The last time Wendy Smooth witnessed an uproar on Ohio State’s campus as momentous as the events occurring now came in 2012 after Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black man, was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, while walking home with a bag of Skittles in hand.
“The university came out really strong at that moment,” Smooth, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion for the College of Arts and Sciences, said. “Our own Hale Center was vandalized with hate speech. There was a huge university outpouring in response.”
Smooth, along with staff and faculty members from other colleges at Ohio State, is devising a course of action to address the ongoing protests following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans by police. Each college that spoke with The Lantern sent messages or statements to students about the unrest and are in the process of developing plans moving forward.
Representatives from the colleges agreed that dialogue with others is not enough to remedy the centuries of racism that afflicts black communities; however, it’s an important place to start.
“Like other colleges, we are at the beginning of what is going to have to be a long process,” Amy Fairchild, dean of the College of Public Health, said. “It’s not an answer, but any effort to begin to think forward requires an acknowledgement of the tragedy, not just at this moment, but of the past 400 years.”
Smooth, who sent a message on the matter to students in the College of Arts and Sciences June 1, said that if the university community doesn’t first acknowledge the trauma students are experiencing, as well as the resources students can use to address that trauma, it won’t be equipped to organize meaningful, action-oriented plans to effect change.
Several resources provided to students by various colleges include Counseling and Consultation Services, Buckeye Peer Access Line, Collegiate Recovery Community as well as the Ohio State Wellness app.
“From a personal level, I was dealing with extraordinary stress and anxiety in that moment, and so thinking about well, you know, how do we make sure everyone has what they need to at least navigate in the immediate moment?” Smooth said.
Kathleen Hallihan, diversity officer for the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, said that with collaboration from student leaders, she and fellow faculty members distributed a survey to every student in the college to gather feedback as to what the college can do to further address students’ needs and garner ideas for future actions.
“We want to know what people are thinking and feeling; we want ideas,” Hallihan said. “And we want to be partners with our students and engage in these constructive dialogues.”
Over at the College of Engineering, David Tomasko, associate dean for undergraduate education and student services for the college, said that crafting the right message surrounding such an emotional and heavy topic is challenging, especially during a pandemic and over the summer when many engineering students are not enrolled in courses.
“We need to then work on ways that we can appropriately reach out to the students without just kind of sending a blanket email because … it’s so difficult to get a really heartfelt tone across an email.” Tomasko said.
To better understand the needs of students, the College of Engineering hosted a virtual meeting Friday to listen to faculty, staff and students, Donnie Perkins, chief diversity officer for the College of Engineering, said.
“We see it as an opportunity to hear people out, create a safe space for them to share their thoughts, concerns and points of view because we think that is important,” Perkins said. “I think everyone wants an opportunity to be heard.”
Both Tomasko and Perkins said they hope this opportunity will bring further discussion of the humanities into Ohio State engineering courses, where often there is a “disconnect” between the technical field of engineering and worldly events that impact the emotions and livelihood of its students.
“Engineering as a discipline and as a practice should be a leader in this space, should open its culture and practices to bring in greater humanity, bring in greater history, history of all groups’ contributions to the discipline,” Perkins said. “We need some self-examination, self-assessment, because I think the students today require that and demand that.”
Although people’s specific forms of activism look different — as not everyone has the ability to protest or donate to various organizations — Smooth said all students have the ability to reflect upon what their majors are training them to do and how they can use that training in relation to the current moment.
“There are all kinds of ways that we can bring this moment into the classroom as a critical thinking space and help us think in all kinds of ways about issues that are impacting communities locally and around the globe,” Smooth said.
Like the College of Engineering, Smooth said she encourages professors to incorporate the history of racial oppression and ongoing challenges into lesson plans, regardless of the field or discipline, not only for the sake of students’ emotional wellbeing but also to ensure a more equitable and just future.
“Stress can impact learning and we know that for sure, if we’re creating the most engaging learning environments for our students, that we have to recognize the fullness and the multi-dimensional aspects of student life and student experience,” she said.
For instance, in the College of Public Health, Fairchild said she stresses the importance of examining the intersection between racism and what’s taught in public health classes — and that racism must be viewed as a public health crisis.
People of color are not only disproportionately dying from COVID-19, but also from police brutality, she said.
The College of Public Health plans to host a town hall in the near future to not only address the “slow burning catastrophe that is racism,” but also to speak with students and members of the community about how the discipline of public health can be used to initiate change, Fairchild said.
“How do we take the steps to make sure that our voices — when we speak with the kind of authority we have — are not just echoing in the pages of journals but are shaping the public conversation?” Fairchild said. “How do we think of ourselves as evidence stewards, making sure that policymakers, that decision makers have access to the evidence they understand?”
At the Fisher College of Business, faculty and staff members plan to host a series of forums to analyze ways the college can address the barriers students of color face — both outside of Ohio State as well as within the college itself, Cynthia Turner, assistant dean and chief diversity officer for the Fisher College of Business, said in an email.
“To fully support the needs of our students of color, it also requires both a willingness to identify and scrutinize all of the current policies and practices (internally and externally) that lead to racial disparities among our students and a commitment to work towards changing them,” Turner said.
Ultimately, Smooth envisions a future at Ohio State where a “trigger” like Floyd’s death is not the only time in which faculty and staff check in on students and devise courses of action to prevent similar events in the future.
“All of this requires diligence and continued commitment,” Smooth said. “I don’t want any of us to use all that we have in our energy in this current week and not think about it as a long term investment in moving our world forward.”
After Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, the university established a task force named “No Place for Hate,” to create both short- and long-term goals for Ohio State, including the creation of Bias Assessment and Response Team, or BART, the Public Safety Hate Crime Alert, and increased efforts to recruit and retain students of color, Smooth said.
Reminiscing on that grim piece of Ohio State history, Smooth said she is hopeful that the way in which students have come together to protest, donate and speak up will generate change.
Like Smooth, Fairchild urges the Ohio State community to continue using their voices for change because “when the sense of outrage fades, the sense of collective vulnerability fades; the energy of decision makers or leaders begins to wither and die,” she said.
“We can address this, this original sin of our nation and envision and not cease until we get to the point where we or another generation says, you know, ‘That was part of the past,’ and we have a more just, equitable society now in which racism is not a fundamental cause of disease, of disparity, of inequity,” Fairchild said.