Community outraged following comments at Trustee subcommittee meetings

Board of Trustees chair apologizes, vows renewed focus on anti-racism



photo of Kevin foley
Leighah Beausoleil / THE GATEPOST

By Leighah Beausoleil

Editor-in-Chief


Board of Trustees Chair Kevin Foley and Trustee Mike Grilli made comments during subcommittee meetings last week that were deemed “deeply offensive,” according to President Nancy Niemi in a community-wide email Sept. 16.


The first instance occurred during the Academic Affairs Subcommittee meeting Sept. 13, according to Niemi in an interview.


During this meeting, Kristen Porter-Utley, provost and vice president of academic affairs, who chairs the subcommittee, gave a presentation on her goals for the year, according to Niemi.


One of the “pillars” of her goals was advancing the University’s mission to become an anti-racist institution, Niemi said.


Foley “questioned whether or not the term ‘anti-racism’ was the best use of the term or could it be stated more positively - like inclusiveness or equity,” she said.


Niemi explained Porter-Utley’s response to this comment. “She stated that this was a specific term that referred to a whole theory and practice of the way we behave when we're trying to become an institution, or an organization, that works to improve and get rid of racism and to make an equitable institution.”


The second instance occurred during the Enrollment and Student Development Subcommittee meeting Sept. 14, according to Niemi.


The enrollment report was presented by Niemi, and in reference to the loss of approximately 1,000 white women over the last few years, Grilli made an “inappropriate” remark regarding the actor Jussie Smollett, she said.


In 2019, Smollett falsely reported a hate crime that he had staged.


“There is a lot of context around that - none of which got discussed at the meeting,” Niemi said. “It came out just like that or worse and he's made that comment in other venues.


“It could have been taken any number of ways, not the least of which was that any racism was just made up - that racism wasn't real,” she added. “Making reference to that not only made no sense, but that made it really offensive to many of us, including myself.”


The Sept. 16 email sent by Niemi informed faculty, staff, and students about the comments.


“I write today to strongly reaffirm the University’s commitment to equity and anti-racism, two ideals that I view as central to our mission,” Niemi stated in the email.


She referenced Framingham State’s history in regard to anti-racism efforts. In the 1840s, Principal Samuel J. May “threatened to resign if Mary Miles Bibb was not admitted to the school.


“Bibb would graduate in 1843 and go on to become one of the first African American female teachers on the continent,” Niemi added.


In regard to the trustees who made the comments, she said they “have since reflected on their words, addressed the comments, and committed to furthering their education on the significance and importance of our anti-racism stance.”


Shortly following this email, the community received a second email sent on behalf of Foley.

In this email, Foley stated, “My comment regarding the term anti-racism was not meant to be critical of the efforts that I have long supported. My intent was to consider a change in the terminology to fit with our strategic brand efforts and reflect a positive connotation.”


He added, “If I expressed myself poorly and offended anyone then I truly regret that and sincerely apologize.”


Foley said he had spoken to Grilli, who “regrets these hurtful statements.”


In an interview, Foley said he was “appalled” by Grilli’s comments and that he “chastised him” privately.


Foley discussed his own comments made at the Sept. 13 meeting. “I was coming in from a different angle. I'm not part of academia, so I'm not familiar enough with some of the terms.


“So, my bad, you know, completely,” he said. “I've already taken some steps to both reflect and to also educate myself, as well.”


At the Sept. 21 Board of Trustees meeting, Foley reaffirmed his commitment, along with that of his Board members, toward Framingham State’s anti-racism mission, adding this “experience” is an opportunity to “learn and grow.”


Foley said the apology he made in his email the week prior was not enough.


“I want to reiterate my apologies for these situations,” Foley said. “I sincerely express my regrets to all those who are offended by my comment questioning the use of this term.”


Therefore, Foley announced three commitments he and the Board have made to become more educated on diversity, equity, and inclusion.


He said he will hire a consultant to hold an anti-racism educational training session for the entire Board. This will take place within the next 90 days.


“Secondly, in addition, we will work with the administration to schedule periodic educational updates for the Board and what that looks like,” he said. “We could have a peak portion of each of every other Board meeting specifically dedicated to them.”


