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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – When the University of Alabama announced that he had recruited Jamie R. Riley as his new student dean, he lauded him as an educator with “disabled” leadership skills who had a “proven track record of advocating for students. ”
But seven months after Mr. Riley arrived at the university's flagship campus in Tuscaloosa, resigned in what the university called a "mutual agreement." It is a decision that administrators have not explained and that came one day after a conservative news website published an article about old tweets in which Mr. Riley, who is black, described the police and the American flag as fixtures of a "systemic history of racism."
In the weeks since Sept. 4 publication of the article and the university's brief acknowledgment of Mr. Riley's resignation, officials have remained silent prompting faculty, staff and students to accuse administrators of failing to support Mr. Riley and his freedom of speech. But what began as an uproar over a black administrator's departure – which some said felt forced and unfair – has the ice to a reckoning over race on campus that is predominantly white and remains haunted by its racial past.
silence on this matter is troubling as it presumes agreement with these external parties and instills of fearfulness within those who work in this area, ”the Black Faculty and Staff Association wrote in a letter to Stuart R. Bell, the university president. It urges him to elaborate on the reasons behind Mr.
Indeed, Mr. Riley's resignation, adding that circumstances could make recruiting and retaining minorities even more challenging. Riley's resignation has morphed into something that eclipses the dean and any debate over academic freedom, and instead becomes a release valve for the pent-up frustrations of those who see themselves as marginalized, especially black students.
"It just happened to poke every single hornet's nest at the same time," said Austin Schutz, a doctoral student in political science . “It was just waiting for something to happen, and this just seems to be it.”
Mr. Riley arrived in February at a campus in transition – administrators have sought in recent years to raise their academic profile and recruit a more diverse student body. The university also has grappled with a past that includes cross burnings and parties where revelers wore blackface. More recently, white students used racial slurs on social media and sorority was found to have rejected a candidate because it was black.
Since Mr. Riley's resignation, students have a staged sit-in at the president's office, marched on campus and passed a resolution in the Student Senate "reaffirming" the university's commitment to "protecting the freedom of speech and academic freedom." Riley's departure – and the university's silence in explaining why – has become a galvanizing moment for black students, with many of them now mobilized and ready to tackle the university's past directly.
At a recent Student Senate meeting, which tends to draw meager crowds, discussions of people crowded into a cafeteria to discuss the resolution. A freshman told a man in a passing vehicle who had hurled slurs at her and fired paintballs. A senior argued that the Senate, composed mostly of white students, did not grasp the extent of its privilege – “you can't even fathom how much you gain and how much we lose,” the woman said.
“Are you here for us? ”Udonna Simpson, a senior political science major major asked in a passionate address before the resolution was passed without any dissent. "I ask you to show us here for us, to show us you care about us, to show us you are not a racist."
Mr. Riley's resignation, neither the university nor Mr. Riley has commented further. University officials, through a spokeswoman, declined to say anything more, and Mr. Riley did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
The silence reflected frustration faculty members said they felt over the pace of improving diversity, an issue with which they wrestled long before Mr. Riley's resignation, said Pamela Payne Foster, a professor of community medicine and population health.
“I do believe we're at a critical point,” she said, “where the question is being asked: At what point are we going to tip this over, or is it going to stay where it is? The fight is a pretty formidable fight. ”
I n a statement issued in response to a petition by students, Mr. Bell acknowledged their concerns but noted the strides the university has made, including hiring a vice president for diversity and inclusion. “From our board to our administration to our student body,” he said, “we are more diverse today than at any time in our history and among the most diverse flagship universities in our region.”
The flagship campus, with its more than 38,000 students, dotted with brick Greek Revival buildings set on a rolling green spread. The university, a football powerhouse consistently ranked at No. 1, boasts that its freshman class this year included more National Merit Scholars than ever before, and that it was producing Rhodes scholars and Fulbright award winners.
Still, diversity remains a struggle. Roughly 80 percent of the student body is white, according to university data from last year, the most recent available. And just 7 percent of faculty are black, according to the same figures. (The population of Alabama is 27 percent black.)
A history professor leads a regular tour that points out of the university's troubled past, with stops at the graves of fame and the hall named for the physician and professor whose research sought to undermine abolitionists by arguing that slaves were naturally inferior.
The campus was also the site in 1963 of Gov. George Wallace's "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door," in which he attempted to block the enrollment of black students as they sought an end to segregation.
Mr. Riley had been brought in, in part, to help clear away some of the remnants of that history. The university had conducted a national search for the position, and in a lengthy job description it said the role required by an administrator who could foster “a vibrant, diverse, inclusive, and stimulating campus life.”
In his short time at the university, Mr. Riley forged relationships with black students and other minority groups. Marquis Hollingsworth, who is black, said he was a former dean during an unsuccessful campaign for a student body president last spring. Mr. Riley gave him his cellphone number and encouraged him to reach out, he said.
“said a beautiful, flawed campus,” Mr. Hollingsworth said, “and still amazing and still trending in the right direction.” Still, he was gutted by Mr. Riley's resignation.
“He was someone I could confide in,” he said, “who understood what I was going through.”