On March 4, University President Mark Nemec Ph.D. sent an email out to the University community after he thought “about and [reflected] upon the campus presentation of our Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Narrative.”
This event took place on March 1 and was reported in the Mirror, which featured the responses of students and faculty present at the event. The event, though it was planned in the Fall 2021 semester, took place just days after the Mirror broke the news that University administration directed the removal of a Black Lives Matter flag from the front window of the office of the Counseling & Psychological Services.
In his message, Nemec states “the work of making a more just, inclusive and compassionate community is difficult.”
He continues by mentioning that this work “compels each of us as individuals to reflect on our own experience of being included or excluded, heard or ignored, and how we impact the experiences of others.”
Nemec then goes on to state “I am deeply sorry people are upset and I regret that my remarks while intended to advance the conversation have caused pain.”
He continues that “…this moment resurfaced deep wounds in our community that call for healing. However, it is also a moment of reflection, and a call for all of us to continue our important work.”
In his response, President Nemec referenced both the Ignatian tradition and Pope Francis stating, “we can engage in this work, including its painful conversations, because we are members of the Ignatian family.” He further states that as inheritors of the Ignatian tradition, “we believe that each one of us has a unique, God-given personhood that is striving for realization and fulfillment.”
Moreover, Nemec referenced “…as Pope Francis says, racism is a sin, and will not be tolerated at Fairfield.”
Nemec also mentioned a new proposal that will be made by the co-chairs of the Presidential Working Group on Inclusive Excellence alongside representatives on campus, “That clearly specifies how we will move to the next phase of the initiatives outlined in the Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Narrative.”
Additionally, on March 7, students received an email from the Office of the Dean of Students signed by Dean of Students William Johnson, Ph.D. in which the subject line read “Reflection on the Past Two Weeks.”
Dean Johnson expressed that he had various conversations with faculty and acquaintances. He acknowledged that none of the conversations were easy.
However “as frustrating as the circumstances may have been […] I found myself being inspired by the commitment of so many people on our campus — students and employees, to make Fairfield a more welcoming community for all.”
Johnson also directs students to read “Academic Policies and General Regulations” of the Academic Catalog, which notes “while free expression exists, it is not without limitations.”
Johnson continues to state that “respect is a principal element of free expression. Free expression cannot threaten the safety or security of others, and must comply with all University policies including, but not limited to, those prohibiting harassment, hate crimes, and discrimination.”
He also acknowledged the members of the student body who have acted to “let their voices be heard.” He mentioned during his own personal reflection, “as the dean of students I must do a better job of creating spaces for this to occur.”
Johnson then closed his email stating, “Black Lives Matter.”
Both students and faculty have expressed their reactions to the two emails sent, reflecting upon the different administrators’ responses.
Junior Aliyah Seenauth, the Fairfield University Student Association vice president-elect and current assistant director of FUSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Board stated that she at first glance saw Nemec’s email and hoped to see the statement Black Lives Matter or “simply the word ‘Black’ in general.”
When she did not see either written, however, she “knocked [herself] over for having hope in him.”
Seenauth says that while Nemec gave an apology in his email, “He did the minimum he could have possibly done,” continuing that “It’s as if he’s afraid to say the word ‘Black.’”
“I feel he’s had many opportunities at this point to prove himself as someone who cares for us students of color, but at this point all of the wrong things are said,” she added, continuing on to say that the apology “felt lazy.”
Seenauth continued that Johnson is someone who has “been there for me and has been a vital part in my time at Fairfield thus far.”
And that, “as a student of color, the culture shock of starting here made it hard to find people I can trust. Luckily, Dean Johnson became a person I can look up to.”
She said his email filled her with joy and “it felt as if it was alongside us.”
Seenauth says she doesn’t want this conversation to end or be forgotten when students return from spring break, and states that “keeping the dialogue going and continuing to foster a safe environment here is necessary.”
Junior Eden Marchese, FUSA director of diversity and inclusion, echoed Seenauth, stating that, “The email sent out by Mark Nemec is nowhere near an ‘apology’ and was another attempt to silence student voices so that he could keep the culture of racism and hate on campus.”
