June 1, 2020

To William Paterson Community:

Since the horrific killing last week of George Floyd and the ensuing protests and riots in Minneapolis, as well as other incidents and protests that are taking place around our country, I have been thinking a great deal about how I feel, what is important for me to say as the President, and what should be our call to action. I have written so many of these messages, and yet we always seem to end up at the same place: the needless death of a person of color, outrage, protests both peaceful and violent, thoughts and prayers, choruses of Amazing Grace, memorials of candles and flowers, and then a return to apparent normalcy without really addressing the issues that lead to change. I wanted some time to reflect on actions we are taking as a Community, as well as the work we still have to do in the area of diversity and inclusion and figure out, in the midst of a pandemic, which important questions to pose.
First and foremost, I share in the outrage and grief that are roiling our nation right now, and I condemn the killing of George Floyd and the terrible injustice and bias that led to it. These events lend ever-greater urgency to our ongoing efforts at William Paterson to combat bias and advance the causes of social justice, equity, and inclusion. 
I am heartened by the work that we have done together to address some of the concerns of our populations of color over events that sparked outrage just before my arrival on campus two years ago.  The creation of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Black Cultural Center was just the beginning of what true transformational and inclusive education must look like as we seek to put more baccalaureate degrees in the hands of those who need greater income equality and social mobility, as well as more economic and political power in the aid of greater social justice. I am pleased with the recommendations that have come out of the LGBTQIA+ and Hispanic Serving Institution working groups, which will guide our work in the coming years for those populations. The University-wide survey on diversity issues that was launched this past year has provided good information on where our community feels we are strong and has identified areas where we must focus our diversity and inclusion efforts moving forward. 
We must also embrace the fact that during the diversity and inclusion training that we began last summer and continued in this past year, there were moments of true discomfort. We struggled to be comfortable talking about race, privilege, and how we navigate symbols that are affirming for some and yet offensive to others within the context of free speech. This process should remind us that it is not ultimately the riots and protests, the spirituals sung, flowers laid, or memorials created that make change.  They are healing, but in my opinion, it is the difficult and meaningful work of talking about and getting comfortable with issues of race, privilege, and the understanding of others that is the true task before us.
I am encouraged that the recent academic reorganization resulted in a Department of Community and Social Justice Studies, as it is a sign that we are thinking more deeply about these issues. But it is not enough. We have to dig deeper. Some have heard me opine that when multicultural or diversity requirements were first introduced into general education curriculums nationally, the courses were an attempt to teach students about “other,” whether it be cultures, race, or gender. What we, the predominately white faculty at the time, failed to recognize was that because marginalized populations were, and still are, absent from the curriculum by and large, these opportunities at times became discovery of self, or identity affirmation. And while self-discovery and affirmation opportunities are critical and important parts of any collegiate experience, they fall short of the goal of teaching students about otherness.    
The questions now before us are: how do we integrate minority representation across the curriculum, recruit and retain more diverse faculty, and help all of our students understand issues related to race, gender, and sexual identity bias and oppression leading to better understanding of “otherness”?  How do we help the science major understand the challenges of women and populations of color in those disciplines and be able to discuss them with employers or within professional organizations?  How do we help the business major understand the impact of women making 77 cents on the dollar to their male counterpart for the same work and be able to talk about it and advocate for pay equality? Not only is this a great social need, it could also add unique value to a degree from William Paterson. Not only will our graduates be able to make the case they have lived and learned in a diverse environment but they have also studied issues of race, class and gender as it relates to their discipline, and they are comfortable having those conversations. It would also help us better fulfill our mission and honor our core values of diversity and citizenship. But are we up for it?
It should not be lost on any of us that the pandemic hit our communities of color disproportionately hard due to years of economic, social services, educational, and healthcare policies that created the net worth gap in New Jersey and across our country. These policies led to a series of COVID-19-related deaths in these communities that we have yet to comprehend.  It also cannot go unnoticed that George Floyd’s death is connected to other events like the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black jogger in Georgia; a racial incident in Central Park; and the police killing of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed black woman in her home in Kentucky, all of which stem from racial bias on the part of  people of privilege and power. It should also not go unnoticed that at the highest levels of public office those raging in the streets in Minnesota over another needless death were called thugs, while in Michigan white males who stood in the State Capitol building with semi-automatic weapons were called “very good people.” When people are raging in the streets, it is not simply the result of one moment in time, but rather a disparity of treatment through criminal justice systems, government and policy, time and time again, and trying, time and time again, to work within a system not designed for them that leads to anger so great that it must find another outlet. How do we give our students, or for that matter ourselves, the tools to truly understand these disparities and the courage we need to talk about and change them? 
William Paterson is not immune to these disparities. Our students of color are retained and graduate at a lower rate than their white peers.  Our Latinx population of students has increased over the years, and yet the percentage of Latinx faculty, while it outpaces national norms, has remained steady. If you pay attention in meetings, often faculty and staff of color bring salient points to the discussion but remain unheard until their comments are repeated by their white peers. These three points alone should give us pause about our commitment to diversity and inclusion and bring another layer of meaning to the words, “I can’t breathe.” 
If we want to further espouse our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, these next steps will be critical to our mutual success. There may be others that you are all thinking about, as well.
I know these recent incidents coupled with the pandemic have caused many of us great anxiety. Please remember that faculty and staff can always avail themselves of the Employee Assistance Program, including through the Office of Employment Equity and Diversity. Students can access counseling through the Counseling, Health & Wellness Center. 
I leave you with this thought, still the most important action you can take is a silent and a private one—vote. 
Richard J. Helldobler, PhD