Washington University, like most elite institutions in the United States, was founded by White men of means, primarily to serve White students. In fact, it would be 99 years after its founding before all undergraduate programs would be open to Black students.
While the university has been desegregated since 1952, the student experience has not been equal for all students. In each of the four decades after desegregation — in 1968, 1978, 1983, and again in 1998 — Black students issued manifestos to university administrators, demanding change.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and the resulting protests and uprisings across the country today, current students have also issued a number of demands of university leadership.
Most of these recent demands would not have seemed out of place in the manifestos of 1968, 1978, 1983, or 1998.
Washington University, like most institutions in the United States, has struggled to make meaningful, sustained change in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion — not just for Black students, but for students, faculty, and staff who hold identities, come from backgrounds, and experience life in ways not represented in the institution’s original founding or the majority of its administration over time. The fact that this work can be difficult, and that not enough progress has thus far been made, does not mean that this work has not been worthwhile, or that further progress can not be made. Rather, the urgency of our current moment calls for greater investment, an institutional look in the mirror, and a more serious commitment to enact the systemic, structural change that students have been calling on the university to make for more than 50 years.
Each of those student manifestos did lead to some institutional changes. New departments were created. New programs were established. The faculty and the student body did become more diverse. Some would argue that life at Washington University is better today for Black, brown, and Indigenous students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the university community who represent a variety of historically marginalized identities, than it was in 1968, 1978, 1983, or 1998.
Yet because so many of the underlying structures of the institution remain unchanged, the demands of today’s students echo the demands of their predecessors far more than they should.
In 2015, following an intense semester of campus activism and dialogue in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown Jr. and the uprisings in Ferguson, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and Provost Holden Thorp established a Steering Committee for Diversity and Inclusion. The Report of the Steering Committee for Diversity and Inclusion defined a two-year, 12-point action plan that included the establishment of a Diversity Commission to implement the resulting strategy. The Commission on Diversity and Inclusion began its work in August 2015 and issued its report in June 2017.
That report included over 200 recommendations, outlining hundreds of concrete ways for the university to demonstrate an institutional commitment to equity and inclusion.
That report, too, has led to some institutional changes. But since the Commission made its report and completed its charge, no representative, universitywide body has facilitated application and implementation of the Commission’s research and recommendations, or sustained the institution-level communication opportunity for university stakeholders working on equity and inclusion like the one Commission process provided.
If Washington University is to truly be not only in St. Louis, but also for St. Louis, and with St. Louis; if it is to truly be a leading institution, not only in St. Louis, but also in the world; then it must do more than it has done to address the inequity that persists, despite seven decades of desegregation, manifestos, and commissions. It must also approach this work differently.
The inequitable outcomes we see today at the institution level are the result of systems and structures both inside and outside the institution that continue to produce those outcomes. These same structures, systems, and outcomes are the soil in which individualized incidents of racism, interpersonal bias and discrimination continue to occur. Thus, as its charge, the Equity and Inclusion Council will address systems and structures in an effort to shift the institution on behalf of all of its students, faculty, and staff, as well as the broader St. Louis community. It will do that work not as an add-on committee, but as part of the institutional infrastructure.
If systemic, structural change is to happen, the Council must leverage in its membership both people whose roles enable them to influence the systems and structures of the university, and people whose roles give them enough distance and perspective to see clearly where systemic and structural change is needed. The Council’s challenge is to take the work of the Commission, qualitative and quantitative data about institution-level outcomes for the various groups in our university community, and the demands of students across the decades, to transform the university for the long term. This will mean changes in policy and practice, adopted in partnership with the chancellor, provost, deans, vice chancellors and Board of Trustees.
And so while this work is urgent, the Council will set its focus on long-term, sustainable solutions. To ensure sustainability and continuity, the Council is being established as an ongoing concern, meant to be woven into the fabric of the university, and will be populated not by individual personalities, but instead by individuals from across the institution positioned to drive organizational change. To ensure collective and representative voice, as well as alignment and accountability across the university, the Council will include students, faculty, and staff from all university schools and the Central Fiscal Unit.
Washington University is responding to this moment in history with seriousness and an understanding that its efforts in the past to achieve equity have fallen short. As Chancellor Andrew Martin said in his inaugural address, “We know full-well that diversity on paper is one thing, and equity and inclusion are another.”
In establishing the Equity and Inclusion Council, the university is committing to embed this work in the highest levels of the institution, to ensure that its efforts are not performative, but transformative.