Community Discussion Jumpstarts University Action on Topics of Race

More than 700 people attended a virtual “Community Discussion Regarding Racism” convened by Drexel University on June 5.

More than 700 people attended a virtual “Community Discussion Regarding Racism” convened by Drexel on June 5, led by a panel of Drexel University administrators; Drexel Department of Public Safety representatives; diversity and inclusion leaders; and student advocates.

The panelists discussed how Drexel would reflect and respond in light of national and international Black Lives Matter demands for change after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others. The moderator also fielded questions from the Drexel community, submitted in advance and live during the Microsoft Teams event. What follows is a lightly edited, lengthy transcript of the hour-long discussion, running at about 5,400 words. 

The panelists:

  • Paul Apicella, equal opportunity and Title IX coordinator, Office of Equality and Diversity
  • Kim Gholston, associate vice president and chief diversity officer
  • Subir Sahu, PhD, senior vice president for Student Success
  • Tianna Williams, a College of Engineering Liberty Scholar who also serves as vice president of Drexel’s Black Action Committee and on the executive board of the National Society of Black Engineers
  • Scott Cooper, PhD, president of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
  • Eileen Behr, vice president of Public Safety and chief of Drexel Police
  • Keba Gordon, director of Talent Management

Drexel President John Fry: This has been a difficult and painful time for this country, for our city, and for Drexel itself. It has been particularly difficult and painful for our African-American students, faculty and professional staff.

You’ve heard from me several times since the terrible events in Minneapolis and the death of George Floyd in police custody. I understand that, while some have felt supported and comforted by my communications, others have felt let down. 

I also understand that many of the recent events have raised serious questions for some about the nature of racism and inequality on our own campus.

I hear the anger and the pain that our community feels.

The virtual platform for our discussion today is not ideal, since we are physically distanced. And some have said the dialogue today is long overdue.

Please know this is intended to be a first — but by no means the last — effort to bring our community together for dialogue, whether about the challenges our country faces or about the disparities and lack of support that some see at Drexel itself. 

Know, too, that this conversation will be followed by action. We are not just going to talk: We are going to develop both short- and long-term goals and then take tangible and substantive actions to achieve these goals. Our commitment will be to change Drexel, deeply and fundamentally, together. 

We’ve gathered your initial comments and questions and will ask a group of committed and knowledgeable faculty, students and professional staff to help respond and frame our future work together. 

That we’re having this conversation amid a global pandemic is just one of the many difficulties we face in moving forward. But we’re not going to let that stop us… Just as the thousands of Americans — including Drexel students and others from our community — didn’t let COVID-19 prevent them from voicing their anger, fear and pain over the death of George Floyd and so many others who died in police encounters.

I look forward to searching for answers, along with you. And now I’d like to turn this over to our moderator.

Paul Apicella, equal opportunity and title nine coordinator, Office of Equality and Diversity: Thank you, President Fry.

The first questions that we have to raise to the panel relate to institutional measures and accountability:

  • What tangible steps is Drexel taking to create an anti-racist culture at the University?
  • How is the University's leadership committed to ensure that each of its schools and colleges integrate anti-racism in hiring, admissions, curriculum, initiatives, platforms, funding and programming, and all aspects of the University?
  • How does the University plan to track and disseminate its successes, failures, progress and/or lack thereof?

Let’s first pose that question to Subir Sahu, to get his comments and thoughts.

Subir Sahu, PhD, senior vice president for Student Success: Thank you, Paul.

Having been here at the institution for many years, the first thing that I want to say is that we, at this time, need to take a step back and listen and really connect with our faculty, students and staff to hear their voice, see where we might be falling short and take action in those areas.

I feel committed to the work that is being done in these areas through the Office of Equality and Diversity, the Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion and in other areas across campus. I think one thing that we need to do is coordinate those efforts and make sure that we are supporting the work that is done in the separate units across campus. I look to the efforts and leadership of Kim Gholston as our chief diversity officer, and we’ll work closely with her as it relates to that.

Apicella: Agreed, Kim Gholston, anxious to hear your thoughts on this question.

Kim Gholston, associate vice president and chief diversity officer: Some of the things I would say would be in alignment with Subir. However, I think, moving forward, we have to be transparent as an organization and acknowledge not only what needs to be done, but also what we haven't done as an organization to ensure that our black students, staff, faculty know that their voices are being heard.

Also, for us to understand how we build all of you into our process in making changes for the future, so it's recognizing where we need to go and how we will support moving forward. And, it's action. It's going to have to be action that is collaborative where we are taking into account what the needs are, what we're hearing. A number of dialogues are happening right now across the organization, and we’re receiving a lot of the feedback. And so, it's acknowledging that and ensuring that that's being built into plans we have for the future, in the very near future, for sustainability to change our culture.