Foley added he has communicated with Board of Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago, who has agreed to join the November Board meeting.


Santiago will discuss the “strategic initiative for racial equity proposed for Massachusetts higher education,” he said.


Grilli did not attend the Sept. 21 Board meeting due to “personal reasons,” according to Niemi.


Though Grilli said he was willing to be interviewed about his remarks at the subcommittee meeting, he did not make himself available before The Gatepost’s publication deadline.


The Board moved the public comment portion of the meeting to the beginning for the faculty, staff, and students who came to speak out against Foley’s and Grilli’s comments.


Sociology Professor Benjamin Alberti said a letter of concern that was put together by members of the faculty and staff had been sent to the Trustees earlier in the day. The letter currently has 104 faculty and staff signatures.


“We're here today to emphasize the gravity of the crisis this has provoked,” Alberti said. “Our community is hurt, sad, angry, and outraged.”


He added, “We would like to highlight that it is especially concerning that the chair allowed and contributed to a culture of blatant racism.”


Alberti said, “Many of our community members have reacted to these comments by calling for the resignation of Mike Grilli and Kevin [Foley].”


The letter concludes with a list of demands they expect a response to by Sept. 28, he said.


These demands include a meeting between the Board and faculty, staff, and students; for the Board to participate in anti-bias and anti-racism training; and for there to be more Black, Indigenious, and people of color on the Board, according to Alberti.


He noted this letter had been written prior to Foley’s announcements at the start of the meeting.


Approximately 11 students came to the meeting, standing in a line at the back of the room while members of SGA spoke.


Raffi Elkhoury, vice president of SGA, read aloud Former President F. Javier Cevallos’ email that originally announced FSU’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution in 2020.


“We ask all members of our community to reflect on the historic, racist policies and actions of our country and the bias created by them,” he read. “With this knowledge, our community will actively work together to ensure the physical and psychological safety and success of our community members of color, especially our Black community.”


Dara Barros, president of SGA, said she was attending the meeting to represent the student body as an elected leader. She read aloud a letter members of SGA had written.


“We are tired of emails with no affirmative action,” Barros said. “There was a lack of accountability from the trustees that said these comments as well as those that remain silent and continue to do so.”


She said a member of the trustees has “allegedly” stated there has only been one incident of racism at FSU.


“I was attending FSU prior to the commitment to being an anti-racist University,” Barros said. “From my second week on this campus back in 2019, I myself have seen and experienced racism - I still do to this day. My experience and the experience of all students of color at FSU has been invalidated by the alleged comments by the Board of Trustees member.”


Barros requested Foley “identify” why he associates a negative connotation with the term “anti-racism.”


In regard to FSU’s branding, she added, “If a student does not want to come to FSU, because they are against anti-racism, we don't want them here.”


During her report to the trustees, Niemi said, “We need to work together to talk, to listen, to act, to be educated, and to remember that the arc of change bends towards justice, but not without strong currents as well as deep ebbs and flows.”


She added she came to work at FSU in part because of its commitment to anti-racism.


“I know that I'm fully committed to this work, but make no mistake: it is very, very hard,” she said. “We need to refocus on diversity, equity, and inclusive practices, knowing that our advances in policy, curriculum, practice, and enrollment and admissions mean that we will need to continuously hold ourselves accountable to the ways in which we are called to meet the needs of our Framingham communities.”


Later on in the meeting, following the Student-in-the-Spotlight presentation, Alumni Trustee Diane Finch made a statement both Barros and Student Trustee McKenzie Ward have declared to be racist.


When discussing FSU’s mission to become an anti-racist institution, Finch said, “I am continuing to learn to be a non-racist because I have a daughter-in-law now whose parents grew up in Nigeria and she's Nigerian, and so therefore, it took a lot for me to deal with that.”


In an interview, Barros said Finch should not have taken time away from the Student-in-the-Spotlight, “especially to make comments that are embedded with racism.”


She added, “Therefore, the Board should have been training way before this incident. We committed to anti-racism two years ago. Why didn't they also commit to the education and guidelines stated by the previous president?”


