After Boston University president Robert Brown suffered sharp criticism for a mild e-mail he sent on Monday in response to the recent police killings of Black people and subsequent protests, Brown issued a second, strongly worded letter that apologized for the first and condemned racism and police brutality.
“In my [first] letter, I spoke like the engineer I was trained to be, trying to look ahead to a time when our community can work together to push out racism and bigotry," he wrote in the second note, sent Wednesday at 1 a.m. "Today, this letter is from my heart, and my heart is with all of you who feel the dehumanizing sting of racism, and who lose a part of your own life every time a Black man or woman is murdered because they are Black."
In the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, many college presidents have sent similar letters to their students and staff, some drawing respect from students and others, like Brown’s, criticism.
In one admired
missive, Emerson College president Lee Pelton called Floyd’s death a “legalized lynching” and described his own troubling experiences as a Black man in America.
“Black Americans are invisible to most of white America. We live in the shadows — even those of us, who like me, sit at the table of bounty,” Pelton wrote.
BU president Brown’s original note tied the killings to BU’s efforts to reopen its campus amid COVID-19.
“In the current troubled climate, I believe our commitment to restoring our residential campus is made all the more important by the divisions in our country,” Brown wrote in the first letter.
After criticism from students, he issued a second letter that apologized for the first and used much stronger rhetoric to condemn racism and police brutality.
“Many of you read [the first] letter and have told me I did not do a good job in expressing how I felt about this tragic situation and the state of the country,” he wrote. “Hundreds of you spoke from the heart, and I hear you loud and clear.”
Brown said it was a mistake to talk about the campus reopening in the letter about police brutality and said the criticism pushed him to reflect on what is most important to say at this moment.
“The entire Boston University community condemns what has transpired in Minneapolis and every other city where African-Americans have been killed and racism has been tolerated,” he wrote in the second letter.
“The lives of our Black students, faculty, and staff, and all Black lives, matter. The deaths of Black men and women at the hands of racists should shake every other soul in this nation and make us understand and share your anger,” he wrote.
The president of BU’s Black student union, Umoja, called the second letter an improvement.
“Students were really upset, we had a right to be upset,” said Stephanie Tavares, 21, a senior at BU. “It seemed dismissive at first.”
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, along with previous incidents of racial discrimination, has galvanized the BU community, Tavares said. She had never participated in a protest, describing herself as an introvert and “not much of a shouter,” but she and her friend drove from Rhode Island on Sunday to participate in the peaceful protests in Boston.
“There’s something different about these protests,” Tavares said. “I feel like I have some power right now, and I’m going to use it.”
Archelle Thelemaque, 21, a BU senior from Georgia said Brown’s apology and second statement are important and signal that he is listening to student complaints. But Thelemaque said she also wants BU to take action by investing in programs that are important to the university’s Black students, including a more robust African-American Studies Department and better facilities for the Black student center.
Students “are looking for more than speeches and statements,” she said.
The two letters in quick succession from the BU president show the difficulty of finding the right words in a crisis.
Letters sent by institutional leaders in the wake of racial violence too often descend into self-centered statements of little practical value, said Louis Chude-Sokei, Boston University professor and chair/director of the African-American Studies program.
“Certainly they’re there to quell anxieties and to comfort people, but far too often they turn into exercises in self-reflection that border on narcissism," said Chude-Sokei, who is also editor in chief of The Black Scholar journal.
Instead, such letters should be more specific about actions a campus plans to take, such as how it will keep students safe during protests, bail them out of jail, or provide legal services, he said.
David P. Angel, the outgoing president of Clark University in Worcester, issued a more strongly worded statement that outlined steps the school will take in response to recent protests in that city.
The president condemned the actions of the Worcester Police Department, which he said responded to a protest on Monday night with a large number of officers in riot gear and used pepper spray. Four Clark students were arrested, he said.
The Clark president said the school will provide legal support to students who were arrested and charged during the protests. He also said the school will perform an investigation of what happened, discontinue any use of off-duty Worcester police at the university, and conduct anti-bias and de-escalation training with campus police and other staff immediately.
“We are determined to create a space for meaningful, lasting positive change that addresses systemic racism and violence against people of color and does everything Clark can to lead us toward becoming a stronger, more inclusive, and equitable society,” Angel wrote.
Meanwhile, some at Harvard University criticized the letter sent by president Lawrence Bacow. He mentioned Floyd’s death briefly but focused also on the death and economic destruction caused by the coronavirus and shifted to his experience as a high school junior in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.
“Then, like now, our nation was hugely polarized and we desperately struggled to find common ground that might unite us,” Bacow wrote.
Chinelo K. Okonkwo, president of the Harvard Black Law Students Association, said Bacow’s letter “falls short.”
“It is Harvard’s obligation to not only unequivocally condemn state-sanctioned violence and police brutality, but it’s even more critical for Harvard to substantiate those statements by using its position of power and privilege to create true systemic change,” Okonkwo wrote in a statement to the Globe.