I would also add [that we will] really focus on a unified front in being completely intentional in how we move forward, and that would be taking what we've been hearing and pointing it into a part of our strategic planning process, making sure that it's aligned with our mission for this organization as we move forward. And so, in those ways, we hold ourselves accountable as leaders and have been completely clear and transparent on the milestones for achievement.

Apicella: Thank you, Kim. At this time, I think I'll open it up to the rest of our panelists to see if there are additional thoughts, perhaps beginning with Scott Cooper.

Scott Cooper, PhD, president of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University: I've been at the Academy of Natural Sciences now for two years. In the context of the question, “What are we doing?” I can speak within the confines of the Academy, and only the Academy.

Since I joined, we reviewed our values, and while it seems to be commonplace nowadays for many institutions to do the same and include issues of inclusion, diversity, equity and access within them, for us, we made it central. For us, we recognize that to be an effective institution, we needed to deeply understand what that means for an institution and deliver on it in a meaningful way, because science is an incomplete project when you do not have a diversity of perspectives.

We started that journey really about a year and a half ago. About three or four months into my tenure, myself and a small group, a cross-sectional group of colleagues, viewed that for this to have meaning, we needed to establish first a deep understanding of the issues at hand. I profoundly believe that it starts at the top. It starts with me. So, myself and a group of five other colleagues from the institution really buried ourselves very deeply. And by this, I mean not just a couple of hours in a training session, but a deep immersion into the issues at hand that we explored over a period of weeks with specialist colleagues… so we could begin to just get our heads around what systems of oppression really mean for somebody like me: white, cis, gender, heterosexual, male, and British at that.

It's easy sometimes to think that with a liberal viewpoint, a solid education and friends of color that somehow you get it. You don't. But you have to begin to understand it truly to be able to try to make that change.

Apicella: Thank you, Dr. Cooper. … I think it might be interesting to hear from Tianna about her impressions of the question from the student perspective.

Tianna Williams, Liberty Scholar, vice president of Drexel’s Black Action Committee and on the executive board of the National Society of Black Engineers: As a student and a student leader, I can speak definitely for myself and I think my fellow student leaders would agree that we are kind of the front lines for the students. Our mission, first and foremost, is fully to the students. We're here to give them anything they need, any support.

And for me, and for other black student leaders in particular, and there are a good amount on Drexel’s campus, we know what situations like these are posing to us. We know how it harms our communities, and we experience first-hand the problems that Drexel has and the ways to fix what they need to.

…We want all students to know that we're here for them. We’re here on the comments, when you tag us, when you e-mail us your concerns and we’re making sure that it's getting passed on to the right people. We're making sure that the administration, everyone who is here today, is hearing and doing something about what needs to be done.

Apicella:  Thank you, Tianna. Next is a question for Chief Behr. What are the Drexel Police's use-of-force and de-escalation policies? How are campus police trained in these areas and at what point are Philadelphia Police involved? Lastly, do you have data or statistics on race-related incidents, and are those statistics made available to the public?

Eileen Behr, vice president of Public Safety and chief of Drexel Police: Before I answer, we want the community to know that we, like you, are angry about what happened in Minneapolis. We are unnerved. We are saddened as professionals, because many of us have been doing this for a long time. And it wasn’t just one officer. There were officers that stood by, and lack of bystander interaction contributed to this.

We do not want to be bystanders. We want to be involved. We want to be invited to the table, … but we need to listen. So, we are here to listen. We are here to answer these questions. But going forward, we hope that we are invited to your organizations, and your table.

So, for training, first of all, I would tell you that Drexel University Police Department is an accredited police department. Like at all universities, there is an independent international board that you can use that will review and approve your policies and make recommendations. So, we have, for almost 10 years now, been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Every two years, our policies are reviewed by them. We have policies that are also reviewed by the Pennsylvania Municipal Police Training Officers Association. We are all certified under the state of Pennsylvania. We have to maintain that certification and make mandates on certain training programs and certain policies.

We consider our use-of-force policy our No. 1 policy because it's our most important. It also includes de-escalation as part of the use of force. The policy is that force is necessary to overcome resistance required or to prevent death. Second, we encourage de-escalation first, and third, if there is use of force, we are trained, and the most important thing is we require immediate medical attention for anyone and for anyone to be checked by medical.

In the use of force, there is what they call a force continuum. Our mere presence often disperses people. Second level is verbal. We should give direction and we should start to de-escalate. We do training in de-escalation. We look for new training in de-escalation. If de-escalation and verbal commands do not [work], that's when, on some level, [it gets] physical.

