Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,
Welcome back! And for those of you joining us for the first time, welcome to our community—with President Obama’s visit on Thursday you picked an exciting week to do so.
As we start this new semester, I want to continue the discussions we were having toward the end of the fall semester on how to be a more inclusive community. This is all the more appropriate since we are celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through events this week and next.
For most of the 20th century, particularly in the American South, a fear of black bodies, minds, culture, and power was manifested in legal segregation and discrimination that was sometimes enforced through sanctioned terror. King spent—and ultimately gave—his life in the struggle against this fear.
Recent events in places like Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland have shown us that this struggle continues. These tragedies, the activism that followed, and the sometimes harsh local responses to that activism demonstrate that we still have progress to make if we are to create a truly free and just society. And they show us the desperate need to create trust and understanding between communities and those sworn to protect them.
Some of the distrust and fear that exists is a result of policies that are intended to increase public safety, but that have led to racial biases in policing. For example, research conducted by three professors in KU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration demonstrates that the use of more “investigatory” stops leads to racial minorities being stopped by police at considerably higher rates than whites. Police stops can turn tragic, and as other research has shown, do so for disproportionate numbers of black men.
If our nation is to address the divides that face us, we must confront fear, distrust, and misunderstanding head on. And universities such as ours should contribute to solving these challenges.
We can start in our own community by engaging in honest, open, and respectful dialogue that honors the dignity of each of us as a human being. Whether face-to-face, or behind the veil of social media, our words and actions affect the fellow members of our community, each of whom shares the same right to live life free of fear and hatred.
We should also recognize that the drive to create an inclusive university is a responsibility shared by all, and one that must be year-round. And we must continue our work to ensure not only that the doors to our university are open to all who are prepared to seek a KU degree, but that the resources are there to help students earn those degrees.
But we can also contribute to society’s broader drive for equality and opportunity by educating the next generation of leaders, as well as through our research. For example, the Assets and Education Initiative in the School of Social Welfare is delivering findings with the potential to change the lives of low-income students and students of color. And the KU Medical Center is not only providing health care to underserved populations through its free clinics, but has partnered with communities to increase minority patients’ access to services such as clinical trials.
Racial and social chasms were present at our nation’s founding. King and many others fought against those divisions, but the events of recent months reveal the need for our continued dedication to unity and equality. We cannot bridge the divide alone, but we can and should be leaders in the efforts to do so. We can be living examples of the world we hope to create, and reminders of the dream that will never die.