Conversation of Understanding and Next Steps

June 12, 2020



Dear Members of the Southern Illinois University System Community, 

Last week, we shared a message about the critical issues facing equity and justice in our country and what we can and must do to address those same issues within the SIU System. Since then, we have received feedback from the SIU System Diversity Advisory Council (DAC) on the conversation of understanding proposed in the earlier message.

The virtual event will be held on June 29 from 5 to 7 p.m. Additional details will be available soon. We will have a panel of institutional and student leaders sharing their experiences and stories. Because our primary goal is to hear from you, we will keep the panel discussion relatively brief and use it simply to help start the conversation. DAC members suggested we develop a series of ongoing conversations, so this will not just be a “one and done” experience. They also suggested we have conversations around themes, with the first one focused on hate and hurtful speech and its impact. We believe their recommendations are very good, and we will make it a priority to keep the conversation going, so it becomes part of what we do at SIU. We recognize this has been a traumatic time for many in the SIU family and hope these conversations are one way to provide support, stay connected, and build community.

However, system-level conversations are just one part of what we must do. As we have heard and read over the last couple of weeks, it is clear that as a society we need to do far more to address the ongoing problems of systemic racism. As the social media campaign #BlackInTheIvory points out so well, systemic racism is not just a problem in other areas of society; it is clearly a significant problem in higher education, as well. Moreover, we engage every day with educating the next generation of societal leaders, so we have the opportunity to have an impact far beyond our campuses. We must take action and focus on making real and lasting changes. We should endeavor to change the way we do business and should make sure we find a way to hold ourselves accountable every day.

With this in mind, we will establish task forces at Carbondale, its School of Medicine and Edwardsville addressing a number of key issues including:

Ensuring ongoing conversations are occurring at each location. As I was reminded by one member of our SIU family, we need to make sure we are hearing from all stakeholders at every level. By their nature, task forces are limited in size, but we can find ways to ensure everyone can participate in the conversation and generation of solutions. 

Enhancing the educational experience of our students, so that no student graduates without an understanding of systemic racism and its impact. Our graduates must be prepared to have a positive impact on our society and that is not possible without this understanding.

Enhancing efforts to recruit and retain minority students. A diverse student body is critical to our efforts and our role as a public institution, as is the need to make sure that we are giving everyone a chance to succeed in a safe and supportive environment. 

Enhancing efforts to recruit and retain minority faculty, staff, and university leadership. Almost every institution says it wants to increase the diversity of its employees, but many are unwilling to do the hard work of examining the potential bias that exist in the traditional recruitment and retention efforts and make real changes. We must do this work if we expect the outcomes to be different. 

Building the pipeline for future faculty, staff, and university leadership. This can be done through a variety of ways, including by enhancing efforts in our graduate programs that will produce future faculty, staff, and university leadership and examining potential biases in our promotion processes.

Creating a culture of accountability. In higher education, we too often develop plans and initiatives at times of crisis that look great at the time but fade when the time of crisis passes. This cannot be one of those times. We must find ways to continually assess our progress and continually assess whether we are doing what we should be doing, and then make necessary changes when we fall short. We also must keep everyone at SIU continually updated on changes and new initiatives, so communication will also be critical.

The task forces will be determined by the chancellors and dean of medicine and report directly to them. They can certainly draw from existing groups and individuals who may already be working on some of these issues. In addition, the chief diversity officers on each campus have been engaged in our discussions and will be a valuable part of this process moving forward.

We will also ask each task force to provide ongoing updates on their planning to both of us, the Diversity Advisory Council, and the other campus task forces. There is no reason we cannot share good ideas and we must collaborate across the system. While Dr. Wesley McNeese has been serving in a limited part-time position as the system executive director for diversity initiatives, we both believe it is critical that we develop a clearer role for a system chief diversity officer. If this is going to be a top priority for SIU so we can make progress that starts today and lasts well into the future, we must have someone who has the responsibility to focus on this every day. 

Finally, we want to be clear about our aspirations for the SIU system. We want to be a model for others in higher education and be recognized as a leader in our region and beyond for our work combatting systemic racism and truly supporting diversity and inclusion. This will not only allow us to change what we do across the SIU System, but to have a broader impact on the world by being an example of what can be done. We hope you will all join us in trying to achieve this goal. 

Sincerely,

Dr. Dan Mahony
Southern Illinois University System President

Dr. Wesley McNeese
System Executive Director for Diversity Initiatives