Debate over how to handle racism on campus among students and student groups has reached the university’s highest office.
President Alan Shepard announced he is assembling an anti-racism working group reporting directly to him, after a professor’s use of the N-word in lecture caught media attention and wide condemnation from major student groups at Western University.
The day after the announcement, Shepard met with a group of black students involved in the incident to “better understand and target issues of racism on campus,” according to a press release.
The group plans to go beyond apologies that have followed this year’s already numerous incidents with bigoted language, crystallizing a week of debate and grief over racism on campus.
Keren Annor — who has been vocal online throughout the incident — posted in a student Facebook group a glowing review and a photo of her meeting with the president, alongside a group of young black women. Her post compliments the meeting, writing that she felt “refreshed and relieved.”
“After having this well-needed meeting with the president, I am confident things will change. Action-based plans are being formulated,” it reads. “President Alan has gained my complete trust. He listened, he cared and most importantly he made us all feel visible.”
Campus first reacted to professor Andrew Wenaus’ use of “house [N-word]” in a lecture on racial language. Despite his apology and criticism from black students in his class, many defended Wenaus, saying the word was used academically.
Then, Chizoba Oriuwa, who publicly shared her experience in the class, became the target of anonymous hate speech sent to her university email address. Screenshots of the emails circulated widely online.
The working group was announced in that climate — and partly in response to an effort from the University Students’ Council, which called for an anti-racism strategy after the emails surfaced at their monthly council meeting.
Councilors debated the details of the motion for over an hour, landing on a proposition they hoped would push Western to create something concrete, with the support of the students’ council, its Ethnocultural Support Services, and members of racial groups on campus.
The debate in council revolved around whether to advocate for an anti-racism strategy, or a more broad anti-oppression plan. Some councilors worried the strategy would appear reactionary after the professor’s controversial word choice, and should instead take a proactive approach to tackle all forms of discrimination in the classroom.
Jalayer said after the meeting that he was happy to see engagement from his councilors.
“I think that was a great way of showing we are committed to all forms of anti oppression across this campus,” he said in an interview. “And this policy is specific to anti-racism but it doesn’t rule out that we won’t bring forward anti-oppression strategies to the university in the future.”
Student programs officer Cecilia Liu joined the group of students meeting with president Shepard to discuss the direction of the working group.
“The working group will focus on the experience of Western community members, particularly from racialized groups, with an aim to provide educational programs and enact systemic change against racism and oppression,” the president’s statement reads.
In an interview with the Gazette, president Shepard said it was too early to set goals for the group, but was looking forward to its deliberations.
“They’ll give me some recommendations and once I have those, we’ll figure out what should be done, what can be done, what priorities should be done and so forth,” he said.
While the working group was created in response to a specific incident, the president said monitoring the social and political climate on campus was always a priority for him.
“Presidents have many obligations. One of them is around the climate of the university — that people feel safe, they feel respected, they can get on with the work they came here to do in the first place,” he said.