They continued that instead of Nemec taking the time to reflect on his statements at the “Community in Action” event, “he chose to half-heartedly pretend to apologize.”
“If Mark Nemec truly cared about the harm he was bringing to the students at this University, he would understand that he needs to stop talking and listen,” Marchese added, continuing that, “The kind of email that Nemec sent is by someone who is clearly upset they got caught in their racism and whose anger comes from not being able to sweep it under the rug like he thought he could. Nemec has only proved he is incapable of being a person for others, he is only a person for himself and the money he can make off his time in power.”
Marchese praised Johnson’s email, stating, “Dean Johnson’s email was incredible and spoke to everything the students have been pushing for.”
“Many students that I spoke with were relieved that someone finally said ‘Black Lives Matter’ from the administration, and I do not think Dean Johnson gets enough credit for all the work he does on campus,” they added, continuing, “He is a true leader and inspiration for students in this community and his recent email only continues to show why his role in this community is so vital.”
Senior and 73rd FUSA President Vincent Gadioma ‘22 reflected upon the Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Narrative event stating, “President Nemec’s words at the event were uncharacteristic of the Ignatian Spirituality and Radical Hospitality that are inherent to our community.”
With regards to President Nemec’s email Gadioma states that, “Until he [Nemec] can accept that his words have directly caused pain to members of the community and apologize for the content of his speech, Fairfield will have a hard time healing and formally giving the recognition that other members of the Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Working Group deserve.”
Junior Ray Hinds added that, “The past two weeks have been very uncertain in terms of what response and action we were going to see from higher administration.”
“Nemec’s email was futile and ignorant to say the least,” Hinds stated, continuing that, “Once again, he failed to address the actual issue at hand, and the issues that black students are facing on a day-to-day basis, and instead marketed his ‘narrative’ to the entire campus.”
Hinds continued that they were upset at Nemec’s use of the words “university community” throughout the email.
“This was upsetting to have to see because not only do black students feel they are not welcome on campus or do not belong, but it also erases the fact that our community is very broken and has lost its path,” Hinds said. “He claimed we are part of an ‘Ignatian family’ but the choice of being ‘neutral’ says otherwise. It is an utter disappointment. I would say do better, but God knows he won’t.”
Hinds added that Johnson’s email was surprising, but not perfect, “…because it simply wasn’t.”
But they added that, “[Johnson] said something that people have been waiting to hear from the administration: ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
“This is something Nemec, and many other administrators, have failed to do and many of us were waiting to hear it,” Hinds continuing, adding that, “Still, there is more to be done, and Dean Johnson is only the beginning of shifting the administration to being more receptive to the black community on campus. And, now that you have done better, DO IT AGAIN!”
Senior Tushi Patel, senior resident assistant, and one of the main organizers of the protest at the “A Community in Action” event stated that, “Dean Johnson signing off with Black Lives Matter truly emphasized that he was with us.”
She continued that, “To Dean Johnson’s point, free expression should not discriminate nor harm another individual whether through harassment or hate crimes, these which have occured in our university’s history. A neutral stance equates to the allowance of free expression of racism, does it not? The Black Lives Movement is NOT a political movement or stance. It is a social justice movement, and as a Jesuit institution rooted in social justice, what does a neutral stance convey?”
Members of Fairfield’s faculty also revealed feelings towards the two emails.
Dr. Carol Ann Davis, a professor in the English Department stated that she hopes “facilitated conversations” take place regarding the last two weeks events.
She continues, “I think our community is at its best when we are accountable to one another and remain responsive to one another, and I would encourage us to move toward working together in that way.”
Additionally, Emily Orlando, Ph.D., professor of English stated that “Dean Will Johnson’s 3/7/22 email is, of course, pitch perfect.”
Orlando continues by mentioning the important meaning behind faculty stating Black Lives Matter.
She states that “As an English professor, words are my life”. Orlando then quotes from a letter drafted by humanities faculty across the College of Arts and Sciences: “To say that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is to acknowledge centuries of erasure and violence toward Black communities and experiences…. Saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ means that we see and acknowledge the past and the present moment.”
