June 17, 2020

June 17, 2020 - Doing More to Address Racial Injustice

Presidential message

As a follow-up to my May 31 message on the insidious racism reflected so graphically and tragically in the murder of George Floyd; echoed in the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and locally with James Scurlock; and ingrained in American society across time and systems, I would like to reinforce my and Creighton University’s strong stance against systemic racism.

I am also grateful for thoughtful and engaging virtual conversations across campus, and recognize that more listening and understanding is required. Formalizing this process for greater listening, both in breadth and scope, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing is, unfortunately, going to take some time. I am committed to form the structures and convene the kinds of meetings that create and facilitate genuine listening and understanding. I thank you for your patience as I consult with colleagues on campus and in the Omaha community regarding next steps.

As I stated previously, Creighton University is called to do more, as an institution of higher learning, and as Jesuit and Catholic, to create healing and wholeness, and we will continue to reflect on and discern ways we can best achieve that directive.

I would also like to recognize some significant work already underway.

First, I am excited to announce that 13 members of our faculty and staff, along with two students and one community member, are participating this week in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) 2020 Institute on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers. Our cohort is co-led by Chris Whitt, PhD, vice provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, and Erika Kirby, PhD, professor of communication studies and the A.F. Jacobson Chair in Communication. Thanks to Dr. Whitt, our commitment to AAC&U’s THRT conference was enacted more than six months ago.

The institute is designed to prepare the next generation of strategic leaders and thinkers to break down racial hierarchies and dismantle the belief in the hierarchy of human value. I am eager to hear of their experience, and we will look for ways they can share highlights and insights from their participation more widely with the Creighton community.

Additionally, we have been very productively engaged in the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, through the efforts of Tracy Leavelle, PhD, and Charise Alexander Adams in our Kingfisher Institute; Chris Rodgers in University Communications and Marketing; Palma Strand, JD, in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution; and Dr. Whitt.

The Kingfisher Institute’s programming, in particular, has supported teaching, research, and campus and community outreach around race, violence, and reconciliation.

One of its inaugural themes in 2019 was Race in America: 1919-2019, which included Creighton’s presence in September of last year at a memorial for William “Will” Brown, a Black man who was brutally lynched and murdered in 1919 outside the courthouse in downtown Omaha. Creighton faculty, staff, students, and alumni provided a strong presence at the memorial, and I was honored to join them.

In October, the Kingfisher Institute will pick up the leitmotif of race as part of its virtual HUMAN/E Health & Healthcare Symposium. One of the featured speakers at the symposium will be Jonathan Metzl, PhD, the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, and the author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland. Racism is, indeed, a public health issue, and this symposium will include a thoughtful and critical examination of racial inequities in health care.

Attracting notable speakers, such as Dr. Metzl, to campus to speak on issues related to race, diversity, inclusion, reconciliation, and related topics is a priority for Creighton – a message that has been reinforced among recent conversations with colleagues. Through the leadership of the Kingfisher Institute, it was a delight to bring Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David Blight, PhD, to campus last fall to speak on Frederick Douglass. And I was equally disappointed that we had to cancel Colson Whitehead’s appearance in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whitehead is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author for his books The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys.

Also postponed this spring due to COVID-19 was our University’s first annual Interdisciplinary Doctoral Scholars Symposium, a collaborative effort of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion and the Kingfisher Institute to bring in top-flight doctoral candidates of color from around the world, in a variety of disciplines, to interact with the Creighton community, present their work, and share their experiences and challenges as up-and-coming scholars of color in their respective disciplines. We hope to hold an online version of this symposium in the fall.

I also envision opportunities for innovative programming to address systemic racism in criminal justice through our new bachelor’s degree in this field. Courses in our new criminal justice major draw from social work, psychology, political science, and sociology, as evidence of the need for interdisciplinary dialogue for criminal justice reform. Dawn Irlbeck, PhD, the program’s director, has studied the issue of racial and ethnic profiling by law enforcement as it relates to traffic stops, and Dr. Irlbeck and Rebecca Murray, PhD, are co-authors of the book Mission-Based Policing: Advances in Police Theory and Practice.

A summer reading group for students, faculty, staff, and alumni is discussing the book How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. The reading group is being offered by the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, the Creighton Intercultural Center, and the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice. One of the themes of the book is that to stem the persistence and perpetuation of racism and racist structures, people have to be proactive and go beyond being neutral or nonracist to being antiracist.

The Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, Human Resources, the Teaching and Learning Center, the Office of Title IX and Civil Rights Compliance, and the Kingfisher Institute are all collaborating to infuse more antiracism perspectives and approaches into future professional development opportunities for our workforce. And the Creighton Intercultural Center has a number of efforts underway, including Talk About Tuesday, group-processing sessions for students of color; FLOCK (Formation of Leaders of Color in Kinship), which connects first-year students of color to resources to navigate college life; and the Fr. John P. Markoe, S.J. Leadership Program, a four-year program that offers Markoe and Haddix scholarship recipients the opportunity to enhance their leadership skills at Creighton.

These are not insignificant steps, and this is by no means a complete account of the good work, scholarship, and research being undertaken by faculty, staff, students, and alumni across campus and around the world in addressing racial injustice.

Certainly, I am grateful. But we now have bigger strides to take, and much more work to do. There will be difficult conversations, but Creighton University will be a forum for respectful and open dialogue. At this critical moment in our country’s history, may this Friday’s Juneteenth celebration, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States – and this year marking its 155th anniversary – stir our spirits and steel our resolve. We need to listen with humble hearts, and be prepared to take thoughtful and just action. As I said before, we are called to do more.


Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD