DePaul’s Black affinity groups call on university for change in letter to administration


Bianca Cseke | The DePaulia

DePaul University Lincoln Park campus.

Update (5/2/2021):President A. Gabriel Esteban released a statement to DPUBLC in response to the contents of the letter. His statement reads:

“I want to thank DePaul students, faculty and staff of African descent, DPUBLC, and BSU for engaging in this discussion, the thoughtful report summarizing key points, and the ideas about how to address the concerns expressed in the document,” the statement reads. “I share your concerns regarding Black student recruitment and retention, as well as the work required to improve the climate and success of faculty and staff of African descent. I agree that we can and must do better. I will discuss your concerns with my leadership team and the board leadership as part of our continuing strategic conversations on these topics.”

Members of DePaul’s Black community are requesting the university address pertinent issues faced by students, faculty and staff in a letter obtained by The DePaulia.”

The statement, spearheaded by both the DePaul University Black Leadership Coalition (DPUBLC) and Black Student Union (BSU), follows a town hall held earlier this month, designed specifically to address issues faced by Black DePaul community members.

The letter, sent to President A. Gabriel Esteban on Monday,  addresses both statistical and cultural issues facing Black students, staff and faculty at DePaul, with the town hall providing much of the framework for concerns addressed in the letter.

Representatives from BSU told The DePaulia in a statement that if the university does not sufficiently respond to concerns met in the letter, they will continue on in their goal of addressing the struggles of DePaul’s Black community.

“We hope that if a substantial response is not received, that we may keep garnering the support of our peers at DePaul and continue to bring these concerns to the table in meetings that the BSU has had and will continue to have with the administration concerning the support for Black students, faculty, and staff,” said Vick Privert, director of public relations.

Representatives from the university and DPUBLC did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

DPUBLC Black Townhall Statement 04.26.21 (3) by DePaulia on Scribd

Racial climate of the university called into question

Regarding student concerns, the letter cites DePaul’s “heavy reliance on a Eurocentric curriculum” and states that Black students expressed “a general lack of support on the part of faculty and administrators; racial hostility; and limited advising and career support.”  

In addition to cultural concerns, the letter also cites data highlighting the struggles faced by Black DePaul students pertaining to representation on campus and graduation rates. All data presented in the letter was provided by DePaul’s Institutional Research & Market Analytics (IRMA). 

“Students of African descent have the lowest four- and five-year graduation rates (41.3% and 52% respectively) and are the smallest proportion of students from all racial and ethnic categories,” the letter reads. “Black students were 6.9% of the 2020 freshmen class, falling behind Asian American students (11%) and Hispanic students (25%). Black students are also a lower proportion of total undergraduate (7.9%) and total student population (9.9%). Graduate students of African descent are 13.7% of graduate students, yet occupy only 7.6% of graduate assistantships.”

Faculty and staff concerns largely pertained to fear of retaliation from the university, as well as the university’s refusal to remove a clause from the university’s Faculty Handbook, believed to be used unfairly against professors of color.

The clause states that  “a pattern of extreme intimidation and aggression towards other members of the university committee” can be grounds for faculty dismissal or other repercussions. In February 2019, DePaul professors Quinetta Shelby and Valerie Johnson requested a review of the clause by The Faculty Council, arguing that its language provided no clear criteria for for violation and allowed for potential abuse against faculty of color.

Faculty Council ultimately moved to eliminate the clause from the handbook, with the resolution to change the language passing June 2020 in a 24-4-6 vote. However, interim provost Salma Ghanem did not approve this action, so the clause remains. 

“Faculty and staff expressed a fear of retaliation, social isolation, and a lack of inclusiveness, particularly when expressing issues related to racism and campus climate…” the letter reads. “They also pointed to enormous stress and stress-related illnesses associated with hostility and discrimination; the feeling that DePaul marginalizes or push out vocal faculty of color; and the burden incurred by faculty having to file lawsuits to resolve conflict and discrimination.”

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The letter appears to reference recent lawsuits filed by Drs. Sydney Dillard and Lisa Calvente, both of whom sued DePaul in 2020 for racial discrimination. Former law professors Terry Smith and Sumi Cho also sued the university on grounds of racial discrimination in 2018 and 2019, respectively. 

