Keith Jenkins’ remarks from 2020 President’s Address to the Community

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun.

Let us march on ‘til victory is won.”

Good morning. I am honored to greet you with an excerpt from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known to many as the Black National Anthem, written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson with music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson.

It’s a song about transcending difficulties—difficulties that have never fully receded.

The song, first performed in 1900 in Jacksonville, FL, “allows us to acknowledge all of the brutalities and inhumanities and dispossession that came with enslavement, that came with Jim Crow, that comes still today with disenfranchisement, police brutality, dispossession of education and resources” while at the same time continuing “to announce that we see this brighter future, that we believe that something will change.”

2020 has proven to be a challenging year.

Ready or not, the world was challenged to change in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.  And we did.

Ready or not, following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, a nation was challenged to change it’s ways in response to systemic racism and social inequity. And that change, I believe, is underway.

Against that backdrop, Rochester Institute of Technology was challenged to reexamine how we deliver education in the midst of a global pandemic as well as reexamine our own history and commitment deficiencies regarding Black, Indigenous and people of color—whether regarding access and success of students, staff and faculty or effectively creating the climate of inclusion we endeavor to establish. 

RIT’s response as a university against this backdrop?  Stay the course regarding actions already implemented through decades to move us forward in creating a more diverse and inclusive university and take immediate action against systemic racism and for social equity for all. 

Regarding actions already implemented, this year, RIT welcomes the most diverse class of students in it’s history—at a time when for the ninth year in a row, RIT has been listed as one of the “Top 200 Colleges for Native Americans” in the Society’s Winds of Change magazine and for the 7th year in a row, RIT is awarded the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award by INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine and the 6th year in a row named Diversity Champion!  So, stay the course regarding commitments and actions already underway.

But the public murder of George Floyd forced this nation, this state, this city, this university, us—individually and collectively, to stop and ask ourselves, “Have we been as attentive, just, fair, committed to anti-Blackness, anti-racism, social justice as we could be?  Have we done our best?”  Have we held each other accountable?  The feedback—we can do more.  We must do more. 

So, from June through August we paused to listen to students, staff and faculty who shared their concerns regarding our community—whether Student Government, the ALANA Collegiate Association, Black Awareness Coordinating Committee, Global Union; Academic Senate, Staff Council, NTID Advisory Group, Alums, Deans, Vice Presidents, or Trustees—we listened.  One individual shared, “We need to prepare for some really challenging conversations—talk not only about racism but equally talk about white privilege, how it operates, how it acts to amplify racial inequality.” And through this process of listening, about 100 or so recommendations have been shared.  Some action items are already being realized—

  • permanently displaying the Black Lives Matter flag alongside the Haudenosaunee Confederacy flag, the Sign Union flag and the Pride flag in the Student Alumni Union;
  • welcoming the largest Summer Experience class in the history of the initiative, 89 students, who managed to build community via virtual classes and activities, an outstanding undertaking by MCAS and HEOP;
  • introducing the reporting form for bias-related incidents for students on August 12fth;
  • preparing for all first-year RIT students to receive diversity and inclusion education in their RIT 365 courses via Diversity Theater’s award-winning short film, Brick by Brick, written, directed and produced by Tia Chapman DaCosta;
  • witnessing the success of the Office of Faculty Diversity and Recruitment’s outreach strategy to some of our great HBCU’s, HSI’s, along with universities that produce the highest number of women and BIPOC PhD graduates in America.  The result—nearly 40% of our incoming FFCEP cohort comes from universities where OFDR engaged in campus outreach visits;
  • and preparing for the long-awaited installation of the Olivia Kim Frederick Douglass sculpture in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Black Awareness Coordinating Committee, completed and scheduled for installation later this semester.

But our hope rests in our community, RIT, who have responded to the calls for anti-racism and social justice with nearly 100 recommendations to take further action. 

Our next step is to prioritize the recommendations in the coming weeks as we take more immediate action to move forward.  And we applaud Academic Affairs who has already implemented diversity education sessions for College leadership; Academic Senate, who has already voted to establish a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Standing Committee; Staff Council, who have already begun talks regarding the same; and communication between the College of Liberal Arts and NTID regarding a recommendation to explore a black studies major at RIT.

The Division of Diversity & Inclusion embraces the opportunities to partner all the more with each of you in this great work.

So, “welcome to the start of another exciting academic year!”

Please check out the Division of Diversity and Inclusion’s Tigers Imprint Showcase (slide) for the 2019-2020 Academic Year.  Join me, also, in welcoming Orlando J. Ortiz as the 2020-2021 RIT Minett Professor.  And, in addition to partaking in innovative heritage month celebration approaches, be on the lookout for our regular Spring semester celebrations—“Let Freedom Ring” and “Expressions of King’s Legacy”.  

We look forward to another rewarding year.  Let us march on "‘til victory is won.”