Is SMU ethical? A response to Dr. Rita Kirk

By Bobby Williams

Dr. Rita Kirk, the Professor and Director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility and SMU London, penned a column addressing the indecencies that have plagued our campus in recent weeks. The article examines how our leadership, through addressing our failures in sports, took responsibility and claimed the opportunity to comprehensively reflect on our entire culture. At the crux of Dr. Kirk’s article is a question:

“Are we a healthy organization that makes occasional mistakes or are we corrupt and in need of repair?”

Before I can answer the question (or decide if this is the right question we should be asking) I wanted to understand two things: 1) How other institutions have arrived at the crossroads of identity and culture and 2) How they’ve navigated through these discussions. I’ve long suspected that the sentiments we’ve seen here at SMU aren’t specific to SMU, and so I’ve sat with this question over the past week as I’ve read through the details of recent happenings at Yale, Ole Miss and as I’ve observed events unfold at Mizzou.

What’s struck me about each of these cases is that overwhelmingly the voices of the marginalized within those communities center around two points:

1) Predominately white institutions (PWI’s) have made great strides in admitting minorities, however many still struggle with incorporating those students into the larger campus community. Students here at SMU and across the country have clearly voiced that we aren’t just happy to be here, but wish to be valued and enjoy the same freedom of existence and expression that many of our peers don’t seem to have to ask for.

2) We find that PWI’s appear to only react to the pleas of marginalized members when overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, religiously intolerant or elitist actions disrupt our environment and prove to be bad for business.

These observations suggest to me that these incidents indeed point to a problem of broader culture which, to be fair (as a student alluded to in the meeting held at the Varsity last Monday), cannot be removed from the context of the community and culture in which SMU resides.

But to answer Dr. Kirk’s specific question about SMU, are we corrupt? In all honesty I don’t know. I also don’t know if we truly believe ethics matter more so than optics. We can only judge this institution by its own vision for the future and when I look at those goals as stated in our current campaign I’m left with the same feelings Dr. Mark Chancey expressed at the #EducateOurTruth panel held November 2nd, “We’ve seen the billboards that say ‘$1 Billion. And Change.’ but some of us a ready for the change“.

For example, SMU has created hundreds of scholarships and nearly doubled its endowed faculty positions, but how many of those scholarships and endowed chairs are earmarked for ensuring that those positions reflect the diversity of the world in which we wish to shape? And on the point of diversity, while we continue to push to close the obvious gap between the diversity on our brochures and the diversity we actually see on campus, this isn’t simply a problem of a lack of students and staff of color, it’s also a problem of the type of students we recruit in the majority demographic. Students from environments that reflect our vision are more likely to value it. When it comes to enriching the campus experience SMU can tout several capital projects and new programs to ensure students’ academic and athletic wellbeing, but how many of those programs will address not only racial insensitivities but will work to reduce the number of sexual assaults on campus? To that matter, can we declare ourselves thoughtful, reflective, and learned at a place in which William “Bill” Cosby still holds an honorary degree? Lastly, when we speak of engaging the community are we only referring to the Park Cities and Highland Park residents? Or will we take measures to reach into South Dallas and surrounding areas as well?

How we as an institution face these challenges in the days to come is ultimately the answer that matters, but I’m encouraged that we have, distinguished faculty like Dr. Kirk and Dean Lawrence, that are committed to being “advocates for moral values, human dignity, liberty and justice for all.” Those who view our responsibility as “not only to deplore racist actions but also to dismantle racist systems.” But, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested in his 1966 speech at McFarlin auditorium, what’s clear to this concerned staff member is that “We have come a long, long way but we still have a long, long way to go.”

Bobby Williams is a member of shared services at SMU.

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