One week after laying off more than half the staff of his Center for Antiracist Research, Ibram X. Kendi disputed allegations of mismanagement from former employees and said the center, which has raised tens of millions of dollars, is not in financial distress.
The layoffs, he said in an interview with the Globe, represent a strategic shift from operating as “a high-growth startup” pursuing many different projects across a range of fields to becoming “the world’s first residential fellowship program for antiracist intellectuals.” The fellowship model, he said, would be less costly to operate, so the funding for the center will last longer.
“This was a tough decision and of course it elicited a lot of strong opinions,” Kendi said. “At the same time, I had to take the long view to ensure that the center would be impactful and sustainable 20, 50 years from now, particularly in a moment when racial justice organizations, and social justice organizations more broadly, are under serious attack.”
In its first 10 months of existence, the center, which Kendi established at Boston University in the weeks after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, brought in at least $43 million of pledged donations, according to financial records provided to the Globe by a former staffer.
Since then, Kendi said, the center “has had a number of accomplishments” despite the challenges of remote work and difficulty staffing up during the pandemic.
The center was a “a high-growth startup in an all-virtual setting when a number of organizations were looking to recruit and retain staff. Everyone was having challenges. We too were having challenges like all other organizations over the last four years,” he said.
“We’ve been able to develop a number of projects,” Kendi added. “But more so than anything, we’ve been able to begin to allow for other scholars and intellectuals to recognize the importance of antiracist research on a college campus.”
The center has also contributed funding to numerous research projects, many focused on racial disparities in health care; launched the publication “The Emancipator;” drafted model legislation and submitted amicus briefs in court cases; and organized two “policy convenings” on antibigotry and data collection related to race and ethnicity.
Critics, including former staffers, have argued the center’s output is too low given its substantial funding. Key projects — including a graduate degree program and a national Racial Data Tracker — promised during the center’s early days have not materialized. (The center collaborated with journalists at the Atlantic magazine on a COVID Racial Data Tracker, but that effort folded in spring 2021.)
Earlier this year, Kendi said he realized the center needed to change direction.
Then, in a series of Zoom meetings last week, Kendi laid off 19 of the center’s 36 staff members.
The laid-off employees came from across the center. Administrators and the staff of The Emancipator, a racial justice media outlet, remained. The Emancipator was launched in partnership with The Boston Globe in 2021. Its operations transferred to BU in March.
Going forward, Kendi said Thursday, the center will focus on three areas: the new fellowship program, The Emancipator, and events.
Kendi said the new fellowship model “allows us to bring in … leading antiracist intellectuals and creators to be in community with each other, to enrich each other, to empower each other, to teach each other, as they also work on their own individual research projects.”
The center, and Kendi’s management, had been the subject of some internal complaints, according to Boston University and records of complaints provided to the Globe. Some of those complaints emerged since last week’s layoffs.
In response to questions from the Globe about the center’s operations, BU spokesperson Rachel Lapal Cavallario on Wednesday provided a statement to the Globe announcing an “inquiry” into the center’s culture and “grant management practices.”
Since the layoffs, the center, and Kendi himself, has been the subject of criticism, including from former employees.
The organization “was just being mismanaged on a really fundamental level,” said Phillipe Copeland, a clinical associate professor in BU’s School of Social Work who also worked for the center as its assistant director of narrative.
Copeland said that he felt the center’s leadership was not prioritizing revenue-generating projects, including a graduate degree and a plan to build antiracist educational curriculum. The center said in an annual report published in fiscal 2021 that it was “currently developing the world’s first undergraduate minor and master’s program in Antiracism Studies,” which was “expected to launch in the next one to two years.”
Kendi said it could take years for a large research university to develop a graduate program for “an entirely new field.”
Copeland said that decision-making authority was concentrated with Kendi, who was often unavailable.
Kendi — the author of the bestselling book “How to Be an Antiracist” and a frequent cable news guest — disputed that critique. He had created a robust leadership structure, he said, specifically because he has so many other engagements.
“I thought it was important for different people to have the authority to make decisions,” he said. “As somebody who is pretty regularly speaking, and writing, and obviously engaging with people to support the center, I couldn’t always be there to make every decision.”
Others have questioned how an institution that raised so much money could find itself in a position where it needed to lay off more than half its staff. Kendi emphasized the shift was strategic and not tied to financial solvency. He said he was “not at liberty” to disclose information about the center’s finances, including how much has been raised and how much funding remains.
Makeeba McCreary, president of the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, one of the center’s funders, said the criticism was unfair. “He is a Black man leading work that is internationally renowned that has changed lives during the middle of a pandemic and a racial reckoning,” she said. “We should be so honored to be hosting him here [in Boston]. He deserves more than 36 months to get it right.”
In an interview with Boston University’s publication BU Today, interim president Kenneth Freeman said the inquiry will try to answer if “the center [was] sufficiently productive in terms of the research grants it received, and did the Center’s management afford its people the appropriate support and respect for their contributions?”
“We are hopeful that CAR will emerge from this moment in a better position to sustainably pursue its scholarly work and antiracism teaching and policymaking,” Freeman told the publication.
Several current and former staffers of the center told the Globe that they felt hamstrung by limited resources, high turnover, and a lack of authority to make decisions.
Despite those challenges, Spencer Piston, faculty lead of the center’s policy office and an associate professor in BU’s political science department, said staffers were engaged in meaningful work with the goal of exterminating racism. The center, for example, partnered with a community organization that wanted to understand how residents experienced policing in their Massachusetts town and learn more about residents’ attitudes toward police. (Piston said he could not disclose the town.)