Statement on Planned Actions from President John Comerford to the Campus Community (June 16, 2020)

Otterbein Community,

The past three weeks have been simultaneously upsetting and moving.  It was upsetting to see George Floyd’s death and know that it is part of a long history of discrimination and violence against Black Americans.  It was moving to see our nation and community react in near-unity to create change.  I know my family and I will not forget participating in the Westerville protests. 

Otterbein did what many organizations did.  We issued a statement condemning George Floyd’s death, plainly stating that Black Lives Matter, and recommitting ourselves to ending racial discrimination and inequity.  Today I write in follow-up to that commitment.

We have been working with students, faculty, staff, and alumni to consider what Otterbein can do now.  Although much of this this work is not new to us, we must do more.  What follows is some of our early actions, with more sure to follow.

As you know, in January Otterbein was selected by the Association of American Colleges and Universities to be the site of a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Center. The purpose of these centers is to work to dismantle belief in a race-based hierarchy of human values. The TRHT Center at Otterbein has a further, specific focus on understanding inequities specific to our local educational systems, in both K-12 and higher education. We are grateful to the Westerville City School District and the Columbus City School District, who are our TRHT community partners in this project, and to the City Councils of Westerville and Columbus, who supported our project proposal.

The “Truth” part of the TRHT framework means that we will be committed to researching, disseminating, and grappling with the imperfect histories of our educational institutions, to understand how past and present actions have perpetuated discrimination, sorting, and racial inequity. The “Racial Healing” component of the TRHT project is an effort to bring diverse groups of individuals together to practice deep listening to each other, and to help foster human connections in ways that our segregated society tends to prevent. And the “Transformation” element of the TRHT work means that we commit to actually changing the discriminatory practices that we expose and understand through the ‘truth’ and ‘racial healing’ efforts. 

We had planned to launch the TRHT in March with the Vernon L. Pack Lecture featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones and Jonathan Kozol, two advocates of educational reform to address racial disparities, and we were planning a series of Racial Healing Circles that would invite members of the Otterbein, Westerville, and Columbus communities to come together. The coronavirus upended these plans, but know that our commitment continues. The local TRHT team will attend the national conference this week and work on revised plans, including conducting virtual racial healing circles.

Other opportunities and activities at Otterbein include the following:

  • Current and incoming students will be offered multiple opportunities to engage in discussion, share feedback, and prepare for the fall.  These opportunities will include focused opportunities for our student leaders (including OUSG, AASU, Greek Life, Athletics, and others) and general opportunities for all students.  Frandie Francique, Student Government President, and Angel Banks, African American Student Union President, gave us a good start to these discussions in their recent letter.
  • Otterbein’s SOAR orientation program will include information on the history of Otterbein’s role in racial equity (good and bad), our current values and practices, and how students can become allies in the effort.
  • The expectations (otterbein.edu/equity-inclusion/expectations) started by student leaders in 2016 are being updated on our progress on everything from diversity in hiring to the curriculum.  Significant accomplishments can be found in many, but not all, areas.  The University leadership will also invite the Diversity & Inclusion Committee to engage in regular meetings about these and other goals.
  • Otterbein has had a plan to increase diversity in hiring for years, though the results have not always met our goals.  The plan was revised last year by Human Resources and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee to include required search committee training, diversity advocates, and diversity statements from applicants.  These will be reviewed and other practices will be re-examined as we form an updated plan to diversify our faculty and staff.
  • A summary of the results of the 2019 Diversity and Equity Campus Climate Survey will be posted in O-Zone, and we have committed to repeating it on a three-year cycle.
  • Otterbein will publish a new accountability report at the end of each semester that will include enrollment data on diversity (numbers, retention, graduation rates, etc.), numbers of reported incidents of bias and our responses to them, OPD/WPD intervention statistics, diversity in hiring statistics, and other measures of our progress.  This will build on the Diversity and Inclusion “score card” used in the past.
  • Otterbein faculty and staff have annual professional development on diversity.  This year’s theme will be driven by the TRHT philosophy and encourage deep thought and reflection on how each person and each action we take can impact our goal to achieve racial equity.  We will also (for the first time) include student employees in a version of this training.
  • Otterbein will participate with a new task force of the Ohio Athletic Conference aimed at sharing best practices to recruit and retain ethnically diverse students, educating all students on the importance of valuing difference, exploring collaborative opportunities for the Conference to educate and support student-athletes and athletics staff in areas of diversity and inclusion, sharing our common values with other students, families, and fans, creating shared programs that will enhance equity on our campuses, and positioning the OAC has a leader in the national movement to eliminate race and ethnicity as measures of human value.
  • The Otterbein Police Department is updating its training and policies to prevent choke holds, emphasize de-escalation, and require other officers to stop an officer using excessive force.  OPD is also investigating body cameras.  We are fortunate to have dedicated OPD officers with no history of concerns in these areas, but making our expectations clear is always wise.  OPD will also be part of new student orientation and continue to engage with diverse student groups to foster dialogue and trust.
  • A new President’s Advisory Board for Diversity & Inclusion will be formed of Otterbein alumni and friends with an interest and expertise in these areas.  This will not supplant the work of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, but help link us to external best practices and networks.

