There are serious questions about how Ibram X. Kendi managed his Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and how tens of millions of dollars in pledged donations were spent.
But for Boston University — as for all institutions that are grappling with social justice issues after the 2020 murder of George Floyd — this is about more than management. The bigger issue is whether there’s only one way to think, talk, teach, and write about racism. If so, is Kendi’s way the only way? In his books and teachings, Kendi embraces the theory that everyone is either actively antiracist or racist; there’s no in-between. As a launchpad for discussion, that’s provocative. But if it shuts down all other argument and debate, it’s chilling.
When Kendi first came to Boston University, there was some concern that his view would spill over into the broader academic realm. In September 2020, David Decosimo, an associate professor in the School of Theology and faculty representative on the BU Faculty Council, wrote a letter to then-BU president Robert Brown in which he stated, “How exactly BU defines antiracism is essential for preserving our research and educational missions and commitments to open inquiry, academic freedom, and free speech.”
He reposted the letter on X, formerly known as Twitter, after the recent headlines about the center. In that post, Decosimo said the controversy is about “far more than Kendi. It’s about a university, caught in cultural hysteria, subordinating every norm of oversight, inquiry & excellence to ideology.” In a thread, Decosimo also argued that the university embraced Kendi’s philosophy to the point that it influenced hiring policy and led various departments to make commitments in their syllabi to view a course of study through an “anti-racial lens.” As “Academic Freedom Committee Chair, I was hearing from faculty (who all identified as progressive) who were very troubled by what they saw but terrified to speak up,” he wrote.
In an interview, Decosimo said, “There are thoughtful and rich ways of thinking about what racial justice is and how to achieve it. In opting for Kendi’s vision, you are opting for a very narrow and highly debatable controversial way of thinking.” The bigger issue for a university, he added, “is that given the nature of the kind of institution it is, it should not be in the business of embracing some political ideology and making it an institutional orthodoxy that is supposed to color everything of what one does.” He does not blame Kendi for what he said happened at BU, he blames university leadership.
Asked to respond, a Boston University spokesperson said in a statement, “Diversity and inclusion are important values at BU. So, too, are excellence and the freedom of all community members to inquire, challenge, and express themselves freely. The university encourages and protects all of those values, and is careful not to tell people how to pursue their scholarly work. As for Dr. Kendi, he is an accomplished historian and scholar, and we are looking into the complaints we have received.”
The university announced an “inquiry” after Kendi laid off more than half the center’s staff, and former employees complained about his management style and the center’s failure to produce the research and projects that were originally promised. Since he took over the center, more than $43 million in grant and gift pledges have come in. (Two disclosures: The Globe engaged in a partnership with Kendi, which ultimately ended in March, to produce The Emancipator, the center’s racial justice website, and I am a graduate of BU’s College of Communication.)
Kendi has long been a target for conservatives who oppose progressive values. But now, tough critiques are coming in from people who worked with him. “Commensurate to the amount of cash and donations taken in, the outputs were miniscule,” Saida U. Grundy, a Boston University sociology professor who was once affiliated with the center, told The New York Times. Writing for Yahoo News, Phillipe Copeland, a professor in the university’s Department of Social Work, who worked at the center until June, noted: “I received mixed messages and contradictory directives. I would make recommendations based upon my expertise that went unheeded. I would go to meetings and get the sense I was in a class with students who hadn’t done the reading. I would express concerns and it would go nowhere.”
What happens next is unclear. Kendi told the Globe that the center is not in financial distress. He’s merely overseeing a strategic shift from operating as a “high-growth startup” that would pursue many different projects across a range of fields to becoming “the world’s first residential fellowship program for antiracist intellectuals.” In an interview with BU’s publication BU Today, interim president Kenneth Freeman said he is “hopeful” that the center “will emerge from this moment in a better position to sustainably pursue its scholarly work and antiracism teaching and policymaking.”
Kendi’s success came from being in the right place at the right time, with thinking that tied into the national reckoning that began to play out after Floyd’s murder. Now, like anyone else put in charge of a complicated, new endeavor, he must account for how he managed it and the money that flowed to it.
At the same time, the controversy presents an opportunity for BU to rethink how the center can advance the important work of identifying and tackling racism. When Kendi was recruited to move his program from American University in Washington, D.C., to BU, university leaders told WBUR the new center would “bring together researchers and practitioners from across the university to engage around issues of racism and racial justice.”
To engage means to freely talk, discuss, and debate diverse views. If that can’t happen at a university, where can it happen? And if people in general can’t freely talk, discuss, and debate racism, how can we end it?