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HIGHER ED

Responding to activism, RISD is hiring faculty, boosting diversity, returning looted artifacts

It's one of the most comprehensive attempts by a US college to address racial diversity and equity

"Head of a king (Oba)," a sculpture in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, will be returned to Nigeria.
"Head of a king (Oba)," a sculpture in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, will be returned to Nigeria.Erik Gould

PROVIDENCE — In one of the most comprehensive attempts by a US college to address racial diversity and equity, the Rhode Island School of Design will hire 10 new faculty members with expertise on race and ethnicity in arts and design, boost the diversity of its student body, and return museum items with “problematic histories” such as the looted bust of an African king.

Those are some of the “actions to advance social equity” that the design school, known as RISD, has committed to in response to student and faculty activism. The steps come amid national outrage over the death of George Floyd and other Black people killed by police, and inequalities underscored by the coronavirus pandemic.

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“It’s definitely one of the more comprehensive approaches to transforming an institution,” said Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. “It is an iterative process rather than a panacea or a Band-Aid.”

Rose said other schools around the country have allocated large amounts of money to hire people of color, but it’s important to “institutionalize and anchor” such hiring in a process of achieving broader change. RISD is planning to make changes to its curriculum and hiring practices, while also repatriating some museum pieces and purchasing more works by underrepresented artists.

The school is taking those steps as many other colleges and universities are removing the names of racist people from buildings, promising to hire more faculty of color, and investing in anti-racist campus initiatives, said Shaun Harper, a professor and executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center.

For example, Princeton University in New Jersey is removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school because of Wilson’s “racist thinking and policies.” The Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto is hiring five Black full-time faculty members — the first such hires in the 144-year-history of its design school. And the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester has announced a 40-point “Anti-Racism Action Plan.”

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While he appreciates that administrators are taking bold action now, Harper said, “What a shame that it took the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor for leaders of these institutions to finally take actions that have been on student activists’ lists of demands for generations.”

Harper said he would be more impressed if colleges committed to “dismantling the white supremacy and anti-Black racism that plagued their campuses long before this current protest movement.”

Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, praised RISD for committing to this series of actions, and he thanked students and faculty for pressing for change.

“I don’t know of any other university or college doing anything quite like that,” he said. “I applaud them for being part of the solution. It’s certainly something different and bold.”

Rhode Island School of Design President Rosanne Somerson
Rhode Island School of Design President Rosanne SomersonJosephine Sittenfeld

Vincent said he hopes other colleges take significant action to combat racism and increase diversity. “This is a movement, not a moment,” he said. “Let’s seize the time.”

Although many colleges are working on equity and diversity plans, RISD president Rosanne Somerson said she knows of no others that have committed to hiring 10 new faculty members all at once to teach and conduct research “on issues of decoloniality, race, racism and ethnicity in art and design.”

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With the pandemic placing colleges under enormous financial pressure, it’s not a step many schools can take at this point. Indeed, RISD is facing an estimated $50 million deficit, and it just struck a deal with its full-time faculty, narrowly avoiding layoffs.

But an anonymous donor has agreed to pay for the 10 new faculty members and to cover their salaries for five years, Somerson said. So the school plans to conduct a search this year and hire the faculty members next year.

Ame O. Lambert, outgoing vice president for equity and inclusion at Roger Williams University who’s headed to a similar job at Portland State University, said the 10 new faculty members represent the kind of “cluster hiring” that can be transformative for a campus.

The idea is to not just hire individual people of color or those who have expertise in particular areas, she said, but to bring in a group of diverse faculty members with expertise in matters of race and ethnicity who can support each other, amplify diverse voices on campus, and inject critical ideas across a range of academic disciplines.

Lambert said she also is glad that the design school plans to return items from the RISD Museum to their owners or countries of origin, including the “Head of a King (Oba),” a bronze sculpture of a king of the Edo people of Benin, West Africa. She said restitution is a critical part of the restorative justice process.

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In 1897, British forces sacked the Benin kingdom, burning cities, forcing the king into exile, and looting works of art in a campaign known as the Benin Massacre. Soon after, museums and individuals throughout Europe and the United States began collecting these looted Benin bronzes.

The “Head of a King (Oba),” probably created in the 1700s, was given to the school’s museum collection in 1939. The Benin Kingdom is now part of Nigeria, and RISD said it has contacted groups such as the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, with plans to repatriate the sculpture by the end of this year.

“It’s a big step and an important step,” said Lambert, who was born in Nigeria and whose father is from Benin, the current Nigerian city that was part of the Benin Kingdom.

Somerson said the RISD Museum also will continue to research and return Native American grave artifacts, and it will commit 75 percent of its annual acquisition budget to works by underrepresented artists.

‘I don’t know of any other university or college doing anything quite like that. I applaud [RISD] for being part of the solution. It’s certainly something different and bold.’

Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP

Lambert also praised RISD students for pressing for change. “What students do for us is hold us to the ideals we have expressed and communicated to them,” she said.

When the nation saw the video of George Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a white police officer, many institutions issued statements condemning racial injustice, Lambert noted. But this generation of students is demanding more than “business as usual,” she said. “They want to see deeper action. They are after transformation.”

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In her statement, Somerson said students, faculty, staff, and alumni of color have voiced outrage in recent weeks “about RISD’s multiple racist issues centered around deeply embedded practices and structures as well as how white voices and Western perspectives dominate our curricula.”

Those issues have remained largely unchanged for decades, she said.

Somerson, who became president in 2015, said she realizes an earlier “social equity and inclusion plan” did not make progress fast enough. “As the leader of RISD, I take responsibility for having allowed a culture to continue to exist that does not fully live up to our values,” she said.

The new plan is “deeply informed” by the student-led RISD Anti-Racism Coalition and “a group of BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) faculty that has been working passionately to instigate much-needed change at RISD,” she said.

The coalition had no immediate comment on Somerson’s announcement.

Jada Akoto, a Black student who was speaking for herself and not the coalition, said, “I think it’s a start, but there are certain things that we definitely want to push on.”

For example, she said, the school’s tuition should be reduced because of the effect of the pandemic on classes and learning, and the college should offer art education to local students who have had arts programs cut in their high schools.

Akoto, who has decided not to return to the school in the fall because of concern over how the pandemic would affect her senior year, said, “RISD as an institution definitely is a product of white supremacy and benefits from white supremacy.”

Somerson said RISD will increase the diversity of the faculty, staff, the student body, and the board of trustees.

The design school has 170 full-time faculty with multiyear contracts. According to the most recent figures, 72 percent are white, 8 percent are Asian, 5 percent are Black, and 5 percent are Hispanic.

Meanwhile, 27 percent of students are white, 37 percent are international students for whom racial data was not available, 16 percent are Asian, 8 percent are Hispanic, and 4 percent are Black.

USC’s Harper said he does research on the experiences of Black students across the country, and they report that curriculum is where they encounter the most exclusion and anti-Black racism.

“Faculty members who participated in marches for Black lives last month will surely contradict themselves if they fail to make Black lives matter in the curriculum they teach next month and beyond,” he said.

Somerson said RISD plans to expand and diversify its curriculum.

“We will support a curriculum that requires students to take courses on issues related to social equity and inclusion,” she wrote. “We will commit to engaging the non-Eurocentric world in all of our global activities.”

Matthew Shenoda, associate provost and a senior adviser to Somerson, will oversee the actions outlined in the new plan.

Somerson says she is committed to reform.

“We are living in one of the most difficult times people have experienced, and out of those challenging times of incredible despair, anger, and inequity, good institutions will rise up to make really important societal changes,” Somerson said. “I hope RISD is part of that change.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com