Education

University of Louisville President James Ramsey personally apologized to the university community Friday afternoon, a full day after controversy erupted over a photo of Ramsey and top school staffers dressed in sombreros and stereotypical Mexican garb.

“We did not intend to cause harm or to be insensitive,” Ramsey said in the written apology.

The missive was of little solace to some students on campus, several of whom took sharp offense to the snapshot of a smiling Ramsey, his wife, his chief of staff Kathleen Smith, and 16 other staffers on the steps of the university’s presidential mansion in Cherokee Triangle.

About 75 students occupied Grawemeyer Hall on campus Friday afternoon. They held signs aloft and joined in chants such as “racist Ramsey has got to go,” and called the costumes insensitive and racist.

“What kind of message is it sending to our community members, our students here when the president of your university is dressing in stereotypical Mexican clothing that further reinforces racist stereotypes about my people,” said Tania Avalos, a 22-year-old graduate student.

Avalos, who is Mexican, said when a person, especially one in a leadership position such as Ramsey, acts like this, it perpetuates a stereotype of the Mexican culture and reinforces a systemic barrier in a push for equality.

“Why are we fighting when people in power like President Ramsey are fighting against us,” Avalos said.

Freshman Leonardo Salinas-Chacón said the school tries to portray an image of inclusion and diversity, but having university leaders pose for such a photo “conflicts with that idea.”

The Courier-Journal photo sparked outrage on campus. Scott Utterback/Courier-Journal

The Courier-Journal photo sparked outrage on campus.

“We need people to know that this is not OK,” he said. “Just like blackface isn’t OK, just like wearing indigenous garbs isn’t OK, just like making fun of Asian people isn’t OK. Making fun of Hispanics isn’t OK.”

Instead of posing for photos, Salinas-Chacón, 18, said he’d rather see Ramsey put effort towards helping raise the retention rate for minority students.

The controversial photo was taken recently by a Courier-Journal photographer. Salinas-Chacón lamented that others failed to realize the offensive nature of the costumes prior to publishing and sharing.

The photo was posted online Wednesday as part of a slideshow accompanying the newspaper’s story about the use, and lack of use, of the mansion. The photo garnered little attention until midday Thursday, when it rocketed across social media, often alongside strong comments for the university’s leader.

Ramsey stands in the corner of the photo in a sombrero and a rainbow-striped poncho. Most of the other staffers wear sombreros, don black, bushy mustaches and hold maracas. The crowd is overwhelmingly white.

Other students, such as 22-year-old Zach Winfield, said Friday that the reaction to the photo has been overblown.

“I don’t think dressing up like that is necessarily culturally insensitive,” he said. “In fact, I’d say in a way it’s embracing the culture that garment represents. I think it’s a really, really huge overreaction.”
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Meanwhile, other university leaders were mum, or downplayed the matter.

Paul Diaz, a Cuban-American who was recently appointed to the school’s Board of Trustees, was nonplussed.

“There are a lot of other important things we should be talking about,” he said.

Other members of the Board of Trustees, which governs the school, including chairman Larry Benz, were not immediately available for comment.

Samuel Marcosson, a veteran University of Louisville professor of law, lambasted Ramsey.

“This is the lowest point in what has been a slow and painful descent for a University President whose tenure had been marked by some tremendous achievements and progress for U of L,” Marcosson wrote on Facebook, and later confirmed in comments to WFPL. “A complete failure of leadership and understanding, one which makes me sad and embarrassed for the University I have served for nearly two decades.”

Similar photos have sidelined and shamed other college fraternities and sororities. A Penn State University sorority was suspended, and later shuttered in 2014, after controversial photos surfaced showing about 20 women dressed in stereotypical Mexican garb, with sombreros and fake mustaches. The photos were from a 2012 Halloween party, according to media reports.

Last year, photos of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority students with sombreros, mustaches and maracas caused an uproar at Columbia University. The students were participating in a supposed Olympic-themed mixer.

Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, said photos of ethnic stereotypes wouldn’t be surprising if they came from a fraternity or sorority.

“This is a university president who should know better,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling and completely unacceptable that in 2015 you would have a university president dressed up as a blatant stereotype.”

University of Louisville President James Ramsey during a Board of Trustees meeting.

University of Louisville President James Ramsey during a Board of Trustees meeting.

Ramsey was initially unavailable to comment late Thursday afternoon as criticism mounted. He was traveling with the football team to a game in North Carolina.

The university deferred to Ramsey’s chief of staff, Kathleen Smith, who issued a “sincere apology for the choice of Halloween costumes” at the staff lunch. Smith herself is in the photo wearing black, holding a maraca and sporting a fake mustache on her upper lip.

Smith said “we commit” to a series of campus conversations to “further focus on diversity and racial equality issues.”

The controversy comes at a tumultuous time for the university. The school and its vaunted basketball program are mired in scandal following a madam’s claim that a basketball staffer hired women to strip and have sex with recruits in a dormitory. Her allegations, lodged in a book and several media reports, have garnered international headlines and spurred ongoing police, university and NCAA investigations.  On Friday, ESPN reported that the Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office has begun issuing grand jury subpoenas in connection with the allegations.

The school’s Board of Trustees has been in the spotlight in recent months. The group was found to be among the least diverse in the state and in violation of state law regarding minority representation. In the wake of an attorney general ruling, the governor appointed a black, former Louisville deputy mayor, to the board.

Meanwhile, Ramsey, has faced withering scrutiny over his leadership and pay.  He is among the most well-compensated presidents at schools similar in size to U of L.  In the last fiscal year, his total pay, including bonuses and other types of compensation, climbed to slightly more than $1.1 million. Trustees in July gave him a 3 percent raise, as well as a bonus equal 25 percent his base salary. He is among the most well-compensated presidents at schools considered peers to U of L.

The supplemental funds came from the University of Louisville Foundation, a non-profit organization that manages the university’s $1.1 billion foundation. Amid widespread criticism, State Auditor Adam Edelen announced his office was investigating the foundation and the board’s finances.

Here is the full statement Ramsey released Friday:

I want to personally apologize for the recent incident and any pain that it may have caused our students, faculty, staff and the community.  We did not intend to cause harm or to be insensitive. i hope this doesn’t detract from the hard work we — the entire UofL Community — have done and continue to do in building an inclusive, supportive, welcoming campus for all our university family. I pledge to work to ensure that we move forward as one university.

 

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.