Why two CMU professors wrote an essay criticizing their school's response to protests against police brutality | Pittsburgh City Paper

Why two CMU professors wrote an essay criticizing their school's response to protests against police brutality

click to enlarge Why two CMU professors wrote an essay criticizing their school's response to protests against police brutality
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Carnegie Mellon University
When events as significant as the May and June protests against police brutality occur, major institutions like universities make public statements to address their community. Carnegie Mellon University released multiple statements addressing the killings and protests, but for some, they read more as risk mitigation than an honest address.

Two Black faculty members, Jason England, a professor of creative writing, and Richard Purcell, a professor of English, felt the university's responses were weak. They published an essay, "Higher Ed’s Toothless Response to the Killing of George Floyd" in The Chronicle of Higher Education, criticizing CMU and other universities' response to the incident.

Purcell, a tenured faculty member who has been at CMU for 12 years, was asked by the dean of Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences to help brainstorm the college's public statement, released on June 5. England, who says he grew up in a "traditionally over-policed community" and has been racially profiled by police throughout his life, was not asked to help with the statement.

"When the statement was released, Rich discovered that the language and editing he had contributed had been eschewed, disregarded," Purcell and England write in their essay.

They go on to write that when CMU released a statement about the acquittal of the police officer who killed Antwon Rose Jr. in 2019, they did not include the word "racism." In the May 30 statement from CMU president Farnam Jahanian, the word "police" is not used. Purcell and England's essay criticizes CMU's statements as acknowledging systemic racism on a broad level while ignoring the problems Black students and staff face at their own institution.

"It feels strange at just about every institution that I work, that administration, and sometimes even faculty members, speak about and to people like me, but not with me, even when I'm in their midst," said England in an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper.

Purcell and England say that the passive language used by CMU — and by other universities, companies, and news outlets — allows the school to address George Floyd's death without naming who and what killed him. The statement from Jahanian, for example, acknowledges "violent and dehumanizing acts of racism across the country" but does not mention connection of these acts to whiteness or law enforcement.

"The language of passivity allows a person to grandstand and to still maintain a moral high ground in their mind, and then they can lecture instead of admitting guilt," says England.

In their essay, England and Purcell write that they are coming from a place of wanting to improve CMU, and wanting the school to act as a leader to its students and faculty.

"We believe we exist within a community to be challenged and nurtured rather than as a brand to be managed," write England and Purcell.

While CMU, like most colleges, is non-profit, it still brings in large sums of money each year through grants, donations, and other funding. In 2017, CMU reported that it brings in over $380 million in research funding every year. Purcell says that when universities make vague statements like the ones in reaction to George Floyd's killing, they are also protecting their donors and funding.

Purcell points out that CMU and other universities often publish research studies about economic and cultural disparities in Black communities, but don't address how that might apply to their own institutions.

"What's so ironic about it is that a lot of the research that has proven the disparity between arrests of Black and whites, or disparity in sentencing, and a lot of the analytical and empirical evidence that we have that we live in a fundamentally racist world, comes out of universities," says Purcell. "The institution itself seems to almost shield itself from the stakes of all of that."

While England and Purcell would like to see their university make stronger and bolder statements, they say that these statements are still only a small part of what the school should do to support and lead its faculty and students.

In a June 8 followup to its May 30 statement, CMU released a second statement from provost Jim Garrett and Gina Casalegno, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, in which they outlined "how CMU is moving forward." The statement announces CMU's search for a Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as the availability of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion as a resource.

The statement also says that CMU received feedback, criticism, and suggestions on their first statement calling for more concrete action.

"In our process of self-reflection, we commit to give all the comments and suggestions we received their due consideration, and to report back to the community on how we will act upon them," reads the June 8 statement.

Purcell says he doesn't see much of a difference between this statement and others the university has made. After they published their essay, England and Purcell received support from faculty and students, but have not heard any response from the administration.

England also says that when the first statement was released, several Black students reached out to him with their frustrations about CMU's response.

"They are experiencing a world that seems to be absolutely antagonizing them at every step, psychologically and physically, and these passive statements do not acknowledge that," says England.

A good university statement, says Purcell, would "be more objective and descriptive in what it is the problem is," but he also wants the university to act instead of just listen.

"[R]esults require money and a financial commitment that I think is really where the rubber hits the road," he says.

Ultimately, England and Purcell hope CMU will act more boldly and concretely to match what they convey in their public statements.

"This isn't [an essay] that was written because we wanted to hurt any of the administration, because we wanted to stick a finger in their eye, or taunt them," says England. "This was a search on our part for kinship. We want to reaffirm and confirm that in fact the faculty does appreciate us and does share these concerns and values that we assume they do."