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President Gregory L. Fenves discusses actions Emory is taking to address racial justice

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The following message was sent to the Emory community on Aug. 13, 2020, by President Gregory L. Fenves:


Dear Emory community members,

Congressman John Lewis died last month, and his loss — along with the passing of civil rights leaders Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian and Rev. Joseph Lowery — has been felt in every corner of our nation, but especially here in Atlanta. Congressman Lewis dedicated his time on earth to public service and a never-ending fight for justice and equality. I had the honor of meeting him in 2014 at a civil rights summit in Austin, and I wish I could’ve had the chance to speak with him here, as part of the Atlanta and Emory communities that he supported throughout his long career in Congress.

This summer, a new chapter in our nation’s history was written. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other African Americans sparked an awakening to the malignant effects of anti-Black racism — amplifying horrific experiences that for many African Americans are an inescapable part of life. Our community, and especially our students, came together to share their voices in solidarity with so many inspired people across the nation — to fight racism and police violence and call for action throughout society and at Emory.

During these recent months, I and other Emory leadership met with student leaders to discuss the university’s path forward, and I also listened to heartbreaking stories of racism, fear, and frustration in other ways, including through blackatemory. Let me be clear that racism has no place at Emory. I want to recognize all those students, along with staff and faculty, who bravely shared their experiences and who have taken this historic moment and helped turn it into a movement for justice.

Black students have organized, worked together, and recently presented the university with a number of important initiatives. Other student groups and faculty across schools have also made their voices heard. Today, I’d like to share actions the university has taken and will continue to take — inspired directly by the vision, energy, and guidance of our students and community — to improve the Emory experience and live up to our values so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and shared purpose.


I. The Legacy of Slavery

The university acknowledges the undeniable wrong and harmful legacy of slavery, including the role Emory played in slavery early in its history. In 2011, the Board of Trustees took action to adopt a statement of regret over the university’s involvement with slavery. The statement was issued in connection with a national conference, “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies,” which examined the impact of the African slave trade and the enslavement of people of African descent in institutions of higher education in the Atlantic world.

It has now been a decade since then, and I have asked the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) along with the Emory Libraries to plan a second conference about the legacy of slavery and racism at Emory and other universities. Slated for Fall 2021, this conference will also draw on faculty expertise, continuing and expanding on the university’s acknowledgement of the role of slavery in its history.

Emory’s original campus in Oxford, Georgia — now home of Oxford College — was largely built through the labor of enslaved Black people, and I will tour that campus later this month to learn more. I will consult with community members on the Oxford and Atlanta campuses to discuss how to acknowledge this indelible part of Emory’s history. I will work with Oxford College Dean Doug Hicks as well as Carol Henderson, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer, and Advisor to the President, to lead an effort to create a lasting memorial to the enslaved persons who built the original university.

II. Evaluating Honorific Names on Campus

In recent years, faculty, staff, and students have raised important questions about the names and honorific designations traditionally recognized on our campus. The University Committee on Naming Honors was established in 2019 to evaluate the naming of key honorific titles.

I am reappointing this presidential committee and directing it to expedite its work this semester, with the stipulation that its membership be broadly representative of campus constituencies, including adding additional student members to its ranks. I will ask this group to begin an evaluation of locations, named professorships, and other honorific titles. The committee will present its findings to me later this fall, with next steps, including a process for student, faculty, and staff engagement, to be determined shortly thereafter.

III. Emory Police Department

Our current historical moment has allowed us to re-engage our own Emory Police Department (EPD), consider what kind of public safety we want on campus, and to build stronger alliances between EPD, our university community, and surrounding neighborhoods. It is vital that the police department has the confidence and trust of the entire Emory University community for everyone to be, and feel, safe.

To begin that process, Emory engaged Justice & Sustainability Associates (JSA), led by Don Edwards, to hold conversations with students, faculty, and staff about university policing. Since June, JSA has organized discussions across campus and looked closely at Emory’s use-of-force policies, training, and transparency.

JSA’s work has begun and the preliminary recommendations include:

  • Creating university-wide working groups to help define the role of EPD on the Emory campus;
  • Restaffing and augmenting the Community Engagement Council to initiate oversight, monitoring, and evaluation of the EPD based on agreed purposes and objectives. This council will consist of on- and off-campus stakeholders and meetings will be open to the public; and
  • Reviewing and changing policies related to use-of-force to be consistent with policing best practices.

