Author: Scott Jaschik
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Wake Forest University has in recent weeks faced an unusual twist on the debates at many colleges over old yearbook photos showing students posing with Confederate flags. At Wake Forest, first the dean of admissions and then the associate dean of admissions were in February found in separate photos from the 1980s, when they were students at the university, posing in front of the Confederate flag.
Both officials issued apologies. Nathan O. Hatch, the president, said he accepted the apology of Martha Allman, the dean. Some noted that, under Allman, Wake Forest has adopted policies (such as test-optional admissions) that have been credited with diversifying the student body.
But this month, both student and faculty groups have issued statements asking why it took a public protest about the photos (students brought them to an open forum) to prompt Wake Forest to take a public stance. And many question whether the president should have accepted an apology for something that caused great pain to black students. To many on the campus, the fact that these photos were of admissions leaders — people charged with evaluating applications — made the photographs particularly troublesome.
One of four resolutions adopted by an overwhelming vote Tuesday said, “The Wake Forest community has learned that some of the former students pictured in photos containing white supremacist imagery have gone on to become prominent leaders of the Wake Forest University community. We the college faculty condemn the Wake Forest University administration’s response to these revelations thus far as inadequate. We believe that a) the responses offered were delayed to the point of negligence; b) the ongoing silence of college and university leaders is unacceptable; c) the responses are wholly insufficient as apologies, redress for harms done, or commitments to policies and programs that would transform the university; and d) these events are consistent with previous failures by university leaders to address antiblack racism and white supremacy at Wake Forest with the urgency and transparency that they warrant.”
The resolution does not name Allman or the associate dean but goes on to say that their apologies through statements were insufficient. Another resolution adopted Tuesday said, “We also specifically support the importance of a forum … where current administrators who appeared in racist photos as students can offer formal and public apologies. Leaders of the university must take responsibility for the past and for moving us forward in tangible ways.”
The resolutions also applauded the work of the Wake Forest University Anti-Racism Coalition, which has issued a series of demands on how to make the university more inclusive. The group has called for “an explanation” of the administrators’ actions posing in front of the flag as students, and for these actions to be condemned. The student group is also demanding that various buildings on campus be renamed to avoid honoring those who supported white supremacy. A statement from the group says the administration “is more concerned with protecting its reputation than true inclusivity and justice.” (Federal data show that 71 percent of Wake Forest undergraduates are white and 7 percent are black.)
Wake is not a highly political or activist campus, so the faculty vote and the student demands were striking. An editorial in the student newspaper, Old Gold & Black, said, “Hatch should not have stated that he accepted Allman’s apology — an apology that was not directed at him personally, but at the greater community of past and present students of color at Wake Forest. As a white man, Hatch was not personally wronged when Allman and [Kevin] Pittard posed in front of the Confederate flag, and his acceptance of her apology marginalized the feelings of hurt that students of color on campus feel now and have felt in the past.”
Adding to the criticism is that Wake Forest is among the universities that have been caught up in the scandal in which 50 people were indicted and charged in schemes to get wealthy children admitted to Wake Forest and other universities. No evidence has been cited that Wake Forest or the other universities were involved (although some of their coaches were). But the indictments added to scrutiny of admissions practices.
Prior to the faculty vote, Hatch released a statement to students and faculty members on both the national admissions scandal and the debate over the photographs. On the former, he said Wake Forest was working to prevent any abuses of the admissions system.
Of the latter, he wrote, “I am also committed to responding to the undercurrent of doubt that exists at the heart of the national news stories and in the emails I have received: doubt about access, equity and belonging. In recent discussions, Wake Forest students have challenged me to acknowledge and address these issues on our campus.”
He said the university would designate a lounge in a residence hall for use by the Black Student Alliance and redesign diversity education programs that are part of orientation. He also said the university would continue its work to study its history — including ties to slavery and racism — and to consider appropriate steps to take as a result of those findings.
In addition, he said that “training in unconscious bias and other ways to enhance a sense of belonging among all on campus will also be formally incorporated into student leader training, to include student government, fraternity and sorority life, and other student organizations.”
Hatch said he hoped the discussions going on now would contribute to a shift in the campus climate. “We will continue to work hard to diversify our community, building on greater diversity among our students faculty and staff — and to enhance our sense of belonging among all Wake Foresters,” he said.