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Board of Trustees hold open forum to address racist comments with community

By Branden LaCroix

Interim News Editor

The Board of Trustees held an open forum Oct. 24 for the FSU community to discuss the racist comments made at the Sept. 13 and 14 subcommittee meetings by Chair Kevin Foley and former Trustee Mike Grilli.

The meeting was an opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to discuss their concerns directly with the Board of Trustees.

[Editor’s Note: See “Community outraged following comments at Trustee subcommittee meetings” in the Sept. 23 issue of The Gatepost.]

The session was attended by President Nancy Niemi, Chair Kevin Foley, Vice Chair Beth Casavant, Trustees Nancy Budwig, Anthony Hubbard, Clair Ramsbottom, Student Trustee McKenzie Ward, and Trustee Emeritus Robert Richards. Trustees Lino Covarrubias, Diane Finch, and Mariel Freve attended via Zoom.

English Professor Kelley Matthews mediated the discussion.

Matthews said the special session was requested in a letter signed by 104 faculty and staff members. She added the special session was called “to be a conversation about anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at Framingham State, and how the Board of Trustees can learn, grow and support the FSU community in these efforts.”

She said, “We strongly hope that tonight will be the beginning of a process of reconciliation after what has occurred.”

The session began with introductions of the board members, followed by a series of questions submitted to the board ahead of time, followed by the discussion opening up to the attendees, and finally ending with “paired discussions” between attendees.

Matthews said the submitted questions were compiled from a survey sent out by Wardell Powell, interim chief diversity inclusion officer.

During introductions, Foley said he had had more time to “reflect” on the incident as he was “the one that had questioned the anti-racism term,” which he regrets “completely.”

He said, “I have undertaken a lot of learning and researching and understanding,” adding as an alumnus of FSU who “has been very involved with this campus for a number of years,” he has been “part of the desire to improve and make sure we are an inclusive campus.”

One question for the Board of Trustees was what each member of the board had done outside their roles on the board to “become an anti-racist.”

Vice Chair Casavant said as vice chair of the Shrewsbury Select Board, she created a “standing DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] committee” in Shrewsbury following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

She said the committee formed a “task force” which created a report “looking at all of the different policies and procedures in our community - from education, to policing, to housing, to health care - to try to determine ways that we can do better as a town.”

SGA President Dara Barros attended the session and asked the board members more specifically about what they have done directly in response to the incidents in September.

She said she is not interested in what actions the board has taken in the past, but is interested in what they are doing “right now in the present.”

She said the comments made at the two subcommittees in September “hurt many, many students - including myself - and no one reached out to any of the students, especially the trustee that said these comments.”

Barros added, “No one wants performative action. We want affirmative action.”

Foley said he “had to have a look at defining what is anti-racism,” and added he has spoken with colleagues who are helping educate him.

Trustee Hubbard said there have been multiple “one-on-one” conversations between trustees regarding how to “turn a negative set of circumstances into something positive.”

He said, “Beth [Casavant] had said that this is likely to happen again,” adding they discussed “how the University could put something in place to deal with those kinds of situations that they turn into a positive.”

Student Trustee Ward said, “I'm in a very awkward position where I know I have equal voting rights as everyone else on the board, but it's also still in that student role,” adding she regrets “not knowing how to call in at the moment.”

She said over the past few months, she has been educating herself not only on “calling out racism,” but educating others about it as well.

“As a trustee, I want to make sure that no matter what board I'm on, it reflects the same values that I have,” she said.

Trustee Budwig said she was “appalled” that reaching out to students after the incident did not occur to her.

She said she is “thinking about how to better educate the board.

“I feel like my responsibility is how do I make sure other people are prepared for this? How do I make sure that my colleagues here understand what this means in an educational setting?” she said.

Trustee Freve said she believes it is “critical” not to only talk about training. “I come from a corporate environment. We do those all the time. … That is not the same conversation we’re looking to have here,” she said.

Freve said it is more important to “have discussions that make us uncomfortable, but that also keep us accountable to each other” when inappropriate comments are made. “I think that that's really what we need to be working on here,” she added.

Barros also raised a concern over the lack of communication between the board and the FSU community, mainly students not knowing exactly what the Board of Trustees does.