…The last level is deadly force, and that's a last resort. It should be a last resort to prevent death of any individual, a member of the community or of a police officer. So that's the continuum of force that we train with, that is accepted by CALEA.

We have in-house officers that do this training. We certify our own. We work within our own, and we work within guidelines that are established by the accreditation agency. We think it's important because Drexel Police is more of a service organization. We provide services that a lot of police departments don't provide because we are student-oriented. So, every officer and every Allied [Universal Security Systems] officer also is trained in first aid and CPR. We carry AEDs in every marked police car and we are just starting to put them in unmarked police cars. So, we can provide immediate medical assistance on the street.

So, when should you use force? We have four pillars that we put out there: to stop potentially dangerous or unlawful behavior, to protect another person from injury or death, to protect our officers themselves and someone else from hurting themselves. … And the last one is, only when someone making an arrest is really resisting arrest.

The second question on training, our training is reviewed by the CALEA board and also by the Pennsylvania State Police Municipal Training Board. Again, we do a lot of training in-house. We do yearly review of our policies and trainings by our officers. We limit the type of equipment they may carry. They may carry a baton, they may carry a taser, they may carry OC, and then they’re issued a handgun. We don't allow them to carry other types of weapons with them on duty. We do cross train with Philadelphia in areas that we have to. They are the center for mandatory training. Every year, we have mandatory training by the state.

… We have mandatory training every year [as far as bias goes]. We’ve worked very closely over the years with our Office of Equality and Diversity to bring some of that training to us. The officers also do engage in the same online training as our faculty members and staff here that may be related to that area also.

We do keep data on police interactions. Anytime a police officer uses any level of [physical] force … we mandate a report. If more than one officer is involved, they all fill out a different report. We have a policy and a continuum for reviewing the use of force through the chain of command. We keep data because we need to watch what officers are doing to see if they need individual training or if there are problems with our training.

Anytime they stop a person, they must report it. So, we keep data on the stop, the race and the sex for every stop. And that data can be available.

Apicella:  Thank you, Chief Behr.

I would like to ask you a bit more directly about the George Floyd incident. I know that it's a little artificial to reduce an entire movement, or to reduce a national issue that has a long history, to one specific incident. But that is the most salient incident, at least in people's minds at this point. Many of us, if not all of us, have seen the video that circulated involving the arrest and killing of George Floyd.

And so, I think our community might welcome hearing from you, as the chief of Drexel Police, about what your opinion is of what you saw on the video there and perhaps even a bit more broadly about your opinion on use of force and excessive force by police more generally.

Behr: I find the video disturbing. I find the actions of the officer disturbing. From what I see in the video, in the various videos I saw, Floyd was compliant. It appears from the various videos that we see that he was cuffed, he was moving along. We don't train that way. … We wouldn't train to lay on someone that long, put somebody’s face in the ground that long. That's not how we train here.

Apicella: And so, on that issue as well, the issue of police force, I'm eager to open it up to the rest of our panel.

Keba Gordon, director of Talent Management: I just wanted to say, as an African-American man and father, I was born and raised in Philadelphia. I'm old enough to have seen policing through [former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Mayor] Frank Rizzo and some other less-than- stellar moments in our history. I want to just say I'm hurt and I'm someone who roughly gets stopped about once a week by police. Sometimes I'm with my sons, and so I always want to role model to them, you know, be respectful, kind, generous in your responses. Don't get triggered.

I'm still here, and so, those 52 or so stops a year have worked out. But they just are oftentimes very, very precarious, and they're not simple or normal things. I want to just say that, because I want to go beyond words like “it’s disturbing.” I want to just say “it’s wrong.” It’s just not OK. And if we want our University to thrive and exist and continue, Drexel literally physically sits in a community that will not be safe and peaceful if this kind of practice continues. This is an existential threat to everything that we stand for, and just like George Floyd’s physical body was at risk, Drexel’s physical campus is at risk. We live in a society where there are checks and balances and ebbs and flows, and we’ve allowed it to get out of balance.

So, I just wanted to speak up. I mean, obviously, I'm here as an HR person, but I'm a human first. I'm saying I don't want anyone's children to be under the knee of a police officer regardless of their race. And the fact that it continuously happens to black people, and black men in particular, I just want to encourage whites who honestly find that unacceptable to say words like, “wrong,” “not OK.” Go beyond words like “disturbing.” Say “unacceptable.” [Say “I’m] willing to march, to get out in the street. Willing to deal with it. Willing to add tangible action and change.”

