Our First Responsibility is to Listen

photo of students on social staircase

The following op-ed appeared in the Courier Journal on April 5, 2019.

They turned to us in anger, in pain, in hope.

Isn’t that what we want from our students?

That question guides my reflection on my interactions with students this week at UK. The exchanges were thoughtful and passionate. They were raw and exasperated– plaintive and voiced in pain.

The past few days were as tough as any I’ve had at UK. But they also were among the most affirming. They filled me with hope.

We are proud of our progress: About 25 percent of our Kentucky undergraduate students come from families with a median household income of less than $20,000. Their out-of-pocket price for tuition and fees has dropped. We are also more diverse. We graduate more underrepresented minority students than any Kentucky institution.

But our students are right to not be satisfied. I’m not satisfied. Many students struggle with costs beyond tuition. Still others carry every day the weight of what it means to be Black in America. I cannot fully understand that burden, but I believe the experiences they shared.

The stain of America’s original sin – embedded over 350 years, from slavery to policies that codified discrimination and over generations limited capacity to advance economically – cannot be washed away with pious paeans promising change. I hurt for the history so many carry.

Our first responsibility is to listen. Our second is to keep our eyes and minds open. Our third is to build bridges of trust, so shared goals can become common ground.

We are taking important steps, investing more for students’ basic needs. We can do more to ensure we hire people who look like our students. We can think more strategically about making scholarships as equitable as possible. And we can create consistency around training people and evaluating programs designed to foster inclusivity.

Students from marginalized communities must feel UK is home. Our students must know they matter.

To that end, we are engaging again in dialogue over a mural in an iconic campus building, constructed to memorialize more than 3,000 Kentuckians who died to preserve liberty.

Yet, the Memorial Hall mural has long been a source of controversy and, for many, a hurtful reminder of slavery’s legacy. More than three years ago, we engaged in months of dialogue, with input from across our community, after concerns were raised about the mural.

We commissioned a renowned artist, Karyn Olivier, to create a work in Memorial Hall that provided greater context and space for reflection.

As the artist presciently said then, her work did not put a period on the conversation, but a comma – more dialogue should be provoked. Her words must inform our conversation now.

We cannot move the artwork. It is embedded into a load-bearing wall of a historic building. Some voices proclaim that we should paint over it. Others say that the work is of a particular time, which provides opportunities to teach about what is omitted. Former President Otis A. Singletary, a pre-eminent Southern historian, said what would ultimately be noted about reconstruction is that “it will contain deep and depressing undertones of violence.”

How do we reconcile that which seems irreconcilable? How do we understand the value of art created within the context of a given time, while recognizing that, for some people, that same creation only reminds them of a shameful piece of history?

How do we affirm speech and protest, but grapple with questions around art that speaks however incompletely to Kentucky’s past, but also causes pain?

These questions are the kind of project that great universities embrace as their responsibility – forging answers where there seem to be none.

We live in a society in which people too often talk past one another, rushing to cocooned corners, finding satisfaction in the keyboard comfort of a tweet fired in anger. In such isolating spaces, nothing positive occurs.

These conversations hold promise for bringing people together. We must commit to a journey—one that starts with willingness to listen; continues with open minds and hearts; and endures with faith that our students will turn to us – in anger, in pain and in hope.