Orlando also referenced a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda, “History has its eyes on us.” She then stated, “I hope we can rise to the occasion and do and say the right thing.”
Orlando closes her statement with, “Black Lives Matter.”
Furthermore Professor David Crawford, sociology and anthropology professor and president of the Fairfield Chapter of the American Association of University Professors stated he found the president’s letter “confusing.”
Crawford goes on to mention that “five days ago he [President Nemec] said we should welcome anti-anti-racists to our conversation and today ‘racism will not be tolerated at Fairfield.’”
He then questions this stating, “Are we no longer supposed to be in amicable conversation with racists? This speaks to the president’s promotion of principled neutrality, the idea that as an institution we should not ‘take sides.’”
Further Crawford acknowledges that President Nemec’s words “caused a lot of pain on Monday,” and the new email “was meant to be anodyne, but I doubt it did much.”
He believes, however, there was a positive future change relayed in the email which “was heartening to see references in the new letter to building a diverse student body. I have never heard this president commit to that in any concrete form.”
Crawford concludes by mentioning that “Fairifeld’s faculty are pretty good at getting heard” and that the faculty are set to hold an emergency general faculty meeting next Friday in response to the events of the last two weeks.
Rachelle J. Brunn-Bevel, Ph.D., associate professor in the sociology department, faculty chair for inclusive excellence and member of the Presidential Working Group states, “I am glad President Nemec reached out to the Fairfield University community and acknowledged his remarks caused pain.”
Brunn-Bevel continues by mentioning, “I have been meeting with the faculty to discuss both short-term and long-term goals related to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Brunn-Bevel mentions these goals include advancing the Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Narrative initiatives which President Nemec referenced in his email.
Furthermore, several hours after Johnson sent out his email, the Fairfield University Student Association sent out an email in response to President Nemec’s email and last week’s events. The email was signed by the 74th FUSA President Tyler Heffern ‘22, the 74th FUSA Vice President Cailyn Fiori, 75th FUSA President-elect Jordan Gale ‘23 and 75th FUSA Vice President-elect Aliyah Seenauth ‘24.
The email opened by addressing Nemec’s statement at the Community in Action event earlier in the week and Nemec’s statement that the flag was removed due to “…the university’s — until then — relatively unknown policy of institutional neutrality.”
They continue that, “It is his opinion that the university ‘is home and sponsor to the critics’ but must refrain from having any critiques of their own. He believes that we should not just accept anti-racist perspectives, but ‘anti-anti-racist” ones too. We do not accept this answer, nor this policy.”
“Our university cannot stand idly by as racial injustice continues to infect every aspect of our world” they add, continuing that Fairfield’s Jesuit history makes it unique and, “to ignore these [Jesuit] principles and to hold neutrality over our values is to entirely misunderstand who we are and what Fairfield is.”
The email continues to discuss Nemec’s response and how his statement was meant to “advance the conversation.” They instead argue that the removal of the BLM flag from C&PS is “an attempt to pass off censorship as free speech. Ordering the flag’s removal does not promote free expression, it hinders it.”
The email continues that they believe that the Diversity & Inclusive Excellence Narrative “does not represent the full history of our university and must be revised to incorporate the shortcomings of our community’s diversity and inclusion efforts.”
It is important to note that FUSA President Heffern was a member of the Presidential Working Group established to create the narrative, but Fiori, Gale and Seenauth were not.
“We unequivocally believe that Black Lives Matter and call on the university, and President Nemec, to state the same,” the letter continues, finishing, “Until these points are addressed, President Nemec’s words will continue to ring empty on the ears of students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike.”
FUSA invites all students “who wish to discuss the removal of the BLM flag, or the university’s position on institutional neutrality, or any matter they deem important to bring forth, to join us at a Town Hall on Wednesday, March 9th at 4:30 pm in the [Lower Level of the Barone Campus Center].”
The Mirror will continue to cover both the Town Hall as well as the emergency general faculty meeting as the meeting minutes become available and the story further develops.