“A lot of the students don't know who the Board of Trustees are, what the Board of Trustees does, and the type of decisions that the Board of Trustees make for us,” she said.

Biology Professor Cara Pina said she is tired of the responsibility of addressing issues of racism on campus being left solely to BIPOC students and staff.

She said the fallout from the incidents in September were “about more than just hurt feelings.

“As a faculty member of color, I have sat in meetings with other faculty members of color that we have had to convene in our spare time to fix problems because no one else is fixing them,” she said.

“When this happens, it's more than just people having hurt feelings. It's people wasting energy. It’s people being poorly treated. It's people not getting their work done because they're busy doing other people's work. It's people who are constantly in meetings, trying to talk amongst ourselves to figure out how to get things done,” she added.

“There is nobody thinking about, ‘Well, what might the Black faculty members be experiencing? What might the faculty members of color be experiencing? What might the students of color be experiencing?’” she said. “So this is far more than just people are hurt by the statement. I will tell you I was very hurt by the statement. I personally felt like I was not a valued educator here at FSU.”

Foley said, “Thank you for the efforts and the comments,” adding the board was “not aware” of the issues she had raised.

Pina said the board being unaware is part of the problem. “You don't know how many hours we're spending sitting in these meetings trying to solve these problems, but we're doing it and it takes a lot of our time,” she said.

Ward said she has similar concerns regarding the board’s lack of awareness.

“It really makes me question if this is part of the reason why we're not able to retain our faculty of color who are doing so much work because I see it constantly, and I see it from all of you,” she said.

Barros said it was “extremely disrespectful” to hear Foley and the board are unaware of “the work that every single faculty member and staff [of color] does on this campus to make sure that the students of color feel comfortable.”

SGA Secretary Mark Haskell asked what steps the board could take to “heal” its relationship with the FSU community.

Trustee Ramsbottom said she suggests “opportunities for real dialogue” and to “create some space for the hard conversations.

“We need to be in dialogue with you and we need to understand the issues for this community and how they're manifested here and what do you need from the board to help with that?” she said.

Bridgette Sheridan, history professor and interim faculty union president, said she agrees and added attending events on campus would be a “great way” for the board to learn more about the students and faculty.

Barros suggested the board also reach out to SGA as well as hold a forum similar to the Administrators’ Forum held every semester.

She said, “I really want this to be for students because students need to learn what the Board of Trustees are, what they do, and the decisions that they make.”

One of the questions submitted concerned the types of training the members of the board, as well as FSU staff and faculty, undergo for learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Foley said the board has spoken with a consultant to “navigate and develop a curriculum” for DEI training for board members, including a full-day session followed by periodic training.

He added, “We want to make sure it’s not a one-and-done,” and “we want to make sure there’s ongoing education.”

Kim Dexter, assistant vice president of human resources and equal opportunity, said FSU provides elective, online DEI training for new hires, referring to it as “passive training.”

She said, “Passive training is not necessarily the gold standard, but it’s a way to get it in front of everyone.”

She added, “But it is elective, so we know that not everybody does participate.”

Dexter said FSU does host multiple programs on DEI, and added FSU is a member of the Leading for Change Racial Equity and Justice Institute (REJI).

REJI is housed at Bridgewater State University and “is a voluntary collaboration of institutions committed to racial educational equity,” according to the University’s website.

Dexter said, “We’ve been making sure that all community members are aware of and invited to all their virtual convenings each month.”

Sheridan said the Center for Excellence, Learning, Teaching, Scholarship, and Service also offers optional DEI training, and added FSU is a member of National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD).

According to the NCFDD website, the NCFDD is “an independent professional development, training, and mentoring community of faculty, postdocs, & graduate students from over 450 colleges and universities.”

Trustee Budwig said in 2020, all board members “from around the state” had to undergo training for “open meeting law, public records law, conflict of interest laws, procurement laws, state finance provisions under Chapter 29, fraud prevention, [and] fiduciary responsibilities,” but nothing for DEI.

She said, “We have a higher ed problem … and no one should have to go through what this campus has gone through.”

Trustee Hubbard said Carlos E. Santiago, former commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts, “recently” began “rolling out” statewide DEI training for all trustees of state universities.

[Editor’s Note: McKenzie Ward is Opinions Editor for The Gatepost and Mark Haskell is a staff writer.]



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