I just think we should, on the law enforcement, police and community question here at Drexel, we should be willing to redesign everything we do, and hold the state standards and the police standards and all sort of status quo standards as a very low bar.

Apicella: Thank you, Keba. I appreciate your perspective and sharing your thoughts on that. I’d like to send it back to the panel and perhaps more specifically to Tianna on this issue.

Williams: I just want to second everything that Keba has said. We as a community, we feel the burden of what's going on and we want more acknowledgement, we want more specific responses from our community, from Drexel as an entity, telling us that they know that this is wrong.

… One thing that we are concerned about, as Keba said, is we see the example that’s being set by state police and it’s not good. So, we wonder if these trainings are being conducted in communication with entities that can really contribute — black and people-of-color administrators — to oversee sensitivity trainings and really make sure that within these trainings, they're really understanding the gravity of why they are there.

Apicella: Thank you, Tianna. I would like to begin posing some questions that have been submitted to us [live]. It relates to diversity and diversity in hiring. … The question is, “How is Drexel increasing the diversity of faculty? I have personally had one black professor my whole career.”

Gholston: Before I talk specifically about faculty, I also want to say something about our culture, our employee faculty and our branding of who we bring here. We have work to do in order to change the perception of who we are as Drexel.

… We have some work to do as it relates to what our culture speaks. And I think that will help us immensely with our recruitment efforts of people of color and other minorities. So, I think first it starts with us in terms of, what are we doing about recruitment? It's starting to change us.

I think the second piece of it is how we're going about doing recruitment. We have started having meetings to talk about how we change our process so it becomes more inclusive, and how we train search committees to ensure that they understand what implicit bias is. Where are we seeking referrals? If we're still reconnecting that with faculty who know other faculty within your networks, that network may not include the people who don't look like them or have a diverse thought, and that's an issue.

So, it's really expanding where we're going for our recruiting efforts, who we’re opening up our search to, reevaluating our job descriptions and how we advertise. All of those things are a part of a larger strategic plan that we really need to move quickly forward to ensure that you look up and you see someone who you feel comfortable with, that you understand that they understand some of your experience, noting that we're all different. … That is work that we are actively working on as a part of our move just to shift our culture.

Apicella: Thank you, Kim. Keba, I think there's a key part of this question that falls directly within your wheelhouse as well.

Gordon: So, just to be clear, I started at Drexel on March 12th. To be very transparent, Kim recruited me here to help Drexel rethink how it attracts, develops and retains world-class talent. I want to be very, very clear that the ability to attract, develop and retain a diverse global workforce that is used to it and able to interact with people who are different is, quite frankly, one of the meta- or mega-trends or capabilities that are going to be essential for survival in the future.

It's hard for Drexel and many other higher-ed institutions to appreciate that the lack of this is an existential threat to your existence. Drexel is a product. It's a service that is bought. It's a quite expensive one, so it could be considered a luxury item if we were looking at it in terms of products. You cannot continue in a world that’s changing and not adjust to this. … Students of all races, socio-economic backgrounds, geographies, religions, identities, sexual orientations, will say, “I want to live in a world that is equitable, that is just, that is inclusive.”

They're going to start going to institutions that they think are humanly sound, just like people are going toward companies that are environmentally sound in terms of how they interact with the Earth. And so, I'm here. I've been here for three months to help in that effort. But this is squarely a leadership issue — no different than we measure or manage a budget or any other strategic planning item. If we believe that this is important to how we operate, then we're going to have to, quite frankly, learn and lead differently in this area.

Williams: As a student and coming from that perspective, it's very hard when you're going through Drexel and you're expected to be a part of the community — not just on an academic level, but, you know, as life. Students live here. This is their second life now that they're building.

If you don’t see people that look like you who are supposed to be helping you, from your professors to the faculty to even other intimate forms of the University — from student orgs, the people who we see in organization resources and the counseling center, which is a huge place where we want to see more diversity.

We just appreciate Kim and Keba’s statements and really hope that the University continues to push in their hiring efforts.

Apicella: Thank you, Tianna. Subir, any thoughts?

Sahu: I think, connecting back to what Kim shared in terms of the work we need to do on the curriculum side, that is true on the student engagement side as well. I think Tianna just shared this so well in terms of the collegiate experience; it's about what you gain in the classroom as well as where you live, how you engage with your peers, getting involved in a student organization, getting involved in athletics. We have to ensure that our strategies reflect the needs of our entire community. We also have to ensure that our staff looks like and understands the stories of the students they serve.

As the person who sits in the senior vice president for student success role, many of these areas fall under my leadership, and we have fallen short in that category. If you look back at the history of things such as areas of student development, many of those theories are based on studies that were with predominantly white students and whether intentionally or unintentionally, we have built systems and structures that connect to some of those theories.

