges, as well as our administrative units to put together diversity and inclusion plans,” Blank said. “And one thing I’d encourage you to do is, you know, go interview every dean and say, what’s your diversity and inclusion plan? What are you doing on it? What impact is it having? How do you know it’s having that impact? Because at the end of the day, it’s what happens inside departments, inside offices, that is going to matter more than almost anything else.”
While it is important for each department to be critiquing themselves on how to provide a more supportive experience for all students, these programs do not fully encapsulate the experiences or needs of marginalized students on campus and are used as shields for where the university is lacking in sustainable and impactful pursuits towards a more equitable atmosphere.
“We all have to work on this and all of us, in particular those of us in leadership, are accountable on these things,” Blank said.
If the chancellor sees the anger and tension on campus and believes that those in leadership should be held particularly accountable in spearheading this change, then why is she deferring responsibility to Black students to do the outreach with administration?
We are taking the initiative to reach out to the people Chancellor Blank named to build a steady line of communication and accountability. Our hope is that Chancellor Blank understands that in order to make actual change for Black students on her campus, she needs to hear directly from them consistently.
We believe that Chancellor Blank needs to increase her personal communication with Black students and not direct us to speak to other people in her administration. There needs to be an increased level of accessibility to students so that we feel safe voicing our concerns about campus with administration.
It is not enough, Chancellor Blank.
The Editors of The Black Voice