8 June 2020
On May 30, 2020, Lisa Weasel, Professor & Chair of the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, wrote a letter to you as an individual, that resonated with so many chairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that we wanted to resend it to you (also as individuals) as an open letter via The Vanguard. While not all of us agree with every specific demand, we view this letter as a call to action for ourselves, our college, and everyone in our university community.
We do not sign on behalf of our departments. Each of our faculty have their own voice. We sign for ourselves, long time faculty members and academic leaders who feel called to demand and provide leadership for the culture shift in diversity, equity, and inclusion in our departments, college, and at PSU that we cannot live without.
Dear President Percy,
Thank you for your message yesterday to the PSU community. It is indeed important that you as president acknowledge the deep pain and despair of systemic white supremacy that has been going on for so long, is institutionally built into and carried out in our daily lives, and is most recently represented and symbolized by the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, beneath which lie so many more lives lost to racist violence, both names made public and those left unacknowledged (including transgender men and women of color, who are even more frequently left unnamed or indeed misnamed).
While as the leader of our university, acknowledging the tragedies in Minneapolis and Georgia is important, far more important is the urgent and unattended work of addressing, and working to prevent, such incidents on our own campus, and the underlying structures threaded throughout our university that allow these repeated acts to occur in our midst. While your letter refers to the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the absence of Jason Washington’s name from current administrative discourse and action since the murder of this member of our own PSU black community- the brother of one of our alumni- by white PSU campus police officers, is unacceptable. In the same breath that we may mourn the deaths of those far from us geographically, we must take responsibility for and acknowledge that our own campus is overtly complicit in this same behavior, and implement concrete actions (not just words or task force reports) to interrupt the constant threat to black and brown members of our PSU community posed by the presence of armed officers on campus.
Likewise, while we appreciate your words that “affirm our commitment to doing our own work to ensure that justice and equity are a core part of all of PSU” now is a time in which actions speak louder than words. Such statements have been a sad refrain each time another act of racist violence perpetrated against the black community makes its way into the news, only to be pulled out and recycled with a new victim’s name the next time. For those of us who are white, we wince at these momentary reminders of the suffering of our black students, colleagues, and community members, issue the obligatory statements of sorrow and support, and then it is back to business as usual.
In the past days and hours, we are seeing a growing surge of people in our city (including PSU students and employees) and across the country stand up and take serious action in resistance against such “business as usual.” There is increasing recognition of the ways in which state structures and institutions have failed us and are in fact the very tools with which these inequalities and tragedies are carried forth. The disparate rates of COVID infection and death amongst communities of color due to ingrained structural inequality and bias, combined with increased visibility of repeated police brutality and killing of black people (men in particular but people of all genders), are the most obvious current indicators of the implication of state structures in such ongoing violence.
Portland State University is one such example of a state actor implicated in this violence (most dramatically symbolized by the murder of Jason Washington, but also by so many other inequities and aggressions against students, faculty and staff of color that occur with regularity in our PSU community). As you note in your letter, “It will take intentional and collective action to dismantle systemic structures of oppression.” I urge you to immediately and effectively begin this process of going beyond words to take action on dismantling these structures at PSU. We recognize this is not a simple or quick task, and that such structures of systematic oppression are amazingly resilient and slippery to eradicate, but it is something that we must prioritize and begin upon with haste and courage. This is a moment in which we must act, and those actions will determine what side of this momentous time in history PSU will be cast on (and indeed perhaps the course of its future existence).
There are already many proposals and requests in this regard that have been awaiting your action for some time. One of these is the need to immediately ameliorate the systematic underresourcing and gutting of the departments of Black Studies; Chicano/Latino Studies; and Indigenous Nations Studies on our campus. These departments have been repeatedly starved of tenure line faculty, and have had their courses and offerings sidelined and severed from integration within the larger curriculum of our university. While this is a devastating loss of presence and education for our students of color, it is also a way in which state- sanctioned education implicitly prepares white students to devalue and often condone or accept violence against, black and brown community members.
