The University of Southern Maine is taking steps to respond to the death of a black Minneapolis man in police custody last week amid requests by some students of color for the university to take a stand against racism.

University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings Portland Press Herald file photo

In a letter to the community Sunday night, university President Glenn Cummings said the school will expand racial equity training for university police and staff overseeing disciplinary concerns and prioritize scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police is the latest example of a black victim of white police brutality, Cummings said, and comes amid the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected communities of color.

“As a university, USM stands against these injustices,” Cummings wrote. “We make a collective and individual call for accountability and justice. Today, we bear witness to the precarity of black lives, both at the hands of individuals, and at the hands of our systems and policies. Today we are angry, disgusted and saddened.”

The letter goes on to say, “But dismantling this legacy requires more than somber reflection. It requires action.”

Cummings said the university will be requiring all university police personnel as well as all leadership staff in student affairs to complete a two-day course with the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute, which USM has already used for other work with students and staff.

USM will also prioritize philanthropic resources for Promise Scholars and Access to Education, two scholarship programs focused on students of disadvantaged backgrounds, as fundraising priorities.

“Our commitment is to keep moving forward. Hopefully my voice today was a statement of that,” Cummings said in an interview. “We take this really seriously and we’re looking at it. Like many institutions, we have to look at everything we do that gives the message that we are really serious about social justice.”

Cummings’ letter comes after weekend protests in Portland and other cities around the country following Floyd’s death and after a handful of students wrote to Cummings on Sunday asking for the university to take a stand against racism.

“Many students, especially black students feel hurt that USM has not taken a stand when it comes to everything happening to black people in the United States,” wrote one student, Amran Osman. “Many of us have been protesting and have been greatly affected by these issues.”

“USM not speaking up about this issue is concerning to be honest,” wrote another student, Najma Mohamed. “Your silence can be taken for siding with the oppressors, or not caring about the issue at all. These are times where you need to show black students that you are there for them at a time like this!”

Osman, Mohamed and four other students who expressed similar concerns declined to be interviewed Monday. In an email to a reporter Osman said the students are going through a lot emotionally and needed to put their mental health first.

“The climate of the United States today might be uncomfortable for some and they have the privilege to not have to address these issues but these are issues that we as black students face every day and we don’t have that privilege,” Osman said.

In his letter, Cummings said the university will continue to build on other efforts already underway to combat racism and inequity, including a community read and discussion of the book “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram Kendi.

This summer the university will hold its first Antiracist Institute open to 20 faculty and staff members and to be held online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeannine Uzzi said the seminar-style institute was proposed by two faculty members in place of a normally held writing workshop.

“I think we have all learned from recent events around the nation and also from our work at USM that anti-racism is ongoing work and there is no quick and easy approach to addressing problems that are hundreds of years old,” Uzzi said.

“What they proposed was that there are now a significant number of people at USM who have read Kendi’s book, who have gone to the Racial Equity Institute and who are thinking about these things. What they proposed was to provide the next level of experience.”

Those steps also come after students and faculty last summer expressed concerns about USM’s hiring of Kathryn Hawes, who was superintendent in Kennebunk when the district mishandled a black teacher’s complaints about racist incidents.

The university defended Hawes’ hiring following an internal investigation, but concerns about her role overseeing an educational leadership training program resurfaced this spring when leaders in Portland Public Schools said they could not participate in the program so long as she remained involved.

Cummings said Monday that Hawes has accepted a position elsewhere but that he could not comment further on her reasons for leaving the university. 

In a separate email to students who raised concerns Sunday about whether the university would respond to Floyd’s death, Cummings thanked them for speaking up.

“This is, indeed, a time for you to feel the full support of your university,” he said. “Please know that you are not alone. We will do whatever is in our power to bring our entire university family closer – and for all to feel welcomed and supported.”

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