382 faculty draft letter demanding USC’s commitment to concrete plans addressing racial inequality

More than 380 faculty members, along with the faculty councils of the Rossier School of Education, the School of Cinematic Arts and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, sent a letter Wednesday criticizing USC’s plans to address systemic racism and anti-Blackness. The letter, which was sent to President Carol Folt, Provost Charles Zukoski, Academic Senate President Paul Adler and Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso, calls on USC to commit to a variety of concrete actions and plans, which include reforming police practices, hiring and retaining diverse faculty and supporting Black students.

Folt responded to recent national events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the killing of George Floyd in letters sent to the University community in June. 

“We appreciate President Folt’s communication with the university community,” Wednesday’s faculty letter read. “We believe, however, these proposals fall dramatically short of what is needed at USC. Other peer institutions such as UCLA and Stanford have announced much more robust actions and plans for change.”

Previous letters from University administrators also addressed USC’s internal confrontation of anti-Blackness after hundreds of testimonies from Black students, faculty, staff and alumni detailing microaggressive and racist experiences were shared on the Instagram page @black_at_usc.

“We have read hundreds of moving testimonies from our students and staff members on the Black_at_USC Instagram account about their experience of racism on campus,” the letter read, critiquing Folt’s initiative to survey students about such experiences. “Our students do not need to further educate us on their experience; they need our active support through material change to USC’s campus structures and culture.”

Concerned Faculty of USC, a group of more than 500 staff and faculty members, created the Subcommittee on Racial Justice, led by SCA associate professor Laura Isabel Serna, following national protest over Floyd’s death and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. 

“This is such a moment of opportunity for leadership and for there really to be fundamental, material change at USC,” Serna said. “And some gestures like the Von KleinSmid center name being removed are great first steps, and we are really conscious that we can do more, and that the faculty can support students in their struggle and demand for changes.”

Ariela Gross, John B. and Alice R. Sharp professor of law and history and Concerned Faculty chair, said the letter was a collaborative effort from the organization that recognized the need for faculty to take substantive action in demanding change from Folt and other administrators.

“We had come up with six … points that we wanted to push them harder on,” Gross said. “Why weren’t they taking a stronger stand on racial justice?”

USC announced it would be conducting interviews with and fielding recommendations from Black members of the campus community, surveying the University using the National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates and providing equity, diversity and inclusion learning opportunities for USC employees.

“Creating task forces, adding more administrators and new bureaucracies, holding listening sessions, surveying students, and requiring corporate-style trainings have thus far failed to yield substantive change, as the USC culture survey already undertaken suggests,” the letter read. 

Most recently, the University announced that the search for its first Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer is underway. The letter said that while faculty value the added position to Folt’s cabinet, faculty and students should be involved in the national search.

“We were appalled that, given USC’s nationally ranked program in American Studies and Ethnicity, no senior faculty from that department, let alone any faculty member from Dornsife, USC’s largest unit, has been appointed to the search committee,” the letter read.

The faculty urged USC to commit to a more “robust” plan to combat racism, eliminate sources of harm to the Black community and commit to creating a more equitable experience for all underrepresented students. Recently, the University removed the name and bust of Rufus B. von KleinSmid, USC’s fifth president and a known eugenicist, from the Center for International and Public Affairs. However, Gross said that is only one of many concrete steps that USC needs to take.

“To me what was disappointing in the last message was, a kind of what [it] feels like, kind of kicking the can down the road,” Gross said. “They’ll hold listening sessions and survey the community and really spend a year on gathering information, and what struck me is that anyone with an Instagram account can gather those testimonies … We don’t have a shortage of knowledge about the kind of harms people are experiencing.”

@black_at_usc also details racist experiences students have faced from professors. Gross said that while administrators have plenty of work to do in addressing these issues, internal reflection and reckoning also must come from faculty.

“That’s long overdue, but at least we can take advantage of this moment and use the momentum we have to try and make that kind of change,” Gross said. “And still some of that also has to happen at the level of the student body, and fraternities and sororities — there was a lot in there as well about student culture.”

