New Racial Justice Advisory Committee, Mountaintop Initiatives will address systemic racism

Dear campus community,

As noted by our Board of Trustees, Western Michigan University, along with our nation, has arrived at a point in our history that requires a “painful and long overdue examination of our history of injustices and inequities.” I have heard the voices across our campus, including students and their leaders, deans and directors, bargaining unit leaders, faculty, staff and alumni. They all share the desire to not just call for change but to take part in making it happen. This combined chorus gives me hope that no matter the scope of the challenge ahead, we have a resilient and determined community that is committed to doing the difficult work that will result in an even stronger, more inclusive and more vital Western Michigan University.

This summer, we launched one example of the kind of action we need through the first WMU Professional Development Institute: Building Cultural Competencies. This presidential initiative was developed under the leadership of Dr. Evelyn Winfield-Thomas, executive director of the Office of Institutional Equity. Co-sponsored by the offices of Diversity and Inclusion and Academic Affairs, it is built on a train-the-trainer model that will enable us to build a campuswide cadre of leaders with strong cultural competency and intercultural communication skills. The individuals who complete the program develop and implement projects intended to begin addressing the challenges of racial inequality and social injustice they see in their campus work environments. According to feedback from attendees, the first institute was a success, and we are looking forward to offering it again.

The institute adds to a well-established foundation of other efforts at WMU that have been recognized at the national level. We have now been recognized by Insight Into Diversity magazine with its Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) award for the eighth consecutive year. The HEED award “measures an institution’s level of achievement and intensity of commitment in regard to broadening diversity and inclusion on campus through initiatives, programs and outreach.” As Dr. Candy McCorkle pointed out at last week’s Board of Trustees meeting, this is a recognition of our striving toward a more inclusive and equitable university—not an indication that our work is done. Some examples of that work can be found through entities like our Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations and the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy. 

We can and are building on these longstanding programs. Some recent steps include implicit bias training for our police officers; Communities in Collaboration—a three-part series of conversation on racial justice between students, administrators and campus police; new workshops provided to departments that enhance cultural understanding in the areas of power, privilege and identity, microaggressions and cultural humility; additional online diversity and inclusion modules have been made available to new students, faculty and staff; and early in October we will launch a climate survey to assess the experience of all students, faculty and staff.

These well-established programs, combined with new efforts, are an invigorating source of energy and a strong base upon which to build further efforts to promote inclusion and racial justice.

Dr. King said in his final address, we must “grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history.” That address, which took place in Memphis the day before he was assassinated, is often referred to as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He pointed out that we had not yet reached the promise land despite the major civil rights policy advances that had recently occurred. Now, more than 50 years later, we are once again at a moment in history when we must harness a rising momentum, a shared resolve, to commit to making our reality match our promises by ending systemic racism and broad-based social injustice.

It is a time for action, and that action must be fulsome and authentic in addressing both individual actions and the systems that perpetuate injustice. The problems that we must address are deep-seated and some of the toughest facing humanity. They are the insidious inequities that hide in the shadows in practices and policies, culture and in our understanding of each other. That is the difficulty of our challenge.

As we begin our new academic year, we must summon the demonstrated, collective will on our campus. It is in this light that I have asked Dr. McCorkle, vice president of diversity and inclusion, to lead the new Racial Justice Advisory Committee (RJAC). This group, comprising of representatives from the Board of Trustees, the Office of the President, vice presidents, deans, student government, bargaining units, faculty, staff, students and alumni, will identify issues and actions that our community can take to build a campuswide culture of change. The RJAC will:

  • Identify issues to address systemic racism and racial inequities on campus.
  • Identify actions we all can take to address the issues as well as creating a culture of change.
  • Make recommendations for prioritizing the issues and actions for the respective areas of campus.
  • Identify how our existing research, teaching and engagement capabilities might be engaged in the effort to promote inclusion and racial justice on WMU’s campus and in the community.
  • Monitor the progress of the recommendations to create accountability.
  • Provide an opportunity for a broader group of participants to shape change at WMU.

Meaningful change will require the full engagement of the campus community and resources. I have made a down payment to that end. I included in our recently approved budget a $2 million fund called "Mountaintop Initiatives: Continuing the Climb." With these resources, we will continue our work in the spirit of Dr. King’s final address. I will be seeking proposals from the entire community, especially the RJAC, for investments and initiatives that advance racial justice at WMU. This initial investment will fund efforts that will move us toward a campus rich in human diversity, strong in our desire to dismantle unjust and inequitable systems and united in an effort to demonstrate that hate and racism have no place among us. I will share more about how to formally submit proposals for the Mountaintop Initiatives soon.

Today, we recommit ourselves and intensify our efforts to take the next steps to build the type of campus where everyone can flourish. As Dr. King said, “We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This is a new beginning in the long journey to reaching the full measure of the institution that we want to be and that our community deserves.

Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me over the last few months and shared your thoughts. Your thinking has shaped my own, and our University is better for it.


Edward Montgomery