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Following layoffs, Boston University announces ‘inquiry’ into Ibram Kendi’s Antiracist Center

Dr. Ibram X. KendiTommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Netflix

Update: Read the Globe’s interview with Ibram X. Kendi where he defends the management of the Center for Antiracist Research.

Boston University announced Wednesday it would conduct an “inquiry” into Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research after complaints emerged about the center’s culture and financial management.

The assessment comes the week after Kendi, a celebrity author, scholar of race, and antiracism advocate laid off more than half the center’s staff.

The complaints, a BU spokesperson said, “focused on the center’s culture and its grant management practices.” The inquiry announced Wednesday represents a broadening of a previous “examination” of the center’s grant management practices, according to the spokesperson, Rachel Lapal Cavallario.

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Kendi “takes strong exception to the allegations made in recent complaints and media reports,” she said.

Since its announced launch in June 2020, just days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the center has raised tens of millions of dollars from tech entrepreneurs, Boston-area corporations, and thousands of small donors.

At the time, Kendi, the author of the bestselling 2019 book “How to Be an Antiracist,” said the center would “solve these intractable racial problems of our time.”

The money was meant to finance a range of ambitious projects: a database to track racial disparities nationwide, a graduate degree program, a media enterprise, and research teams studying the effects of systemic racism on health and society.

Some of these projects have come to fruition, including The Emancipator, a digital publication launched with the Boston Globe’s opinion staff in 2021. The publication’s operations shifted to BU in March, although it continues to be hosted on the Globe’s website.

But others have not, including the Racial Data Tracker, which one former staffer described as a “centerpiece” of the organization’s goals.

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Lapal Cavallario said Wednesday that the center “has been developing” the Racial Data Tracker. She referred follow-up questions to the center itself, which did not respond.

She also provided a list of the center’s achievements, including: funding for numerous research projects, collaboration in a project launched by journalists at the Atlantic magazine (where Kendi is a contributing writer) to track racial disparities in COVID data, and organizing two “policy convenings” on antibigotry and data collection related to race and ethnicity.

“Boston University and Dr. Kendi believe strongly in the center’s mission,” Lapal Cavallario said. “We look forward to working with him as we conduct our assessment.”

BU’s announcement of the inquiry came hours after the Globe sent the university extensive questions about the center’s operations.

In interviews with the Globe this week, current and former employees described a dysfunctional work environment that made it difficult to achieve the center’s lofty goals.

The organization “was just being mismanaged on a really fundamental level,” said Phillipe Copeland, a professor in BU’s School of Social Work who also worked for the center as assistant director of narrative.

Although most decision-making authority rested with Kendi, Copeland said he found it difficult to schedule meetings with him. Other staffers described paralysis in the organization because Kendi declined to delegate authority and was not often available.

Copeland resigned from the center in June.

Kendi has completed a number of personal projects since 2020, including a graphic novel focused on the history of racist ideas, a podcast called “Be Antiracist,” and a five-episode TV show scheduled to debut Wednesday on ESPN+.

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In recent months, Kendi had been on leave from the center, according to BU.

He returned last week and, in a series of Zoom meetings, told approximately 20 of the center’s staffers that they would be laid off, according to Spencer Piston, a BU professor and leader in the center’s policy office.

The layoffs “were initiated by Dr. Kendi” and represented a strategic pivot, not a response to any financial difficulty, Lapal Cavallario said. The center will now pursue a fellowship model “rather than its current research-based approach,” she said.

The layoffs surprised some staffers.

“I don’t know where the money is,” said Saida Grundy, a BU professor who worked at the center from fall 2020 to spring 2021.

In December 2021, Grundy sent an email to BU provost Jean Morrison alleging dysfunction in the organization and a “pattern of amassing grants without any commitment to producing the research obligated” by them.

Lapal Cavallario said Wednesday that BU had “received some complaints from individuals questioning whether the center was following its funding guidelines. We are currently looking into those complaints.”

The center, she said, “would disagree with a characterization of it not having produced important work insofar as antiracism is concerned.”



Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com. Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.