These efforts, and many more that would make this letter too long, help leverage Otterbein’s role in educating students and leading in our community as we work towards racial and ethnic equity.  We will, of course, continue programs that address homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and other biases that limit our potential as people and a nation. 

Note that Otterbein believes in freedom of speech, so students, faculty, or staff with divergent views will not be punished so long as they do not use hate speech or incite violence.  Some viewpoints, especially posts on social media, may cause offense.  In these situations, we commit to educating students and other members of the campus community on the impacts of their words on others and themselves.

I also want your thoughts and ideas.   It is critical that we understand each of us is limited in what we understand about others’ needs, hurt, and viewpoints.  Please let me know what else we can do.

Sincerely,

John Comerford, Ph.D.
Otterbein President

Joint Statement from Otterbein Student Government and the African American Student Union (June 3, 2020)

Dear Cardinal Community,

It is with heavy hearts that we send this letter to you all. We first and foremost extend our condolences to all of the family, friends, and loved ones impacted by the recent and past murders due to police brutality. Time and time again we have witnessed the unjust murders of black and brown bodies but as student leaders we refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice. Otterbein University Student Government in collaboration with the African American Student Union stands committed to being active agents of change as we work together to seek justice and understanding.

To our Black students, faculty, and staff we want to remind you that you are seen, heard and valued. We want you to know that we are committed to maintaining safer spaces for you and protecting your wellbeing. Your humanity and all that comes with it requires no explanation and is not up for debate. As leaders who stand by you, we are committed to combating the injustices of racism and abuse both on and off our campus. While we may not be on campus, please know that we are still rallying around you. Take time to unplug, to rest, and to practice self-care. These events may feel overwhelming for many of you, and we encourage you to take care of yourself first and foremost and to know that YOUR LIFE MATTERS.

Cards, your support and voices are needed now more than ever. What we are witnessing in the media today is a call to action from your peers and our society as a whole. Without protecting and valuing black lives, all lives cannot truly matter. It is necessary for us to unite as a University to promote and create change however we can. We know many of you may feel helpless, confused, and unsure of what you can do but there are resources out there for you. This link contains just some examples of how and where you can show support and act. AASU has also provided various resources and educational posts on their social medias. You can find them on lnstagram and Twitter @Otterbein_AASU to view their posts. We also encourage you to take charge in educating yourselves through outlets like online activists, documentary/ films, books, and credible sites. Educating yourself and using your voice are your strongest tools in matters surrounding social justice.

From the leadership of OUSG and AASU, this letter, our support, and our charge to the Otterbein community does not negate our commitment to serving everyone. Instead it serves as a reminder to all students, faculty, and staff that the work for an inclusive environment require consistent action. Although we do not have all the answers right now, the challenges and responsibility that comes with change cannot fall solely to those requesting it. Regardless of our racial, religious, gender, or political identities we must come together and do what we can to be a part of this necessary change. Our quiet, peaceful village cannot remain silent. PERIOD.

