Message from the Chancellor
April 19, 2020
Like many of you, I have been following the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd and await the jury’s decision. Regardless of the verdict, it will take concerted action and collaboration by publicly elected leaders, by those in policing, and by activist citizens to change the disproportionate use of force and unequal policing against communities of color. Racial disparities in our criminal justice system must end – and these go far beyond police action on the streets.
To our students, staff and faculty who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, I recognize that the burdens of this past year have been compounded by the trauma of reliving Mr. Floyd’s killing in excruciating detail and by new injuries such as the fatal police shootings of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago. These assaults have been compounded by the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color, and by the rise in hate crimes against individuals of color, including the recent examples of anti-Asian hate that have shaken our Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American community.
I know that any message on these topics is always too easily dismissed as empty words. Yet I think it is important to call out these issues and confront racism wherever it exists. As the leader of this institution, my focus must be on directing change in the areas I control and encouraging and expecting others to do the same.
In the early 2000s, I headed a National Academy of Sciences panel focused on how to best measure discrimination in different settings such as the labor market and housing. As a result, I read some of the research on discrimination in the criminal justice system, an academic area I was not previously familiar with. Compared to the literature I knew in other areas, it was shocking – not because it showed racial disparities, which I expected, but because the magnitude of the racial differences and the irrefutable evidence of causality went far beyond anything I had seen in other areas. Over this past year, all of us have been exposed to far too many examples of these injustices. There is much work to do to create change for Black, Indigenous and communities of color within and beyond Wisconsin.
If we can bring the same commitment to the fight against racism and injustice that we’ve brought to the fight against COVID-19, we can make real progress. Across campus, many students, faculty and staff are doing the hard and necessary work of learning more about these issues, identifying on-campus problems, and working to improve what happens at UW and in the broader community through education, research and outreach. I want to highlight a few efforts that are particularly relevant to this moment as well as share cross-campus initiatives and resources:
- The Frank J. Remington Center – Part of the Law School, the center has a strong commitment to service, broadly defined, to low-income citizens, incarcerated individuals, correctional agencies, the public defender system, prosecutors’ offices, victims, policy makers and the larger community.
- The criminal justice reform team in the Social Justice Hub – Part of the Office of Inclusion Education, this student-led team researches topics such as wrongful convictions and connects with people of color in law and local organizations working to reduce recidivism. The team produces a newsletter, podcast and events.
- The UWPD Equity Initiative – Even as our country debates how to reform policing, UWPD launched an initiative in 2020 to directly combat inequity and bias as well as share transparent practices. They are uniquely situated to do this work at an academic institution and are recognized as innovators.
- The Understanding and Reducing Inequalities Initiative – The Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education has just announced the funding of 15 research projects to generate actionable knowledge to reduce racial inequities in the U.S.
As we prepare for a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial in the coming days, I recognize some individuals may want to gather and speak out in response. The rights to free speech and peaceful assembly are bedrocks of our nation and this university. If you choose to participate or if you find yourself in proximity to a gathering, please be mindful of your safety and the safety of others as conditions can sometimes change rapidly.
We remain deeply concerned about the cumulative adverse mental health toll of the last year for our students, staff and faculty. As previous messages have emphasized, we have resources available on this campus for processing spaces and mental health support. These may be familiar to many of you, but I know that there are students and colleagues who are hesitant to seek help. University Health Services has made it a priority to hire mental health providers who focus on BIPOC students to address the additional stresses they experience from racism in its many forms. We recognize that we must do more to ensure that all our students, employees, and visitors feel safe and welcome on this campus.
Whatever the coming days bring, I am committed to engaging further with you on how we can move campus forward. As we welcome spring, many people of different faiths are celebrating religious holidays that share a common theme of reflection on historical events that shaped the present. In this moment, I encourage all of us to take time to renew and reflect on how our history of race in this country has shaped who and what we are – both individually and institutionally – and commit ourselves to working for change.