We have to challenge ourselves to do better. We need to work with our students across all backgrounds and really take a look inward to ensure that we're doing as much as we can to do all the things that Kim and Tianna mentioned. It was important for me to mention that because I think this work, as Kim said, is important on the curriculum level, but it's important outside of the classroom, too.

Apicella: I would like to get to a couple of final questions. One is directed toward Dr. Cooper specifically. The question is, “Based on your experience working in Canada, what do you see as the major differences between Canada and the United States on attitudes regarding race and policing?”

Cooper: Well, that's a heck of a question. I can't speak on behalf of an entire country. It's a terrific question. I'm going to be honest, in my view. I've been privileged to work around the world in Britain, in the Middle East, then in Canada and now here. If I can frame this as much as anything through the prism of a museum, there can be no doubt that in Canada, the conversation around inclusion, around equity, particularly in the Canadian context as it relates to indigenous people, is, I'm afraid to say, infinitely more mature right now than it is south of the parallel.

That's as I see it. There is a significant move over the past five years toward a process of deep, profound, sustained and meaningful reconciliation that starts with the government, plays out through its provinces and is precipitated and facilitated in cultural centers of which museums form a part, in ways I have yet to be able to see here in the States. I think, from my perspective, the moment for institutions like mine as a museum, institutions like Drexel is a higher education institution, it is now. It is now that the moment is upon us where we need to step into that space and make that change happen.

Apicella: The next question relates to staff: “How can staff receive training to advocate and learn about these issues?”

Gholston: … I would say there needs to be other things in place. We offer a lot through the Office of Equality and Diversity, through Human Resources, within our colleges and schools. We have individuals who provide training in the Provost’s Office as well. But, when we look at the attendance of it and we look at the sustainability of it, we need to do a better job.

Some of that may be requiring more training and also more examples of how we actually live and how we lead by example and the things that we're setting forth in a training discussion. We can continue to train all day, but if we don't have individuals who are really moving forward in applying it, then training is not going to be the answer.

Gordon: If I had to focus on training — and I don't like the word training; let's call it learning, learning and development experiences — I would make it the top three levels of Drexel. Culture is set by leaders. What they do, not what they say, what they do. And so, I think the key is, when the leaders within the organization are aware, they're empathetic, they're engaged, they're doing deep reflection, deep learning, and then they start role modeling behaviors.

This area is under my kind of responsibility. That will absolutely be the focus, to equip the top levels of leadership at Drexel so that they're able to walk, talk and be comfortable about how to show up in these moments and lead in these times.

Apicella: We are seeing a lot of comments in the feed. One in particular says, “Who polices the police? Many people of color are afraid of the police and rightfully so. Who can we call when we are afraid of the police?”

Behr: You can file a complaint against any police officer or any member of Public Safety online at our website. You can file it with the Office of Compliance through their hotline. You can call the Office of Compliance direct. They can call the HR office or the Office of Equality and Diversity. And Paul, you know that we often refer complaints to you to help us investigate them.

[The entities who police] the police are the Department of Justice and the FBI and local authorities. You can always file a complaint with the District Attorney's Office. We do work with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, and we have them also review complaints. [Offices at Drexel] accept anonymous complaints against the police here and they are thoroughly investigated.

Apicella: Thank you, Chief Behr. And with that, it does look like we are out of time for our Q&A portion. We would like to now send it back to President Fry for some remarks.

President Fry: Thank you, Paul, and to everyone who joined us today. There were over 700 participants, and I'm really grateful for the time you've taken to be with us today. I also want to thank our colleagues who led the discussion.

At the outset, I said that we don't have all the answers and certainly we also don't yet know all the questions. But I can assure you that we're fully committed to continuing this conversation, and harnessing the values of our Drexel community to insist on change and to help drive it wherever we are in our country, on our campus and in our neighborhoods.

We've collected all the questions and comments that came in. And those, together with the issues that were raised today, will help form the priority list for us to work from. And then we'll get down to work. We'll form a task force and create action teams to help guide changes to our curriculum, to our policies and to our expectations and reward systems. As a University community, we will strive for an extra measure of compassion and understanding as we move forward to action.

I ask you to come together, to take on the hard work ahead and work in a spirit of trust and community. And most important, I want you to know that all of us in the Drexel community — our students, faculty, professional staff, trustees and alumni — stand together in calling for a just future, an end to the racism and discrimination in our country and a University community where all of its members feel supported and valued and safe.

So, thank you. Please take care of each other and yourselves, and thank you again for participating today.