BYU colleges, departments addressing racism on campus

A Black Lives Matter sign is tacked underneath a Book of Mormon scripture in a History Department hallway at Brigham Young University. Similar signs line the walls outside professors’ doors. (Maddie Mehr)

BYU is heightening its efforts to address racism on campus.

Since the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, BYU has sought to follow the admonition of President Russell M. Nelson and leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to “review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all.”

University level reform

The BYU Committee on Race, Equity & Belonging was formed under the direction of President Kevin J Worthen over the summer. The committee’s mission statement says:

“Racism — whether implicit or overt, whether individual or institutional — is a highly destructive and complex feature of our society. Indeed, it is a sin, with consequences that detrimentally impact the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of BYU students, faculty, staff and alumni. Rooting out racism, healing its wounds and building bridges of understanding is the responsibility of every member of the BYU community.”

According to the Race, Equity & Belonging mission statement, the effort to combat racism begins with loving God and loving one’s neighbor. The statement lists various ways the committee plans to address racism at BYU, including listening to the experiences of students who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, and enlisting BYU faculty and administrators to “understand both the subtle and overt ways that racism may impact individual thought and interactions, organizational units, processes, policies, practices, procedures, and operations.”

The Committee on Race, Equity & Belonging is in the process of submitting recommendations to President Worthen that “will assist BYU to advance racial understanding, enhance equity and promote belonging, and that will have a significant and enduring positive impact on the prosperity of our (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities at BYU.”

Committee member and sociology professor Ryan Gabriel said the committee is not speaking with the media about the content of the recommendations until the report is submitted. But he said the committee is committed to transparency with the broader campus community.

BYU sociology professor Jacob Rugh, who has been a leading voice for change on the BYU campus, said the committee’s recommendations may deal with hiring more ethnically diverse faculty members and restructuring general education requirements to include diversity.

Rugh said classes on race and gender are not being pushed on BYU students by professors, but the demand for diversity classes has increased 40% in the last decade, according to research he conducted in 2019.

Enrollment in classes on race and racism has increased 40% over the past decade, according to research by sociology professor Jacob Rugh. (Jacob Rugh)

Rugh said he expects some recommendations from the Committee on Race, Equity & Belonging will begin to be implemented this semester and continue in Fall Semester.

President Worthen invited students to share their experiences with race and equity on campus through the Diversity and Equity Campus Climate Survey by The Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium in October.

Several members of the Black Student Union either did not respond to or declined requests for comment on the effectiveness of the university’s efforts.

College and department level

In tandem with the Committee on Race, Equity, & Belonging, colleges and departments on campus have created their own committees to address issues of race and diversity and published their own mission statements.

Hiring ethnically diverse faculty, funding research on diverse families and recruiting a more diverse student body are examples of the reforms being considered by the School of Family Life diversity committee, said committee chair Erin Holmes.

Holmes said the committee proposed that individual faculty members should teach about prejudice, implicit bias, oppression, microagression, racism, violence, intersectionality, and stereotyping and how they influence families. The committee also discussed including scholars from the Black, Indigenous and people of color populations in course syllabi, encouraging under-represented voices in class and celebrating diverse families in lectures and activities.

“We believe these efforts will require both institutional and individual work. We also believe that these efforts will benefit students, as well as faculty, staff, and administrators in the School,” Holmes said.

The History department is one of several departments considering a diversity general education requirement, said department chair Brian Cannon. He said the creation of a one-credit diversity class for history majors was proposed, which may include guest lectures with prominent scholars and members of different ethnic groups. Cannon said another proposal being considered is the incorporation of anti-racism into already-existing coursework.

Carl Hanson, Department of Public Health chair, said racism poses a significant challenge to the well-being of individuals. He cited the removal of Native Americans to reservations, where they were given nutrient-poor flour and lard by the government because their land was unsuitable for farming. “Indian fry bread is not a traditional food,” he said.

Hanson plans to send out a survey in January to get a grasp on how well the department is doing with diversity and inclusion. “We are sensitive to the issue and we’re committed to being part of the solution,” he said.

Among other efforts, the College of Fine Arts and Communications began the Bravo! Listen Up! initiative with the Theater and Media Arts Department, hosting speakers to address issues of race and racism. A lecture with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the memoir “Between the World and Me,” drew over 400 students and faculty.

The J. Reuben Clark Law School began hosting a monthly reading group titled “Listen Together,” in which members of the law school community discuss books and articles addressing race. Dean Gordon Smith led the first discussion group in September, which focused on essays by Black author Ibram X. Kendi, who Smith described as being more politically liberal, and Black scholar John McWhorter, who Smith said leans more politically conservative.

“When we listen to people we need to treat them as individuals. We don’t stereotype people and say, ‘This is a Black public intellectual, therefore they believe the following things,'” Smith said.

In an email to introduce the reading group, Smith wrote, “BYU Law School aspires to be a place where racism is never ignored, but directly, consistently and explicitly opposed. As an academic institution, we study and listen so that we can acknowledge the ongoing problem of racism in the United States and recognize our role in perpetuating the problem.”

Smith also said understanding someone doesn’t always mean agreeing; however, understanding is an essential, and often neglected, step in civil discourse. “When you listen, it’s a lot of work,” Smith said. “You can’t just take the shortcuts of guessing what somebody thinks.”

Smith said the law school is actively trying to recruit students and faculty who are Black. The law school also recently announced full-tuition Achievement Fellowships for students who “have qualified for admission to law school in the face of significant challenges or hardships” such as homelessness, disability or living with family members who struggle with poverty, incarceration, abandonment, physical or mental health issues, or substance abuse.

Faculty initiative

Apart from efforts by BYU and its various colleges and departments, some faculty members have chosen to make discussions on racism part of their curriculum.

Cannon said professors in the history department have organized a faculty reading group, where they will coordinate anti-racist content to be used in existing history classes.

BYU professor Eva Witesman from the Marriott School of Business organized the extensive BYU Antiracism Database Project to provide more resources for combating racism.

BYU student Connor Jones said his ROTC professor made an effort to address racism on the first day of class, telling his students that racism was not permitted in the Air Force and that men and women in the military should strive for common goals. “He really inspired us and made us want to be good people and not treat anybody differently.”

BYU public health professor Stephanie Lutz dedicates a few minutes of her women’s health class each period to discuss topics in race and diversity, letting her students take the lead in teaching.

“It makes me a little bit emotional because the first students who signed up were my BIPOC students,” Lutz said. “We cried. We’ve laughed.”

She said some students caused offense and even conflict because they didn’t think racism at BYU was an issue, and one student felt Lutz incorrectly labeled her as a racist. Lutz said she was quick to apologize to the student.

“When things have gotten hard I’ve thought, ‘why am I doing this?’ My students are hurting. This is beyond what I can repair. And in these desperate moments I’ve thought ‘Do I just give up? This is too much. This is too hard,'” Lutz said. “But I’m so glad we’ve stayed the course.”

Lutz said students signed up to teach 20 of the segments on racism, and Lutz taught the other five or six, sharing scriptures, media posts and books from her independent research.

“I feel like my students will remember some content of women’s health, but I think what they’re really going to remember from Fall Semester 2020 is what we did together to battle racism,” she said.

Rugh said although selective universities across America — like Harvard, Princeton, and others — have implemented diversity and inclusion measures, BYU has a specific moral responsibility to send Christlike, sensitive people out into the world.

“I think it’s a hard environment because we’ve gone through an election and a period where things have been really divisive,” Rugh said. “People really have to rely on the Atonement and not have faith in the arm of the flesh and have that kind of confidence that this is right, this is what God wants.”

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