After walk-out, questions of accountability remain

Michaela James-Thrower
Claire Smith
Executive Staff

One month after Sewanee students staged a walk-out on the quad in response to the use of racial slurs at a Sewanee lacrosse game, concerns about accountability and transparency remain. As the Washington Post reports that Sewanee is entering a “racial reckoning,” 

BIPOC students voice the need for more support from the University, and administrators still have questions about future policies regarding racial bias. Administrators and students alike have cited lack of communication as a key barrier 

The University has undergone both conscious efforts to examine its historic and current role with slavery and racism, such as the Board of Regents’ renouncement of the University’s “entanglement” with Lost Cause ideology and DEI initiatives from Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety. However, the events of the lacrosse game, announced by Brigety to the student body on March 14, have introduced a new sense of urgency on campus.

While many see the quick response to the incidents at the lacrosse game as a sign of progress, some BIPOC students have voiced exhaustion from leading their peers in conversations on race in a predominantly white school. Yazmine Ali (C’23) said that following the lacrosse game, “The amount of meetings I was put in to talk about it was exhausting.”

 As a Posse Scholar, Ali feels a responsibility to engage issues on race and inclusion, but says, “Our teachers and professors forget that we came on this campus with a scholarship that literally means leadership, and it’s literally our job to be put in these positions and try to talk about this.”

When asked if the University tries to support student leaders like herself, Ali says “I feel like the school makes a very small attempt to make me feel supported, but I see them trying and it’s more through words than actions… When am I going to feel that support and see that support from the school?”

Ali voiced the need for more communication between BIPOC students and the vice-chancellor: “I would like for more conversations with Brigety. I know he is a very busy man, but I feel like the best way to make this campus flourish in the way that it needs to is through minorities… Him getting the support from people of his own race and POCs in general, I feel like he would have a way more powerful position on this campus if he had a support system with us. And that support can be reciprocated.”

Administrators, faculty, and students have responded with some discomfort over how to engage in topics around race on campus. Associate Dean of the College for Inclusive Development of Faculty and Curriculum Betsy Sandlin, says, “I think faculty are wrestling with their role. I’m hearing from faculty and they say things like ‘I want to support the students, but I don’t know the best way.’ We have faculty in some departments like politics, or Women’s and Gender Studies, who are very comfortable in this sort of discourse and know exactly how to run a class, and how to talk about these things. And then we have faculty in economics, and math, who say, ‘I’m uncomfortable, I don’t know how to have these conversations with my students.’”

Additionally, Sandlin says, “Students are asking for more and more training about diversity, equity, and inclusion.” While groups are being directed to figures like Cassie Meyer, the director of Dialogue Across Difference, or Sylvia Gray, Title IX coordinator, there is no comprehensive approach to offer support or train students at the administrative level. Sandlin says, “The big conversation coming up is ‘What does this training look like? And who’s it for?… There are a lot of questions that we’re wrestling with, but important conversations for sure.”

George Burruss (C’22), says, “I do think there’s interest, and I just think a lot of white students on campus don’t know what role they should be filling right now.”

Burruss, a member of the NAACP and Gamma Sigma Phi fraternity, also emphasizes that more white students needed to engage with issues on campus: “I think of the big response that we had out on the quad. I mean, there’s a good number of people there, four or five hundred people, but we’re a campus of nearly 2000. If that can’t get everybody there, I have no idea what’s going to get everyone there, you know?”

He emphasizes that students who feel uncomfortable about the role they should play in activism on campus have existing organizations to guide them. “Just come to events. That’s something that you’ll hear POC students say all the time is that ‘We are having events all the time.’ And no one comes to them.”

Action on campus feels further discouraged by a lack of communication among administrative bodies, and between administrators and members of campus. 

Sandlin points to the bias report form that students were widely encouraged to use by administrators to report those who shouted racial slurs at the lacrosse game, or other incidents of bias or discimination. “People are using the form like they’ve never used the form before. So now, the next step is, is there transparency? What happens when you submit a report– are you contacted? Do you get enough support?”

Sandlin also says that communication between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs could improve, especially to ensure that faculty are aware of the issues on campus that affect student life. “I think that we sometimes think that the students’ academic life is separate from their life outside the classroom, and we need to do a better job of understanding that the college experience is a holistic experience. Whatever happens in the classroom impacts their lives outside of the classroom, and whatever happens outside the classroom definitely impacts the way that students can learn.”

Students in particular are concerned about a perceived lack of transparency or response surrounding the University’s ongoing investigation of the lacrosse game. While students widely used the bias report form, the University has not communicated with students about their reports or the status of the investigation.

Burruss said, “We don’t even know who the people were yet. And I feel like it’s fallen out of conversation.” While he speculated that the University was legally limited in its capacity to discuss the investigation, he said, “If we don’t hear from them eventually then I’m just going to assume they’ve done nothing.” 

Ali said, “If those kids that said all those racial slurs were gone from this campus, I would feel so safe because that means the school sees what’s wrong and they take action. A school would do that if they wanted to ensure my safety. And I know they know who they are, they’ve known who they are.”