Conquering Wrong

Illustration of multi-colored headsPresident Jerome Gilbert is leading a new coalition to combat racism and promote diversity among students, faculty and staff.

 

It should come as no surprise that the Mississippi-born president of Marshall University, Dr. Jerome Gilbert, would come to his position in 2016 with anti-racism on his mind. Growing up in Jackson, he was troubled by seeing separate water fountains at the zoo and separate entrances for Blacks and whites at his doctor’s office. Later, during his tenure as provost and executive vice president of Mississippi State University, he’d been surprised to learn that minority students still felt invisible in the classrooms, despite that university’s integration in 1965. Therefore, it didn’t take him long to start conversations about increasing diversity, inclusion and equality at Marshall when he arrived in Huntington.

“I came to Marshall with twenty-something years of being in higher education and teaching international students, minority students of all sorts and many Black students, and realized that there was no difference — that they were all students,” Gilbert said. “I was going to make sure we didn’t do anything here that perpetuated racist thoughts, racist actions, racist policy or anything that perpetuated the subjugation of minorities.”

Students after Donning of Kente ceremonyIt wasn’t that he saw overt racism on campus; he didn’t. Instead he wanted to dig deeper, to address any barrier that might make a minority student feel less welcome than the majority of white students. Actually, Gilbert points out that Marshall students should appreciate the university’s long history of breaking racial barriers and should celebrate the achievements of Marshall’s many outstanding Black alumni. As an example, a statue of Hal Greer is being erected near the Henderson Center to memorialize Greer’s basketball career at Marshall. In 1955, he broke the color barrier in West Virginia when he became the first African-American offered a scholarship to play college basketball.

While that was an athletic department first, in 1950 Marshall’s graduate school had admitted Black students well before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned segregation laws in 1954. And in 1962, Marshall’s first Black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, was formed. In 1969, Black students on campus requested a Black Cultural Center, which later became the Student Relations Center and even later evolved into the Center for African American Students. The year 1989 saw the creation of the position of Vice President of Multicultural Affairs, headed by Dr. Betty Cleckley.

Marshall has long been an inclusive campus for international students as well. In 1963, the International Festival, a celebration of ethnicity on campus, launched its first exhibit of food, crafts and entertainment. Other milestones include the “Donning of Kente” ceremony and the annual Diversity Breakfast, both launched in 2001, and the Society of Black Scholars, formed in 2003.

However, President Gilbert acknowledged this is not to say there isn’t more to be done. Early on, he expressed his feelings to Maurice Cooley, Marshall’s vice president for student affairs and intercultural affairs. According to Cooley, that made quite an impression on him.

“Dr. Jerome Gilbert is more firmly and deeply committed to racial equality than I could have ever imagined,” said Cooley. “When he first arrived on campus he asked me, ‘What can we do more of to support minority student enrollment and success?’”

Then, this fall, emboldened by the intense focus on racial injustices and the national social justice movement, Gilbert put in place mandatory diversity training for all employees, required a diversity hiring plan and decided it was time to create a Coalition for Anti-Racism.

Tim Melvin, Shaunte Polk, Maurice Cooley, Jerome GilbertTo that end, he reached out to a small group of people, including Cooley; Dr. Tim Melvin, who facilitates the President’s Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Harold Rashad Sanders, president of Marshall’s Black Alumni Association; Shaunte Polk, the director of the Center for African American Students; Jada Coleman, president of the Black United Students organization; Jim Terry, chief of police at Marshall; Huntington businessman Lake Polan; William Smith, former head of the Cabell County Board of Education; Anna Williams, president of the Student Government Association (SGA) and Kyle Powers, vice president of SGA.

President Gilbert facilitates the group and, according to Cooley, some of the initiatives the coalition will be working on include:

  • Developing a diversity initiative in any college or department that currently does not have one.
  • Increasing the number of minority faculty and staff at the university, particularly African Americans, and developing strategies to retain them.
  • Developing an African American student mentorship program.
  • Developing a social and racial justice coalition of athletes from all 16 athletic teams as a new voice on campus.
  • Creating a book club on issues of racism for faculty and students to be led by Gilbert.
  • Continuing the series of public town halls on social justice, race and fairness developed by the President’s Commission, headed by Melvin.
  • Partnering with national social justice initiatives.
  • The development of an Intercultural Center on campus for intercultural learning that fosters an environment rich in social and educational experiences to prepare students as leaders in a globally integrated society.

“Work on these initiatives has already begun,” said Williams. “We’re addressing a systemic issue and we are making progress. I hope we can find ways to improve our culture as a campus, to be more welcoming, to be more friendly, to give a platform to minority populations who feel they may not have one.”

In addition to the plans outlined by Cooley, Williams says they are looking at improving intercultural spaces on campus, developing ways to enrich programming and course offerings, and providing students a better way to report any unfortunate issues they may encounter.

Melvin wants to be certain that the university has diverse representation in its textbook authors and that the university is incorporating diverse elements into its curriculum.

“I am committed to Marshall University making positive change. I think our Alma Mater says it best — Honor right and conquer wrong

— President Jerome Gilbert

President Gilbert wants to be certain their efforts ensure Hispanic and Latino students have campus activities that appeal to them. That’s one reason the administration decided to merge the offices of intercultural affairs, student affairs and international student affairs under one centralized division, under the leadership of Cooley. The planning for the merger was headed by Cooley and Provost Dr. Jaime Taylor.

Another change on campus came about when Jada Coleman, president of the Black United Students, spoke out about the name of Jenkins Hall.

“Jada mentioned that every time she walked by that building she thought about the fact that it was named after a Confederate general, and it didn’t send a positive message to her,” Gilbert recalls. “I’m very proud that our Board of Governors agreed to remove the name from that building.”

President Gilbert noted that while he has not seen anything overtly racist since arriving at Marshall, there are some policies on campus that may exclude a large portion of non-white students. He points to the ACT and SAT test scores and some honors programs currently used to screen applicants. Many standardized tests, designed mostly by white academicians, do not consider the built-in bias against disadvantaged groups whose education has been substandard. As such, he wants to change those score minimums and the consequences experienced by many minority students.

Still, Gilbert says, “I’m encouraged by the positive response that we’re having on campus among our students, faculty and staff regarding our efforts to promote diversity. I think it’s being received very positively and that’s encouraging. I am committed to Marshall University making positive change. I think our Alma Mater says it best — Honor right and conquer wrong.”

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About the author: Carter Seaton is a freelance writer living in Huntington, West Virginia.

Photos (from second from top):

  • The Donning of Kente Celebration of Achievement is one of the most prestigious and culturally significant events of the year, recognizing an individual’s extraordinary accomplishments. The Kente cloth, which resembles a stole and is worn with the academic regalia, is a symbol of achievement that has its roots in a long tradition of weaving in West African countries.
  • From left: Some of the members of the Coalition for Anti-Racism include Dr. Tim Melvin, director of the President’s Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Shaunte Polk, program director of the Center for African American Students; Maurice Cooley, vice president for Student Affairs & Intercultural Affairs; and President Jerome Gilbert.