A full report of JSA’s observations, findings, and recommendations will be made available later this semester.

IV. Affinity Group Spaces

Affinity groups, and the spaces provided for them, empower students to deeply engage, collaborate, and thrive throughout their academic experience at Emory. After speaking with affinity group leaders and community members, as well as visiting their on-campus spaces, I have decided we must make substantial improvements to these centers for student experience at Emory. 

I have asked the team in the Office of Planning, Design, and Construction within the Campus Services Department, overseen by Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Enku Gelaye, to initiate a process for making short-term enhancements to the spaces. We will move quickly to renovate existing spaces so that we offer an inclusive and welcoming environment to students.

Additionally, if there are future budget reductions due to COVID-19, the university is committed to preserving resources that have been designated to serve underserved communities, so that these affinity group spaces and offices don’t reduce their services.

V. Hiring a Director of Diversity and Inclusion Education and Outreach

In recent years, new positions have been created to strengthen Emory’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. But, still, more education and guidance are needed. To this end, the university recently launched a search for a Director of Diversity and Inclusion Education and Outreach who will be charged with:

  • Developing educational programming and training for staff, faculty, and leadership on issues related to diversity and bias prevention;
  • Serving as a strategic thought leader who builds, maintains, and shares resources (tools, training opportunities, etc.) across campus; and
  • Leading educational campaigns and platforms, such as symposia and colloquiums, that extend the venues and targets of educational outreach.

My goal is for the Director of Diversity and Inclusion Education and Outreach to start at Emory in the 2020-2021 academic year. This person will be based within Learning and Organizational Development in Human Resources and will work with the Chief Diversity Officer, the Ombuds Office, the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, the Oxford Center for Teaching and Scholarship and other key offices and programs to support diversity, equity, and inclusion at Emory.

VI. Race and Ethnicity General Education Requirement

Fall 2021 will include the rollout of a new general education requirement (GER) that focuses on race and ethnicity for undergraduate students in Emory College of Arts and Sciences (ECAS), with the support of Oxford College. The purpose of this requirement is to provide students with opportunities to learn about race and ethnicity; political, economic and social exclusions; and the effects of structural inequality.

This GER was passed by the Emory College faculty in Spring 2020 and will go into effect with the entering class of Fall 2021. Many students contributed to the discussion about the need for this requirement in recent years.

Emory College Dean Michael Elliott and ECAS leadership will contact students early in the new academic year to discuss student representation in the implementation plan for this new GER. Having named the study of race and inequality as a priority in its strategic plan, ECAS will provide a robust set of curricular offerings to fulfill this requirement.

VII. Presenting the Prior Demands of Black Students

Many generations of Black students have called for change at Emory and, painfully, their voices have not always been heard. This summer, our student leaders made it very clear that they are aware of the legacy of these students and understand that their efforts build on the significant work of previous classes who deserve recognition and reevaluation.

Dean Yolanda Cooper, University Librarian, will be charged with presenting prior demands from Black students in a more formal way to ensure they are memorialized in Emory’s history, preserved in the university archives, and made publicly available on the university’s website. We will also review these documents in detail and engage with alumni who were involved in creating them.

VIII. Free Expression

Emory is committed to an environment where freedom of expression is valued, promoted, and encouraged. While recognizing that our educational mission requires many forms of expression — including freedom of thought, inquiry, speech, activism, and assembly — we also understand that these freedoms can come into conflict with Emory’s commitment to maintaining an environment that is free of unlawful discrimination or harassment. 

The Respect for Open Expression Policy was implemented in 2013 to affirm Emory’s commitment to free expression while acknowledging the disagreements and tensions. Many at our university have concerns about this policy and have asked for it to be revisited. I am still familiarizing myself with the policy and am engaging in discussions with the University Senate. I will be examining these issues this semester.


These are a few actions that we are taking to address the important concerns of our students and community members. It is not lost on me that our students, faculty, staff, and alumni have been behind some of the greatest strides the university has made throughout its history. Yet it is crucial that university leadership not simply put the burden of responsibility on you — including or especially those from Black, Latinx, Asian, Native and Indigenous communities, among others. We all must work in partnership to make progress — year in and year out — together. That is something I commit to doing as president.   

I look forward to continuing my work with our students and all of Emory as we strive to make a research university focused on academic excellence into a more equitable, just, and inclusive community. 



Gregory L. Fenves




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