Education

Seventy-eight faculty members at the University of Louisville sent a letter to President James Ramsey on Thursday, harshly criticizing him and his administration for a lack of cultural sensitivity.

The letter comes a week after a photo of Ramsey, his wife, his chief of staff, and other top university staffers dressed in sombreros, fake bushy mustaches, and other stereotypical Mexican garb appeared online.

Students and faculty protested outside Ramsey’s office late last week, and calls for a more comprehensive response from the U of L president have intensified.

In the letter, faculty members write that while they do not doubt Ramsey’s intention was innocent, his apparent failure to understand that the photo could cause Latinos and others to feel disenfranchised showed a lack of sensitivity.

“Irrespective of intent, this incident appears to demonstrate that efforts to foster and value diversity, and to achieve equity, are mere window-dressing — that the real message has simply not gotten through to those whose decisions determine the future of the university,” they wrote. “For this reason the purity of your intentions is if anything more worrisome.”

The letter goes on to put the incident in a broader context.

“Truth be told, this latest incident is only one of a drumbeat of crises that have embarrassed the university and made many ashamed to be associated with it,” they wrote. “Years of effort — and millions of dollars spent — to painstakingly build the university’s reputation in academia and standing in the community have been overshadowed.”

One of the letter’s 78 signatures came from Kaila Story, co-host of WFPL’s Strange Fruit and U of L’s Audre Lorde Chair for race, class, gender and sexuality studies. She said the incident undermines her efforts to educate students.

“I’ve had lectures on problematic Halloween costumes,” Story said during a taping of an upcoming show. “Teaching my students that, again, a culture is not a costume.”

U of L Diversity Literacy Program Director David Owen said to address the issue, Ramsey should listen to students about why his costume is seen as offensive. Owen also signed the letter.

“I don’t think the harm can be undone,” he told Story on Strange Fruit.

But he said it can be addressed, and Owen thinks so far, Ramsey has failed to show he cares.

A spokesman for the university said last week shortly after the photo surfaced that the president’s office will commit to participating in diversity training. The details of the training haven’t been announced.

The university already offers a number of diversity training opportunities, but upper-level administrators rarely participate, said Owen, who is also a professor of philosophy. But he said an additional training specifically for Ramsey and addressing this issue could still be effective.

“Then they’ve gotten to a point where they understand the issues, they understand why it was harmful, and they can talk to others about it,” Owen said. “That’s going to take some time to get to that point,  clearly there’s a long way to go.”

U of L spokesman John Karman declined to comment on the letter and referred WFPL to previous statements on the incident.

During the past several months, Ramsey has been under fire for his disproportionately large salary, which places him in the top echelon nationally among presidents of public universities. And just weeks ago, a former escort released a book accusing former U of L basketball staffer Andre McGee of paying thousands of dollars for escorts to dance for and have sex with recruits and players between 2010 and 2014.

The faculty letter was delivered to Ramsey and the U of L Board of Trustees on Thursday. The full text is here:

Dear President Ramsey,

By now many individuals and constituencies have communicated with you regarding the photo of your staff Halloween party, and the negative publicity has gone international. As faculty members, we have read the public statements from students who demonstrated in Grawemeyer Hall and from the Hispanic Latin@ Faculty and Staff Association. We share their concerns and urge you to take concrete proactive measures to reaffirm that the University values them and every member of the community.

We do not doubt that you had no intention to offend or harm. The harm of this incident is not in the intentions of the people who dressed up in stereotypical garb, but in the effect it has on students, employees, and other members of the community. And the effect is not limited to those whose stereotypical dress and comportment were ridiculed. Irrespective of intent, this incident appears to demonstrate that efforts to foster and value diversity, and to achieve equity, are mere window-dressing – that the real message has simply not gotten through to those whose decisions determine the future of the University. For this reason the purity of your intentions is if anything more worrisome. We can only wonder how it could not even have occurred to anyone that offense would be taken and that such behavior would contribute to the marginalization of Latinos/Latinas. We are therefore especially glad that you have committed to undertake diversity training for yourself and your top staff. Such training should be an essential job qualification of any administrator at the University of Louisville.

Truth be told, this latest incident is only one of a drumbeat of crises that have embarrassed the university and made many ashamed to be associated with it. Years of effort – and millions of dollars spent – to painstakingly build the University’s reputation in academia and standing in the community have been overshadowed. We have yet to discover what effect these will have on recruiting of students and faculty, or on the value of a U of L degree. Moreover, the University’s responses to these incidents have tended to shift accountability downward. The University faces a crisis of accountability and a consequent lack of confidence in its leadership. We cannot overstate how essential it is that you address this crisis in a real and verifiable way, through transparency and accountability. We look forward to hearing – in detail – how your office will remedy this unacceptable situation.

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