Angela Davis once said “sometimes we have to do the work even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible”. We are in the midst of uncertainty, but it cannot hinder us from being a part of creating a clearer future. We are here to hear you and if you have anything that you would like to discuss further please do not hesitate to reach out.

OUSG can be contacted at studentgovernment@otterbein.edu. Vice President Banks serves as the President of AASU and can be reached at banksprice@otterbein.edu. The Office of Social Justice and Activism can be contacted through the Director of the office, James Prysock, at jprysock@otterbein.edu.

With love and solidarity,

Frandie Francique
President, OUSG

Angel Banks Price
President, AASU

Statement from Otterbein University leaders on the death of George Floyd and the continuing struggle for racial equality (June 1, 2020)

On Friday, President Comerford shared a message in response to the national outcry about George Floyd’s death via Twitter. Please see the latest from Otterbein University leaders.

Like you, we watched George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer. It was horrific to see. It was also very important to watch. It was the murder of one man and evidence of wider racial problems in our society. To be clear, Black Lives Matter.

Cities are in flames. Many citizens who gathered for peaceful protest have been assailed with pepper spray and rubber bullets. Those who were there to serve as leaders and helpers, as well as those reporting on the riots and protests, were not immune. It is also troubling that in the midst of this expression of pain, anger and injustice, there are those who are seizing this time to come into communities with intentions to provoke violence, foment hate and accelerate discord.

We are witnessing the enormity of our country’s pain, anger and demands for justice.

There are no easy, fast solutions. Those who say otherwise are not speaking truth.

As members of Otterbein’s community, we believe you are thoughtful learners. We urge you to pay attention to all sources, to question what’s difficult, and to tap into your sense of justice and empathy as you choose your thoughts, words and actions in response to this shared tragedy.

As an institution, Otterbein is far from perfect. We acknowledge there is work to do in our community and in our society. So where do we begin?

We can listen. We can learn from one another. We can advocate. We can care about the suffering of African Americans who have been subject to years of racism, ignorance and cruelty. We can care infinitely more about repairing broken spirits. Broken storefronts can be replaced, people cannot. We can, we must, strive to be better and to do more.

That is why our designation as a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Center is more important than ever. When we applied to become a TRHT Campus Center, we pledged to expose and dismantle the false belief in a race-based hierarchy of human value. We affirm again today our commitment to this work.

In the coming days, we are asking leaders and scholars in our Otterbein community to share their knowledge and their insights. We are working to finalize details of events to explore how we take action to support healing, growth and learning for our African American community and our community as a whole. Otterbein will communicate news of these events as soon as details become available. It is important that we talk about these things — to affirm our values, to share in our grief, to ensure our ideals and to fortify the very foundation of our mission as an institution of learning.

If you are in need of reassurance that Otterbein stands with our African American students, alumni and colleagues, we are here. If you need support, your professors, mentors, coaches and friends care and are here to help, too.

WE ARE not afraid to do what’s right. WE never have been. WE will get through this together.

With Cardinal unity,

John Comerford, President

Wendy Sherman-Heckler, Provost and Senior Vice President

Erin Bender, Executive Director of The Point

Jefferson Blackburn Smith, Vice President for Enrollment Management

Susan Bolt, Chief Financial Officer and Vice President for Business Affairs

Michael McGreevey, Vice President for Institutional Advancement

Willie Neumann, Chief Information Officer

Kristine Robbins, Vice President and Chief of Staff

Dawn Stewart, Vice President for Student Affairs and Director of Athletics

Otterbein Resources for Support and Assistance:

Office of Social Justice and Activism
James Prysock
jprysock@otterbein.edu

Otterbein Counseling Center
Dr. Kathy Ryan
counseling@otterbein.edu

University Chaplain
Rev. Dr. Judy Guion-Utsler
jguionutsler@otterbein.edu

VP for Student Affairs
Dawn Stewart
dstewart@otterbein.edu

Dean of Students
Julie Saker
jsaker@otterbein.edu