Northeastern University announces new initiatives to confront anti-Black discrimination

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Following a series of discussions and small-group meetings with Black students, faculty, and staff, Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun on Monday announced a number of actions the university will undertake immediately to confront bias and improve the experience of underrepresented minorities at the university, with particular emphasis on Black members of the Northeastern community.

In a letter to the Northeastern community, Joseph E. Aoun, president of the university, outlined several new initiatives. They include establishing a community advisory board to work with the university police department; engaging closely with members of the community across a variety of platforms to diversify the university’s student body, faculty, and staff, as well as its approach to developing curriculum; bolstering its support for Black students; instituting cultural competency and anti-racism training across the university; and working with employers to more effectively recruit people of color. 

Portrait of Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The announcement comes a week after Northeastern closed its campuses for a day to mourn the death of George Floyd and reflect upon the systemic racism and violence that created the conditions under which Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was suffocated to death in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

“I have had the opportunity to hear from and meet with many of you,” Aoun wrote Monday. “You have urged Northeastern to take a deep and honest look at itself, to do more to confront anti-Black discrimination, and to achieve our ambitions for diversity, inclusion, and equality on our campuses.”

As part of that work, Aoun is elevating the work of the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion; a body chaired by James Hackney, dean of the Northeastern School of Law, and Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. 

The council will continue its work to “seek community input and recommendations on how Northeastern can be more diverse, inclusive, and equitable across every dimension of what we do,” Aoun wrote. 

The actions announced by Aoun on Monday “lay the foundation for the work we need to do in promoting the cause of racial justice at Northeastern,” Hackney said, adding, “I’m excited to work with the community to advance these initiatives.” 

“We need to listen to our neighbors in the surrounding community about these issues,” Hackney said. “They have a lot to tell us.” 

Such work is foundational to the university’s ethos, Poiger said.

“As part of our educational mission, we ask all our undergraduate students to engage with difficult questions of human diversity and difference,” she said. 

The conversations among students, faculty, staff, and members of the communities in which Northeastern campuses are located, Poiger said, have made clear that “we need to do much more to increase the representation of people of African descent in the ranks of students, faculty and staff.”

And, she added, these conversations—and the action they catalyze—must be ongoing.

“We need to work together to address the desire for more and different knowledge as well as for different frameworks of analysis and scholarly practice that can help make voices historically underrepresented more prominent and reveal injustice and inequity too often obscured,” Poiger said.

Hackney pointed out as an example of programming that advances “the cause of racial justice” Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which is housed in the law school. Founded by Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law, the program conducts research and supports policy initiatives on anti-civil rights violence in the U.S. and other miscarriages of justice that occurred between 1930 and 1970. 

Among the initiatives Northeastern will undertake, Aoun has promised the university will:

Establish a community advisory board for the Northeastern University Police Department

The board, to be composed of students, faculty, staff, and one member of the Boston community, will “help guide, inform, and strengthen NUPD’s relationship with the community—both within and outside Northeastern,” Aoun wrote.

Ralph C. Martin II, senior vice president and general counsel at the university, will review the practices of some of the most successful advisory boards across the U.S. to inform the structure of Northeastern’s, and will announce details later this month. Additionally, Mike Davis, NUPD police chief, will continue to hold a series of engagements with the Northeastern community.

Increase the representation of Black students, faculty, and staff

Aoun charged David Madigan, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and Ken Henderson, chancellor and senior vice president for learning, as well as every senior vice president at the university to increase the number of Black students enrolled in undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs, and to increase the number of people of color in faculty and staff positions.

Aoun also charged each of the university’s senior vice presidents to develop specific, measurable goals to increase Black and brown representation within their departments. “Our goal is for Northeastern to reflect the diversity of our nation and society by 2025,” Aoun wrote.

Appoint Robert Jose, associate dean of cultural and spiritual life, to the president’s cabinet

Jose will be promoted to dean for cultural and spiritual life, and will serve as a special advisor to the president on diversity and inclusion. “Dean Jose brings a wealth of experience to this role, most notably a proven track record of working with, and empowering, students of color,” Aoun wrote.

Provide comprehensive support for Black students.

“A message I have heard repeatedly in recent weeks is that our Black students, in particular, need to receive better student support. They must feel valued, included, and safe at their university,” Aoun wrote. To that end, he charged Madigan and Henderson to recruit and retain academic advisors, co-op coordinators, career coaches, and healthcare professionals whose expertise better reflects the lived experience of Black students.

Institute cultural competency and anti-racism training across the university

The training will focus on raising awareness of conscious and unconscious bias among every member of the Northeastern community through “cultural and racial literacy,” in order to continue the work of eradicating such bias.

Deepen and broaden the university’s engagement in the communities in which its campuses sit

Aoun asked Martin and Tom Nedell, treasurer and senior vice president for finance, to lead the university’s efforts to be more embedded in the communities surrounding its campuses. “Whether it be educational programs for local youth or strengthening ties with minority-owned businesses, we can and must do more,” he wrote.

Promote the recruitment and advancement of people of color

The university will team up with its robust network of industry employers to develop the best strategies for recruiting people from under-represented groups. Aoun charged Madigan, Henderson, and the university’s academic deans with developing a specific plan to do so.

Aoun wrote that university leaders will provide “regular updates” on Northeastern’s progress along each of the above actions.

“Let us continue to work together toward these shared goals,” he wrote. “Our efforts will do more than transform a single institution. Through the impact of our mission, we will also contribute to a more just and equitable world.”

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