By Dezarae Churchill
Six months after learning William Peace University was built by enslaved people and held racist values, the university continues to struggle with racial issues and some students do not feel like there is enough representation of the minority experience on campus.
WPU president Brian Ralph acknowledges there are areas the university could improve.
“Members of our community are experiencing racism and/or microaggressions,” said Ralph. “Everyone should feel welcomed and supported here and we must be better. We must strive to be anti-racist.” Ralph said in an email addressed to students and faculty.
WPU held 11 confidential listening sessions in March and April, in which 128 students, faculty, and alumni voiced their opinions and concerns with the school’s findings that the university’s founder and namesake, William Peace, owned slaves and that the campus was built by enslaved individuals.
On Nov. 15, the university sent a DEI climate survey to learn more about what is needed from students and faculty to improve the community, amplify voices and increase inclusivity efforts.
Dr. Ralph stated in the email that most attendees were not surprised to learn about WPU’s past, and most of the community is supportive of the removal of the statue of William Peace from the courtyard.
However, he also stated that “students, staff, and alumni of color shared many instances of not feeling included as well as instances of microaggressions and racism. All participants demonstrated an interest in moving the University forward in becoming a more diverse and inclusive community – with a focus and desire for more training and educational programming, as well as hiring more faculty of color.”
Checking the racial climate at WPU
Even before it was known that WPU was built by enslaved labor, Peace students had experienced racial issues. For instance, in 2021, the women’s basketball team was at an away game when a student from Mary Baldwin University called a WPU player a racial slur.
Many players on the team felt this situation was mishandled, as the Mary Baldwin athlete seemed to go without facing repercussions, while the WPU player was punished for her reaction. The Pacers protested the following game and ultimately forfeited their chance at winning the championship.
Nautica Falls, a senior criminal justice major, left the basketball team after this incident and says she still hasn’t seen support for Pacers of color.
“Honestly I haven’t seen any changes besides getting new athletic directors,” said Falls.
Kuleul Moore, a senior lacrosse player, also sees little progress in embracing diversity on campus.
“All I’m going to say is if you don’t go to Peace in February, there is no black experience,” said Moore. “And for a school that focuses on diversity and inclusion, the black experience is non-existent compared to the LGBTQ community and support within the school.”
Ralph said in an email that the USA South Athletic Conference has “taken steps to improve how situations like this are addressed going forward during a game event.”
“One of our students was subjected to a racial slur,” Ralph wrote. “That is unacceptable….Hopefully, no one will ever have to experience it again.”
Ralph stated the university asked the USA South Athletic Conference and host institution to investigate the incident, as it occurred at an away game. The university brought in a consulting firm “to evaluate our policies and practices related to student support and accountability and how those areas intersected (or not) with athletics and student life.”
Shared history of racism and retribution
Dr. Rev. Harold Briscoe, who became university chaplain this year, has a background in public policy and has worked with students to navigate racial inequity and societal constraints. He believes one way to make substantial change is to investigate and tell the stories of those who built the university, and whose legacies were lost.
“We have to start with a strategic action plan that is known, accessible, and publicized that has the input of the entire campus and has tea to it,” said Briscoe. “When I say tea, I’m talking about the money… It’s a difference between anti-racism being on the periphery to being centered and who we are going forward.”
Briscoe received his doctorate from the Divinity School at Duke University. In 2016, Duke dedicated their courtyard to the late Julian Abele, the chief architect in the development of the first buildings of Duke University. Today, a plaque rests in the quad and at Duke Chapel. Due to segregation laws, Ablee was never able to see his designs to fruition.
WPU could adopt a similar approach to retributions in regard to the construction of Main building and the legacy and talents of those who created our campus.
Bricoe also referenced Georgetown University, which started a fund in 2018 to give back to the descendants of slaves and underrepresented groups. The fund provides scholarships close to $400,000 each year.
“We have to start thinking reparations and equity, and start righting these wrongs,” said Briscoe.
Efforts to increase inclusivity
In his email Nov. 15 to the campus community, Dr. Ralph detailed recent steps taken by the university to create a more inclusive campus.
He said that Pacer athletes did not want to pay homage to founder William Peace by wearing WPU merchandise, so the university replaced all jerseys to have the Pacers name and horse logo on them only.
Archived ‘Peace College’ yearbooks have been amended to indicate there could be content that does not reflect the values of the university, in reference to racially stereotypical content and slurs.
The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is now on the second floor of Main, in a larger and more visible space, and will add another full-time employee in January.
DEI Director Leah Young and Kathy Lambert, associate vice president for human resources, have created a DEI “Bridge Plan,” including efforts such as creating an all gender bathroom at the request of students and increased training and education for staff on topics such as biases, heritage and cultural celebrations.
Ralph said faculty members are participating in staff-led seminars on inclusive teaching, as well as other professional development.
The university plans to create an Acknowledgement Task Force, that will review the feedback from listening sessions and work together to help increase inclusivity efforts on campus. Ralph also stated within the next 18-24 months the university will revisit the idea of changing the name. Students are welcome to join the task force, and are asked to email president Ralph at email@example.com with “Acknowledgment Task Force” in the subject line.
The university encourages students who are feeling a lack of representation on campus, or those who have had a racial or discriminatory experience to reach out to the DEI office, and initiate the student grievance form. WPU aims to respond to all grievances within five days.