It is a season for giving thanks. And one of the many things I am continually thankful for is the blessing of being in community with you and on behalf of Kentucky.
But I believe it is also a season for reflection — on what we have accomplished together and, as always, what there is still to do.
It’s in that context that I want to provide updates following the recent violent and racist assault that horrified so many of us and deeply traumatized Black students, employees and community members.
It has been a painful reminder to me of why the ongoing diversity and inclusion conversations we are having with people throughout our campus — regardless of race or identity, who people love or what they believe — are so important.
Even with the progress that has been made, our community’s show of solidarity and calls for change reinforce how much more needs to be done.
Under the leadership of Dr. Katrice Albert, our Vice President for Institutional Diversity, we are solidifying and institutionalizing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts that stemmed from conversations we’ve had with inclusive leaders across decades.
Several initiatives completed or well under way include our $10 million in university investment for our UNITE Research Priority Area, DEI learning modules for students in our UK 101 courses and supporting small, minority-, woman- and veteran-owned businesses and vendors through our Supplier Diversity Program. Faculty in our African American and Africana Studies program — and other units — have long been engaged in this hard work as well, and we need to support and amplify their efforts.
Yet, importantly, there are several significant efforts that I have not provided updates on recently. We are taking steps that I believe do respond to some of the concerns we have heard over the past two weeks. However, providing details on the work underway is not in any way to diminish the fact that we still have much more work to do to be a community of belonging for everyone.
Updates on continued DEI efforts
Spaces dedicated to diversity and inclusion on our campus: Our Board of Trustees has authorized the university to move forward with millions of dollars in modernization projects in the core of our campus.
One of the projects that passed is a renewal and revitalization of Memorial Hall. Following the removal and relocation of a controversial mural, it will be transformed as a space, particularly for our students, to celebrate diversity and inclusion on our campus.
For many, Memorial Hall is an iconic building in the heart of our campus. For many others, it is a space where a mural, in place since the 1930s, depicts in a distorted fashion the way enslaved people and other marginalized peoples were treated in Kentucky.
Beginning more than a year ago, a group from our community visited other campuses to examine what other institutions do more closely in terms of dedicated spaces for diversity. As we move forward with this important project, we will be pulling together a broad-based group to discuss the design elements and other facets of the building.
An increased commitment to inclusive mental health support: We have invested more in holistic support for student health and well-being, with virtual counseling options and a new center to triage concerns and be more responsive to student needs. We are also actively working to hire and retain more on-campus clinicians who share identities and backgrounds reflected in our student population. Our recent partnership with Talkspace , a virtual therapy service, allows students to request therapists of different identities and backgrounds, but we need to supplement this with our on-campus services as well. Our goal is to have more on-campus clinicians of color in place during Spring 2023.
A renewed focus on DEI officers in colleges and units: Every college on campus has a DEI officer to advance conversations, outcomes-based strategies and discipline-focused initiatives about diversity, equity and inclusion. We convene these officers regularly and have been moving to create consistent job descriptions and responsibilities so that these offices have greater clout and focus in carrying out their important duties. We also need to work to make those offices and people easier to find. The plan is to have these uniform DEI officer experiences completed by February 2023.
However, much more needs to be done – on efforts we already have committed to, and which I will be communicating more about soon, to listening closely and responding vigorously to the feedback we are receiving throughout our campus.
Where we go from here
We want to be a place where everyone feels like they are safe and belong. That requires us to confront challenges and barriers to being that community. It will require the courage to talk with each other and understand both where we are making progress, but also where we have continued to fall short.
No one need wait for a campus-wide initiative, or some administratively led activity to continue or begin these conversations. Even as we engage as a campus, we can also do so as individuals, as student organizations, colleges and units throughout our campus.
This effort reminds me of Dr. King’s admonition to us about the need to continually find connection and community with each other. “People fail to get along,” he said, “because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
I know we can do this as a community, but to do so we will have to confront racism, sexism and other forms of injustice head-on.
I remain so thankful for all of you. We are a community, continually searching for ways to be better tomorrow than we are today.