Ward said she was “taken aback” when she heard Finch’s comment.


“While I believe that Trustee Finch thought her comment was well-intended, many students were offended, including myself,” she added.


Ward said, “Sometimes when we speak and hurt others, we aren’t even aware of it. But once we become aware of the damage we have caused, we need to be concerned with listening, reflecting, apologizing, and committing to do better in the future.”


Niemi said she understands why students are “hurt” by this comment, adding she cannot speak for Finch, “but I imagine that she will want to understand how concerning her comment was, and work to learn about the ways in which our privilege shapes our words and actions.”


She said, “I do believe that based on her other comments during the meeting, she is genuine in her desire to learn more about anti-racism and help Framingham State recommit to being an anti-racist institution. But her comments also underscore just how important it is for the Board to receive further training around these issues and continue to reflect on them on a regular basis.”


Ann McDonald, general counsel and secretary to the Board of Trustees, discussed why the University is limited in its ability to reprimand the Board members who made the comments.

McDonald said all of the Board members, with the exception of two, are appointed by the governor.


The two exceptions are the Student Trustee, a position currently held by senior English and history major McKenzie Ward, and is appointed by the students, and the Alumni Trustee, currently Diane Finch, who is appointed by the Alumni Board, she said.


McDonald said Massachusetts general law states that the only instances when a trustee could be removed is for lack of attendance for approximately three or four meetings and if “they are unable to perform their duties as trustee.”


Though the duties of a trustee are not detailed in the law, McDonald said the Board of Trustees is there to generally serve as a fiduciary board to the University.


Therefore, she said their required training focuses on those aspects of being a Board member.

This training is eight hours long, with each hour covering a different area of their duties, and includes no diversity, inclusion, or equity training, she added.


McDonald said when problems arise with Board members, they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, adding the University is still “processing” what occurred at the subcommittee meetings and has not yet implemented a plan or taken action.


She said Matt Noyes, director of trustee and governmental relations, acts as the “bridge” between the Board and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.


When asked for a response, Noyes said, “The Department of Higher Education has no comment at this time.”


Wardell Powell, interim chief diversity and inclusion officer, said he was “appalled” when he first heard of the comments made by Foley and Grilli.


In regard to the emails sent out following the comments, Powell said he believed Niemi’s was “fine,” but as for Foley’s, “I don’t think it went far enough.”


He highlighted how Foley’s email spoke for Grilli, adding, “It lacks substance.”


Powell said the Board members should “constantly” be “reflecting” on and “examining” their own thoughts, words, and actions as they serve a University with a commitment to anti-racism.


He said in his role, he is working to ensure campus community members have the ability to express their thoughts and feelings regarding the comments and how they were affected by them. He is also ensuring community members have access to resources “to help them heal.”


Powell added, “This is a difficult thing because how do you create trust when you have these events? How do we help the campus community to know that hate has no place?


“We're trying to build trust that the University is committed to anti-racism and then this happens,” he said.


Cara Pina, chair of the Council on Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), said she was not at the subcommittee meeting, but was “surprised that anti-racism was considered a term with a negative connotation and that it is in consideration for removal from [the University’s] branding.”


Pina added, “I think working toward having an anti-racist campus is an excellent goal and supports the inclusivity of all our students, staff, and faculty of color who experience the harm of racism.


“Although CDI does not have the ability to enact policy, we serve as a community forum to gather ideas or concerns and bring them forward and highlight what the community believes is needed,” she said.


Pina said there is no one way or best way to support people of color during moments like these, but it is “important we acknowledge what has happened, make space for those who have been harmed, and ensure FSU is listening to those voices.”


Eric Nguyen, director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence, agrees there is no “one-size-fits-all” way to support campus community members.


Nguyen emphasized the benefits of holding spaces for people to “come together.


“It’s also important to remember that what happened at these meetings are not isolated incidents,” he said. “Things like this happen against the backdrop of systemic racism, and each time something like this happens, the harm is compounded.”


Multiple spaces have been and continue to be held by Powell and various affinity groups to support faculty, staff, and students who were affected by the comments made.


