It's Time to Change Our Campus Culture

Photo of students walking up stairs

During a recent forum, I was asked how we would measure whether we have been successful in emerging from this time of crisis and reckoning.

The answer that moves me most: Did we care? And the important follow-up question: How did we demonstrate that we cared?

Did we care about each other? Did we care about the Commonwealth whose name we bear and which we were created to serve? Did we care enough to make a difference for today’s students — and for generations who will never know our names or the obstacles we faced?

Today, we confront two seismic struggles: a global pandemic that challenges our capacity to meet our mission and a calling to rise to a moment that questions the very foundations of our country.

Race remains the primal dividing line undermining the notions of liberty and equality so core to our founding. Repugnant and violent deaths of Black men and women, captured on video shared around the world, are forcing us to rethink who we are as people.

We are slowly acknowledging that institutions fundamental to our country’s democratic impulses and processes are deeply scarred with enduring stains of racism. Rather than protecting, they are precluding access to rights and privileges so many of us take for granted.

We share a humanity. Yet, too many of our brothers and sisters do not share access and opportunity.

If we cannot demonstrate that Black Lives Matter, how can we build a community that is equitable and just?

We start by saying it in an unequivocal and unwavering voice: Black Lives Matter.

Now, we must demonstrate it.

A fundamental challenge to our efforts is the deepening distrust and disdain so many of us seem to harbor for one another. We do not even have a common vocabulary that will enable us to talk with — not at — each other.

We know how to tweet. We have the courage a keyboard renders to compose a message of anger. Too often, though, we lack the courage to cross streets and bridges that divide us to seek understanding. We take solace in ideological isolation, rather than in the durable shelter of connection that a diverse community provides.

We bring to these efforts our own imperfect history. But, as a leader in my faith commented, “we can change … our past does not have to be our future.”

In the next few days — and throughout this semester and academic year — we will announce a number of initiatives that seek to move us forward in both challenges. They are next steps in what must be an unending journey.

We have begun testing up to 30,000 students for a virus. Soon, we will unveil further plans for contact tracing and screening as part of our campus restart for the fall. And we will begin to detail people and more specific plans that will form the core of our efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion.

As we outline next steps, I want to frame the question of how we care around a few essential ideas of progress:

  • We have to change our culture. No one group, set of workstreams or yearlong initiative will change culture. This is a multigenerational project for UK. We have to acknowledge this work as a sustained effort to change culture, not as a series of discrete reforms from which to declare success.
  • We must be willing to act with a sense of urgency and extend some grace to each other when we stumble. To start, we will seek ways — and announce them soon — to invest more in people and programs that have the ability and authority to suffuse throughout our campus a commitment to diversity and equity. Conversations will be difficult, at times uncomfortable, as we navigate challenging issues and create space for establishing shared values.
  • We must be willing to do what we do best — deeply dive into issues of despair and disparity, inequity and inequality. A multi-disciplinary research alliance — much like what we created in response to the coronavirus — will bring together new thought leaders in the search for answers.
  • We have to realize that our language impacts whether people feel safe and whether they belong. And we have to do that while honoring and protecting space for debate and dialogue of ideas that often prove provocative and discomfiting. We must, in other words, find a way for responsible and free speech to co-exist. For starters, that will mean, as a university, we will speak out more forcefully when words meant to do harm and damage are inflicted on members of our community.
  • We also must resist what another writer termed “intellectual segregation,” that produces “insularity” and “conformity.” No political party or religion, ideological strain or identity, is home to every good idea or immune from espousing harmful ones.

In short, we must protect one another and respect each other. We must do our part — to care and to demonstrate that care. I believe this is who we want to be as a community. And I believe, ultimately, our willingness to take this journey together will define for ourselves, and those who follow, that we did care.