The letter also calls on USC to focus on efforts of inclusivity and diversity in the context of student mental health — outlining the need to hire diverse health providers, recruit professionals focused on trauma caused by racism and focus on the health and well-being of students in the recently formed United Black Student-Athletes Association.

Additionally, the letter outlined steps for addressing concerns of racial profiling, funding and harmful practices within the Department of Public Safety. DPS has an annual budget of $49 million, nearly two and a half times that of UCLA Police Department and more than double the University of California, Berkeley Police Department. The letter urges USC to redirect 25% of DPS’ budget to initiatives that will make underrepresented students and community members feel safer on campus.

“We ask that DPS cease immediately the practice of racial profiling,” the letter read. “We know from students’ own accounts that this practice is prevalent and harmful. We ask that data on DPS interactions with civilians, including information on the race of officers and civilians in the interaction, be collected and regularly disclosed to the public.”

Faculty also call on USC to investigate alternative ways to deal with cases of sexual assault and mental health and wellness checks, in addition to demanding that the University terminate its partnership with LAPD.

“By a conservative estimate, the LAPD has killed 601 civilians since 2012, 80% of them Black or Latinx,” the letter read. “The Department’s record on the use of force is notably unacceptable when compared to that of other, larger police forces.”

Faculty also addressed calls for USC to revise its General Education diversity requirement to better reflect the intersectional nature of race and racism. As a part of this proposed change, faculty asked the provost’s office to create a grant program that rewards faculty, departments and programs that reevaluate their curriculums to include these issues and adopt anti-racist teaching practices.

Issues of anti-Blackness are also a large concern with the hiring and retention of Black faculty. At USC, approximately 3% of all faculty are Black and Black professors make up 5% of tenured and tenure-track faculty. The letter asked the University to waive the school’s hiring freeze — which was put in place following the outbreak of the coronavirus — in order to hire 10 scholars with expertise in Black studies.

“One of the things I remember reading in the @black_at_usc Instagram was … Black students saying that they had never had a Black professor,” Serna said. “And we really need to do a better job of not only recruiting faculty of color, specifically Black faculty, but also retaining them.”

Gross also discussed the extra burden faculty of color, and specifically Black faculty, face at predominantly white institutions. Black faculty at USC have to teach and research, in addition to doing the institutional work, being student mentors and serving on committees, among other jobs, she said. 

“We have had a terrible, terrible record of tenuring faculty of color, especially women of color — a really shocking record if you look over 25 years,” Gross said. “That’s a problem at the top, and so an initiative to say we commit to hiring is just the beginning, clearly. Because that doesn’t guarantee that when people get here we won’t perpetuate the same problem, but it’s a start. And you have to start.”

The letter also calls on USC to create an institutional space for Black studies, called the Black Studies Center, in line with similar initiatives at Stanford and UCLA. The center would create graduate and undergraduate fellowships and programs focused on the study of African American and African culture, societies and politics.

“We want to nurture Black intellectual life and Black studies, and to ask USC to take that commitment seriously, even in this moment of austerity that all of us are living through,” Serna said. “We acknowledge that this is a really stressful and distinct moment for all universities, not just USC.”

Faculty members concluded the letter with a call for USC to specifically address issues of community health in Project Restart, the University’s planning initiative for the fall semester amid the pandemic and in accordance with public health guidelines. The letter specifically demands that Project Restart address actions USC will take to assist workers of color, who are at the highest risk during the fall semester, and to give PPE, testing and paid sick leave provisions for employees.

“USC’s Project Restart should take into consideration the reality of longstanding structural inequities stemming from systemic racism that have resulted in poorer health outcomes and higher mortality rates for members of the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter read. “Our University cannot claim to stand for racial justice at the same time that it puts its multiracial workforce at risk.” 

This story was updated on July 9 at 11:41 a.m. to reflect additional comment from professor Laura Isabel Serna.