Nguyen said not many students come to these spaces, which worries him.


“My fear is that as students discuss these incidents, however well-intentioned, a vicious game of ‘telephone’ will ensue, in which the message changes and moves farther and farther away from the truth as it makes its way from one person to the next,” he said. “We owe it to our students to be transparent about what has happened, involve them in this process, and solicit their feedback about what they’d like to see happen next.”


Jen Lin, chair of the Employees of Color affinity group, said, “What we need to do is listen to our BIPOC community members and refrain from dismissing their pain, refrain from interrupting or speaking over them, refrain from becoming defensive, and believe them when they share their pain and their truth.”


Lin added she would like to see counselors of color hired for the Counseling Center who have experience and training in helping individuals cope with racial trauma.


“We deserve better,” she said.


Mirari Elcoro, a member of the Employees of Color affinity group, said Niemi’s email was “timely, meaningful and reaffirming,” but Foley’s “lacked sensitivity” and was “not an apology.”


Elcoro highlighted the importance of processing spaces and said the affinity group is organizing a processing session.


“I cannot emphasize enough how hurtful, disruptive, and draining this has been,” she said.


Trustee Beth Casavant said she attended the Sept. 14 subcommittee.


Casavant said she believes the Board of Trustees has “demonstrated a commitment to anti-racism” since she has been a part of it.


“I was taken aback by the comments that I heard on Wednesday [the subcommittee meeting],” she said. “I think it's really important for people to understand that those comments don't represent the Board of Trustees collectively, and they certainly don't represent who we are as a school community - as Framingham State University.”


She added, “We're all still lifelong learners, and I think people are in different places.”


Casavant said though this does not excuse racist comments or systemic racism, she tries to be conscious of how people can be made aware of their mistakes and “continue to grow from the experience.”


Trustee Claire Ramsbottom, the chair of the Enrollment and Student Development Subcommittee, said she believes Grilli’s comments were “misplaced.”


Ramsbottom said she believes Grilli may have been looking at and interpreting data “out of context.”


She added these comments are “distressing” and “I think that we have a commitment from the Board to work on these issues.”


Student Trustee Ward said she attended the Sept. 14 subcommittee meeting.


“I was extremely taken aback as a student, and also as a trustee member,” she said.


Ward said what “stood out” to her at the meeting was how only Niemi and Ramsbottom responded to the comments Grilli made.


She added she is not surprised by the comments made because “I've heard problematic comments from other Board of Trustees members during other meetings.”


Given that these comments have all been made during public meetings, she said she wonders what is being said “behind closed doors.


“If their values aren't aligning with our University values, how well are they truly representing each of our students here at FSU, especially since half of our population is BIPOC?” Ward asked.


She said she does not believe the emails sent following the subcommittee meetings were an “adequate” response, pointing out how Foley’s email used the word “if.”


“It's not an ‘if,’ Chairman Foley. You did hurt and offend people - multiple people in that meeting and multiple people since that meeting,” Ward added.


She said Niemi’s email should have included the names of the two trustees who made the comments.


Concerning Grilli, Ward said, “He has really not taken responsibility or been forced by the University to take responsibility for his comments and actions during this meeting.”


She added Foley stating these trustee members will “educate themselves is not enough.”


Niemi said, “Working toward being an anti-racist organization - toward being a fully equitable, diverse organization, is really hard work, and we have to do it, and we have to trust each other and help each other do it.”


She added, “The work of being anti-racist and being equitable is never finished.”


Resources:


Counseling Center:

Phone: 508-626-4640, Email: counselingcenter@framingham.edu

The Counseling Center page on the framingham.edu website also provides resources for racial trauma and racial justice.

Community members can also visit the Inclusive Excellence page of the website for information on reporting bias, additional online resources, and information on the Council on Diversity and Inclusion. Follow the Center for Inclusive Excellence on Instagram for updates on processing spaces: @framstatecie.

Ramlink lists and provides information on the University’s student affinity groups.

[Editor’s Note: McKenzie Ward is Opinions Editor for The Gatepost.]



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