Black faculty, staff look to reboot association

The original group existed in the ’80s, but many driving members retired or died.

Black faculty, staff look to reboot association

Emma Nelson

People of color at the University of Minnesota can feel isolated on a campus where faculty, staff and students are primarily white.

In an effort to change this, Alysia Lajune, assistant department director for orientation and first-year programs, wants to re-establish a University-wide organization for African-American faculty and staff that existed in the 1980s.

The group would provide a way for African-Americans across all employment classifications to voice concerns while also building community.

“I like being in an environment where people don’t look like me,” Lajune said. “But as a black woman, I still have that need to maybe have those avenues to connect with people who do.”

A previous attempt

More than two decades ago, the University was home to a black faculty and staff organization under the leadership of professor Geneva Southall.

At that time, faculty and staff of color were more prone to feeling disconnected.

“I could go days without seeing other people of color,” said Patricia Jones Whyte, director of the Office for Diversity in Graduate Education, who arrived at the University in 1981.

The group was based out of the African American and African Studies department. It was “a natural staging ground” for the organization, said John Wright, a University faculty member who was involved with the original group.

In a University where African-American faculty members were few and far between, the department was “the largest single collection of black faculty at the University,” he said.

Eventually the group dissipated, leaving behind little record of its activities.

Those involved with re-establishing it are trying to find any records that Southall might have kept, Wright said. The original mission statement and records of past meetings would be helpful in building the new organization.

The original association fell apart for a number of reasons. Addressing the different needs of faculty and staff presented a challenge, Wright said. And with African-Americans scattered throughout the University, maintaining connections was difficult.

“There were just a lot of natural obstacles to keeping the group together,” he said.

In the late 1980s, the University began creating new offices and positions to work on equity and diversity, and the organization’s responsibilities changed, Whyte said.

Over time, some of the group’s driving members retired or died, she said, leaving a void.

“The need never ceased from the perspective of black faculty and staff,” she said. “There just was not the history or the energy to maintain the organization.”

Beginning again

The first step in re-establishing the association was to bring African-American faculty and staff together to begin building connections, Lajune said.

She partnered with Leonard Taylor Jr., the residence director at Yudof Hall, and began reaching out to other members of the University community.

About 100 people attended a Sept. 19 event that included speeches by President Eric Kaler, Robert Jones, senior vice president for academic administration, and Kathryn Brown, vice president for human resources.

The Office for Equity and Diversity funded the event.

Over the summer, Lajune proposed her idea to Rickey Hall, OED’s assistant vice president.

“She was so passionate about it; she said that she was going to hold some event even if she had to pay for it out of her own pocket,” Hall said.

The reception was not only a networking opportunity but also a chance to discuss the goals of the new association and how it will differ from the past.

During the event, attendees discussed tensions between faculty and staff members in the previous organization, Hall said. Moving forward, he said there will be an emphasis on ensuring that everyone’s concerns are addressed equally.

It’ll be important to acknowledge the different needs of different employees, Whyte said, while also maintaining dialogue between them.

“I think the facilities people have different issues than do academic professionals,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a vehicle for them to get in touch with each
other.”

Finding common ground

In order to maintain a sense of unity, it will be important to find common interests across the group, Lajune said.

Some of these are positive —a shared commitment to students, for example — but others are problematic.

Societal perceptions, low numbers of African-American faculty and staff and the sense of isolation are concerns.

In 2010, more than 85 percent of faculty and staff at the University were white, according to the Office of Human Resources.

But these concerns aren’t unique to the University.

Phillip Seaman, president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association at Johns Hopkins University, said the sense of isolation played heavily into the group’s establishment and his eventual involvement in it.

“Going to work on an everyday basis, you don’t see that many people that look like you, and you feel kind of isolated sometimes,” he said.

The BFSA, which Lajune said she may use as a model, also looks at issues like the lack of mentoring opportunities and improving recruitment and retention of African-American faculty and staff, Seaman said.

The group holds monthly meetings and also meets periodically with the university’s provost and annually with its president.

Lajune said she hopes to have this kind of relationship with the University of Minnesota administration.

The next step is appointing a steering committee to work on the association’s structure, she said.

It will likely take the rest of the year to decide the exact function of the association and how it will influence University governance without substituting for any pre-existing organization, Whyte
said.

“The energy is there; the enthusiasm is there,” Lajune said. “But I have to remind myself and other people that it’s not going to happen overnight.”