NAACP MLK Day March reflects university mission

January 16, 2023

Good afternoon. I am Patrick Phillips, interim president of the University of Oregon. I am honored to have been invited to this stage today and especially to have walked with you as we celebrate the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The University of Oregon’s mission—of enlightenment, discovery, and service—is directly tied to Dr. King’s teachings and his dream of a better, more just world.

It is a great honor and responsibility to lead the University of Oregon and to serve its students and our community, and it is a responsibility I take very seriously. In more than two decades at the UO, as a professor of biology, a champion of innovation, and now interim president, I am driven by a dedication to the university’s public purpose.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a personal hero of mine. I grew up in Los Angeles and hold vivid memories of the long-term impacts of the Watts Riots and other racial injustices on our community, which have shaped my understanding of privilege and of the injustices suffered by Black Americans throughout history. Dr. King forged a path for our nation to stand up to injustice and overcome the oppression of racism—a path that is well worn and, unfortunately, seemingly unending.

As we’ve all witnessed, our ongoing protests and activism mirror the riots of so many decades ago, as it should be, because structural racism remains a force in society. I am personally determined to use my position of authority whenever possible to deconstruct these systems of racism and oppression within my span of control.

In his Washington National Cathedral speech in March 1968, Dr. King spoke to the painfully slow pace of progress and the struggle to “remain awake through a great revolution” stating:

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It is a quote that is always with me. Not just with work around racial justice but as a core philosophy for all that I do. The role of a great public university is to bend that arch. How heavily we pull, our determination to bend with might—is what determines how much we accomplish. And the best way, perhaps the only way, to generate that force is to link arms together.

One of the University of Oregon’s purposes is to lift up students, to empower them to reach their potential, to supercharge their trajectories. We create agents of change and champions of justice.

However, we all know that not everyone benefits equally from this opportunity. When race, national origin, economic status, orientation, disability, or any other dimension of diversity constrains a student’s access to education or path to graduation—we are not fulfilling our purpose.

This is why we have invested heavily in programs and services that open doors, welcome, and support historically and persistently underserved students at the UO.

  • Programs like the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning that bring underrepresented middle and high school students to our campus to orient them to the opportunities that college offers.
  • Scholarships and support programs like PathwayOregon and the Diversity Excellence Scholarships that help remove financial barriers to attending the university.
  • Community and academic support programs like the Black Cultural Center, academic residential communities, Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence, and student organizations that bind and build our communities of color.
  • New academic programs like Black Studies that expand perspectives and understanding and seek solutions to racial inequities.
  • And recruitment and retention programs like the Initiative for Faculty Diversity and UO Connections that seek to attract and welcome underrepresented faculty and students.

But if there is one thing that we have learned, it is that we cannot succeed without deep partnership with those outside of our walls. We cannot become a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive University of Oregon without becoming a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive Eugene-Springfield region. Success depends on all of us uniting around a shared sense of purpose.

This progress is steady, but we know it is not nearly fast enough. We recognize that we have achieved much of this progress because our Black students, faculty, and staff have catalyzed these programs. But it is all our work. This unacknowledged burden of service must end, and progress must continue through the actions of the whole.

We remain humble and determined to make meaningful, lasting changes toward achieving Dr. King’s vision.

The University of Oregon is committed to antiracism. We continue to strive to remove barriers, close gaps, create opportunities, lift up our students, and benefit from the immense good that diversity and equity bring to our university and society.

The University of Oregon is wholly committed to bending the arc, with Oregon might, on the long road to justice.  

Thank you.