When our university fails to provide white students with opportunities to interact with faculty of color as knowledge authorities and respected members of our academic community, and to learn from their leadership and experience, it implicitly imbeds in students’ notions of white supremacy and black inferiority, which underlie repetition of discrimination and violence. We urge you to quickly and decisively take action on standing requests to hire sufficient numbers of tenure track faculty in the above named departments, as well as faculty of color throughout all departments at PSU, to interrupt and/or staunch the impact that PSU has contributed to and continues to inflict, as a state actor in the devaluing and systemic violence against black and brown lives.
As we return to campus in fall, we also ask that you address the disparate impact that COVID-19 has taken on communities of color and provide additional campus resources that are needed to support these members of the PSU campus. Black, Latinx and Indigenous students, staff and faculty are more likely to have been ill themselves or to have had family and community members sick or die from COVID-19. They are also more likely to be essential workers as well as to be employed in sectors disproportionately laid off as a result of the pandemic. Food shortages, housing insecurity, biased and lack of health-care access- we could go on, but the structural violence is obvious.
Our Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, faculty and staff are also facing doubled down threats and racism related to COVID-19, a result of both national discourse and incidents on our own campus. All of this has a direct impact on the ability to learn and teach at PSU. On our campus, we need to acknowledge and provide concrete resources to stem and address these disparities. The recent proposal that you made to increase tuition this fall, for example, will have a disproportionate impact on educational opportunities for students of color, for many of the above reasons, and should be reconsidered in this light.
Finally, as people who have ourselves been placed in the PSU “Work Share” furlough program under the premise of “partnership and shared sacrifice,” we question why employees in the Campus Safety Office are exempt from this policy. Do we really need our fully, armed, Campus Safety Office operating at 100% (as compared to 80% as for other furloughed workers) when all students are attending classes remotely and employees are under mandatory work at home orders? Given the horrifying track record of our armed Campus Police officers in participating in lethal violence against black community members, and the severe budget circumstances that are necessitating sacrifices to our essential educational mission and student success, it seems particularly timely to consider how this decision may actually make our campus more unsafe (especially when there are so few people around to perform necessary police accountability through video capture, the only way it seems justice may be sought in this country at this time).
These are just a few of the urgent, impactful actions that have been asked of you and that our campus leadership needs to urgently address as we acknowledge the ways in which PSU is implicated in the very violence that you denounce in yesterday’s message. We look forward to your next message detailing the concrete actions you are taking as the leader of our university in order to reduce the harm that our institution inflicts on its members.
Lisa Weasel, Professor & Chair, Dept. of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies
Ellen Skinner, Professor & Chair, Psychology Department
Lindsey Wilkinson, Professor & Chair, Sociology Department
Christina Gildersleeve-Neumann, Professor & Chair, Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences
Jen Morse, Associate Professor & Chair, Environmental Science and Management
Martin Lafrenze, Associate Professor & Chair, Geography Department
Michael Bartlett, Associate Professor & Chair, Biology Department
Patricia Schechter, Interim Director, Conflict Resolution
Martin Streck, Professor & Chair, Geology Department
Paul Collins, Professor & Chair, English Department
Natan Meir, Professor & Academic Director, Judaic Studies
Alex Sager, Associate Professor & Chair, Philosophy Department
Gerardo Lafferriere, Professor & Chair, Department of Mathematics & Statistics
Susan Conrad, Professor & Chair, Department of Applied Statistics
Virginia Butler, Professor & Chair, Department of Anthropology
Gina Greco, Professor & Chair, Department of World Languages & Literatures
Ted van Alst, Associate Professor & Director, Indigenous Nation Studies and School of Gender,
Race, and Nations
Ethan Johnson, Associate Professor & Chair, Black Studies Department
Roberto de Anda, Professor & Director, Department of Chicano/Latino Studies
Dean Atkinson, Associate Professor & Chair, Chemistry Department
John Ott, Professor, History Department