Faculty and staff lament limited opportunities for growth 

The statement also addressed concerns from faculty and staff regarding a perceived lack of opportunity for professional growth within the university, with both parties expressing feeling  “cultural taxation — heavy service, mentoring demands, and diversity work that goes uncompensated and undervalued, and frequently made them targets for racial hostility.” 

Black faculty specifically stated that such cultural taxation is believed to disadvantage them in both the tenure and promotion process, also expressing displeasure with the university’s “heavy reliance” on student evaluations for personnel decisions, “despite significant evidence of their [the evaluations’] vulnerability to bias.” They also criticized the “exclusionary network” upheld by DePaul, alleging that such a network unfairly positions “less qualified white faculty” for promotions.

“Staff of African descent occupy fewer positions in the ‘Executive, Administrative, and Managerial (9%)’ and ‘Other Professional (9%)’ categories, and are concentrated in the ‘Clerical/Secretarial (17%)’ and ‘Service Maintenance (23%)’ categories,” the letter reads. “Conversely, white staff occupy 64% of ‘Executive, Administrative, and Managerial’ positions, and 64% of ‘Other Professional’ positions.” 

Staff concerns echoed those of faculty, stating that “they do not receive mentoring or leadership development that would position them for promotion for supervisory or executive level positions,” among other concerns regarding salary and responsibilities within individual positions. 

“Staff also expressed inconsistency in job salary grades and a lack of clear policy for reevaluating/regrading positions as responsibilities change,” the letter reads.

Black community members remark on lack of actionable change 

The letter further criticized the “gap” between DePaul’s stated commitment to end racism on campus compared to “their actual record of accomplishment,” remarking that Black DePaul community members did not see actionable change or progress following the university’s message.

It goes on to state that DePaul’s anti-racism messages were for “marketing purposes” and were “in word only” and that the university did not do a sufficient job of holding itself accountable or validating the concerns of Black faculty and staff.

“DePaul faculty, students, and staff, expressed disdain for the continual listening tours,” it reads. “They felt that they are condescending and evince a lack of real commitment to change, and expressed a need for DePaul administrators to move from listening to dedicated action and a commitment of resources. “

Solutions offered

In addition to listing concerns, the letter offered recommendations to “address key steps needed to enhance black student, faculty, and staff success, and to address systemic inequities.”

One recommendation is to conduct a national search for the permanent provost position, currently held by Ghanem. 

Interim Provost Salma Ghanem. (Photo courtesy of Central Michigan University)

“We need a chief academic officer who possesses a sophistical and nuanced understanding of issues of racism and structural inequality,” it reads. “Ensuring that diverse voices are considered for such an important position is paramount.”

While not referenced by name in the letter, Ghanem has recently been embroiled in a number of allegations of upholding systemic racism at DePaul, with a nationwide petition of communication scholars calling for her removal earlier this month. Ghanem was also specifically named in Calvente’s lawsuit against the university, who also accused her and fellow administrators of unfairly blocking her ability to obtain tenure. Dillard leveled similar allegations against Ghanem and the administration in her lawsuit.

Ghanem did not respond to The DePaulia’s request for comment.

The letter also addresses the Board of Trustees, calling for both a faculty representative position and greater diversity within the board to “create avenues of communication with diverse faculty, staff and students.” Among other recommendations, the letter requests that the university eliminates the aforementioned clause in the Faculty Handbook

To promote success for Black students, the letter recommends the university develop strategic plans to increase total Black student enrollment as well as increase teaching assistantships for Black graduate students. The letter also recommends the university develop a Black Student Resource Handbook, as well as develop more effective academic advising and support for Black students in the hope of increasing Black student graduation to 60 percent in three years. 

In the interest of promoting success for Black faculty and staff, the letter recommends DePaul implement a similar strategy to increase Black-tenure line faculty to 15 percent of total faculty and increase staff promotion to executive, managerial and other professional roles. 

The letter ends with a request to arrange a meeting between Esteban, Gerald Beeson, chair of DePaul’s Board of Trustees, and officers of DPUBLC and BSU before May 12.

“We join DePaul in its commitment to ending institutional racism and structural inequality, and call on the University Officers to commit to a more engaged approach to ensuring that DePaul is a socially just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive campus,” the letter reads. “Words matter, but actions transform.”