“Your apology is not good enough!” the student screamed across the table, pounding her fist to punctuate her anguish. She was the leader of a group of black students who burst into my office with an urgent message. “You are the president! You must DO something about this!” she cried, brandishing a paper that would soon be known in Trinity lore, infamously, as “the letter.”
The year was 1996, and we were reeling from “this” – a vile racist letter that some anonymous flamethrower deposited in mailboxes around campus. Then known as Trinity College, the school was in a dynamic period of transformation from our century-long identity as a predominantly white Catholic women’s college to a small university welcoming a diverse population of women of color from the city. Some constituents were clearly not happy that the demographics of Trinity’s student body were changing. To this very day I do not know if any of those individuals were responsible for the ugly letter that triggered the crisis.
Weeks of outrage and recriminations ensued, exposing fault lines around issues of race and social class in this venerable institution. And yet, in the end, “the letter” made Trinity stronger, more fearless, more confident in embracing our new identity as a predominantly black institution serving a distinctive population of low income students from the Washington region.
I thought of those difficult days 20 years ago at Trinity as I read about the protests at the University of Missouri, leading to the resignation of the president and chancellor. What could President Timothy Wolfe have done differently? From my own experience in the crucible of racial anger on campus, I learned both the power and limitations of a president in a period of racial crisis.
My first lesson was the hardest: I had to acknowledge humbly and sincerely that I could not possibly imagine the pain that my African American students were expressing. Of course, my first response was to say, “I feel your pain.” Nothing could be less constructive; I did not know or share my students’ experiences. I had to adopt an unlikely posture for a president, namely, to admit that I could never fully know what my students felt.
A president has to be open to showing this kind of vulnerability, to listen without knowing all the answers; to sit in the middle of crowded rooms overheated with emotion and allow the waves of anger to keep breaking overhead. In the midst of the crisis I told a friend that I felt like a sponge, absorbing the mess while trying to figure out how to wring out all of the hurt and ugliness, how to make our campus clean and whole again. A president must know that self-protection is the worst response; a president cannot simply walk away from crisis — or drive away without getting out of the car, one of President Wolfe’s gravest mistakes.
At the same time, as my students insisted, I had power and I had to use it — decisively, effectively, demonstrating my personal commitment and Trinity’s institutional commitment to confronting and rooting out the conditions of prejudice and racism that allowed “the letter” to break the campus wide open.
My second lesson was all about how to stand up and be the leader despite my knees knocking and stomach churning. Even in the midst of chaos, people crave leadership. We had forums —oh, my goodness, we had forums! We had faculty meetings, late nights in dorms and raucous debates about free speech (was “the letter” an exercise in free speech?) and racism (is racism only one way? were some black students being racist toward white students? why were the Latina students feeling left out?).
I learned that in order to be a good leader I had to name my own fear — I was deeply afraid of saying the wrong thing, of appearing to be too soft on racism, or too quick to agree with those who wanted to exploit the moment for their own gain. I was truly afraid that we would lose Trinity, itself, a precarious institution in those days that had almost no margin for error. I learned that the only way to fight the fire is to walk right through it. Learning to speak out loud about prejudice and fear, racial mythologies and the real facts about institutional racism became essential to moving forward.
Finally, I also learned that effective leadership to address campus racism requires specific actions. The hardest conversations were not with the black students, but with the faculty.
While most faculty eagerly used the moment to create necessary academic changes, a very few held fast to the belief that academic freedom meant they could reject demands to diversify curricula and personnel. One faculty member grew incensed when I told her I agreed with the students who complained that in the entire body of material covered in her courses there was not even one example of the contributions of an African American person in a discipline replete with the works of many accomplished black intellectuals. Other faculty resented my insistence on seeing a diverse pool of candidates in every single faculty search; I would not yield. Today, Trinity has an exceptionally talented faculty whose members are more than 50 percent African American, Latina and Asian.
Although we never learned who was responsible for “the letter,” in the larger sense, it was not important. Presidents must hold their campus communities accountable for the climate of racial honesty and respect, taking whatever actions are necessary to ensure justice and equal opportunity. With so much attention given recently to our obligation to prevent sexual assault on campus, we presidents must not let down our guard when it comes to the reality of racism that remains pervasive in American society. The University of Missouri is the latest, but surely not the last, reminder that the moral leadership of presidents is essential to ensure racial justice on campus.
Patricia McGuire is the president of Trinity Washington University in Washington D.C.