MLK Day March remarks

Good morning. My name is Michael Schill. I am the president of the University of Oregon. Thank you, Eric Richardson, for inviting me to speak today. What a great and inspiring day this is!

I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the teachings and strive for the aspirations of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior — than by walking hand in hand with my neighbors, community partners, colleagues, students and friends.

We stand united in our belief that we must do much more to make Dr. King’s dream of equity, justice, inclusion and diversity a reality. The University of Oregon is committed to this work, not just because it is right and just, but because adhering to these values make us a better institution and are essential to our mission of teaching, research and service.

Listening to the words of the many speakers here and seeing the faces of the many young people who marched through town this morning, I am moved and inspired. I hear in their voices and see in their eyes determination and hope, resilience and passion, but also trepidation. This is also what I hear and see from many of our students at the University of Oregon.

I have learned a lot from our Black students and other students of color at the UO over the last year and a half as president. I’ve learned from our Black faculty, staff and community members as well.

In fact, I think and hope the entire University of Oregon community and people our nation have had their eyes opened wide about the continuing legacy of racism and bigotry in America thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. These lessons are ongoing, but we know that education and understanding is an important step in making change.

I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I and the UO community have learned in the last year.

I have learned a lot of about the unique experiences of our Black students, faculty and staff. I’ve spent a good part of my life as an attorney, professor, and academic leader working to ensure access, equity, and justice in housing and education for underrepresented populations. I’ve lived and taught in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and LA., but living in Eugene and leading our university has offered a whole new perspective.

What many of our students have told me is that when they look around and see very few people who look like they do, or find very few people who have similar backgrounds, it is extremely alienating and isolating. They feel that they are repeatedly called upon to represent their race, a burden that their white counterparts do not share. 

And those white students, they themselves are harmed by our lack of diversity. The genius of American higher education is that we learn from each other. Without sufficient diversity, all students are shortchanged. 

I have also learned that actions speaker louder than words.

As many of you many remember in the fall of 2015, a group of students under the banner of the Black Students Task Force, rallied on our campus and presented me with a list of demands. I meet with and correspond with our Black student leaders many regularly, and today I walked with them, and they have made it very clear that they want to see progress.

Last spring year we announced that we were moving forward with many of the demands and we implemented a series of change on our campus including:

  • We removed the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader from one of the resident halls on campus.
  • We expanded efforts to attract and recruit African American and Black students through a new African American Opportunities Program.
  • We have invited six Black Greek letter organizations to the UO. 
  • We have created an African American residential student community. The Umoja Pan-African Scholars Academic Residential Community is now home to 25 scholars in the Living-Learning Center.
  • We are creating new African American advisory boards for retention and advising, as part of our student leadership teams.
  • We launched an African American lecture series on campus. Our fourth speaker, acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates, will be on campus next month.
  • We expanded information about the demographics of the populations of our campus and posted it online.
  • And the College of Arts and Sciences has established a new African American cluster faculty hiring program focused on Black literature, history and women and gender studies.

For all of these initiatives, we are working hard to ensure that these changes are meaningful, lasting and not merely symbolic.

I have also learned that change takes more than just desire and commitment, it needs planning, resources and action.

To that end, the University of Oregon has developed a strategic framework called IDEAL for implementing our institutional goals of hiring more diverse faculty and staff, attracting more diverse students, helping these students succeed, and making our teaching and research more inclusive, equitable and diverse.

We have challenged and required all of the leaders of our units and schools at the UO—our deans, vice presidents and the president too—to tell us how they are going to achieve these goals and how we can hold them accountable if they do not. These diversity action plans are due in spring and meaningful change must start right away.

Another lesson of the last year, these issues are hard and nuanced. Being well intentioned is not enough. We must seek input, perspective and consider the impact of our actions.  

As many of you know, when a law professor chose to dress in blackface at a Halloween party in a misguided attempt to draw attention to the lack of black doctors, she deeply hurt and offended many people in our community.

She forced our campus to take a hard look at how we balance the essential need of freedom of expression and academic freedom with the rights of our students to be free from racial harassment.

I may have the right to express my opinion, even controversial opinions because that is at the core of our ability to learn and question, but I do not have the right through my speech to deny you your right be free from racial harassment.

A final lesson I have learned in the last year is how smart, courageous and strategic our black students and their allies are. They have challenged the status quo in a way that balanced their desire for change with an understanding of how institutions work. In doing this, they have made more progress than I guess they ever could have expected.

More needs to be done at the University of Oregon. And Lord knows, more needs to be done to make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality. 

I look forward to working with our students, our faculty and our community on this mission.  Thank you.