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IWU President Apologizes After Students, Alumni Slam Response To Floyd's Death

Georgia Nugent speaking at podium
Illinois Wesleyan University
Illinois Wesleyan University President Georgia Nugent told students, staff and alumni the university must do better to address racial disparities on campus.

Some students and alumni at Illinois Wesleyan say the university's delayed and muted response to George Floyd's death and calls for racial justice are the latest examples of what they have seen for years.

They say the private liberal arts college has an uneven record on racial equality.

Rosetta Clay, who identifies herself as a proud black woman, is IWU's director of alumni engagement. She said she noticed a problem the first time she set foot on campus.

Illinois Wesleyan University Zoom call
Credit Facebook/Illinois Wesleyan University
Illinois Wesleyan University President Georgia Nugent (center) has apologized for the university's delayed and muted response to calls for racial justice after George Floyd's death.

“When I interviewed with Illinois Wesleyan nearly two years ago, I said to the then-president (Eric Jensen), I’ve been on this campus for eight hours and I’ve seen one black person and that’s a problem for me,” Clay recalled. “But here I am, I still took the job.”

Clay raises money for the university. On Thursday, the university postponed a one-day fundraising campaign called All In For Wesleyan that Clay was supposed to lead. Instead, she took part in a virtual listening session with university administrators, students and alumni on how to be a more inclusive campus at a time some alumni say they may cut ties with the university.

Recent graduate Kalen Gray said he won't give to Illinois Wesleyan until it improves its culture for minorities. He said IWU prides itself for twice hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak, but doesn't follow his teachings on race.

Gray said he also is upset over the university's neutral statement that referred to Floyd's death as "painful" and that incidents of "looting and violence were unfortunate."

“Although I am disappointed, I am not surprised,” Gray said. “This type of response to racism on this campus is part of its culture, a culture that tries to praise itself for diversity and inclusion, yet it’s essentially silent when challenged to speak up, one that is scared to ruffle the feathers of an ignorant population that reflects the true nature of this university.”

Other graduates said they feel ambivalent about IWU. Citlali Gonzales said she had an amazing experience but, as a minority student, felt like she never truly belonged. She said she needed to hear three words from the university after George Floyd's death.

“How hard is it to say Black Lives Matter?’ That was all I was looking for in this statement,” Gonzales said. “I was very disappointed that it was reduced to a political opinion.”

Some students said after four years on campus they were sick of being there without even black counselors to talk with. Luis Cabrales-Vasquez said there were no easy ways to report racism.

University president Georgia Nugent initially declined to make a personal statement on behalf of the university about calls for racial justice after Floyd's death, saying she would not get into politics. That came three days before the university issued its statement signed by Nugent and 10 other university administrators. 

Cabrales-Vasquez called on alumni to take their money and give it to black organizations instead.

“When the president decided to not make a statement, it broke my heart and I’ll make that very clear because she is a white woman, and the school will go around and they’ll say, ‘Feminism, this is our first female president,’ but all it does is reinforces the fact that there is no space for blackness in white feminism,” he said.

The rest of the university community pushed back hard as well. Nugent relented and now says Illinois Wesleyan, which has a minority student population of 30 percent, must do better.

“I want to apologize, I understand, I truly understand that the statement made by the university didn’t go far enough and wasn’t clear enough,” she said.

Jazmyne Kellogg graduated from IWU in 2016. She said were it not for the university's diversity and inclusion office supporting her, she likely never would have finished. 

“Every year from being denied into frat houses or my friends being told they had to leave parties because black b-words weren’t welcome, the n-word being sprayed around campus, I chose to stay every year,” Kellogg said.

A number of former students who took part in the virtual call say IWU has to do more than have institutional resources available. It must foster a culture of inclusion.

Deon Hornsby said the university is far more diverse than it was when he first arrived on campus as a student 27 years ago. He said that's a long time to fight a battle he shouldn't have to fight.

“Understand that black folks are tired. We’re tired of having to carry the burden of any injustice that goes on in the world, that we have to fix problems that we had no hand in making,” Hornsby said.

The former students all say as black and brown people, they can't achieve equality on their own, they need help from the majority white population on campus.

Illinois Wesleyan Director for Student Involvement Kevin Carey said silence is complicit racism.

“Especially my white-identified allies, who can we respectfully challenge those around us to show up, to listen, to learn and continue their self-education journeys, not relying on black individuals or communities of color or other non-privileged identities to teach us, or to tell us or remind us how to be better," Carey said. 

For some, the virtual meeting is a good first step in the discussion. Hannah Mesouani heads Illinois Wesleyan's office of diversity and inclusion which sponsored the event along with a campus faculty and staff group of color. 

“To fix something, to change something, we have to name it,” Mesouani said. “Today we have named only a fraction of how we are feeling, but it’s a huge step to name it publicly, to claim it, to claim our pride but also to claim our hurt.”

Mesouani said her office plans to hold more webinars on social justice in what many on campus say will be a long road to improvement.

WGLT's interview with Nugent.

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