CMU forgot about its summer promise for Black lives

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On July 2, President Jahanian shared a letter titled “Confronting Racism and Promoting Equity and Inclusion” after nearly two months of petitions, town halls, and outcry from students, staff, and faculty alike. Reading the plan on that summer afternoon was the first time in months that I had some hope for the state of Carnegie Mellon University — and above all, the institution’s commitment to advocating for all students from every lived experience.

That feeling was short-lived.

When students at Carnegie Mellon so desperately needed action instead of words, advocacy instead of ignorance, empathy instead of cruelty, Carnegie Mellon administrators missed the mark this semester. From the very first day of classes to the final week, the Carnegie Mellon community has faced negligence wrapped in emails with platitudes of caring and understanding.

What does building an “inclusive culture that promotes equity for all and is intolerant of racism, discrimination, and bias” look like? Not a lot of people know — myself included. However, I know what it doesn’t look like.

It is certainly not the dead-end investigation on the vandalism of The Fence that happened on the first day of class; and neither is the university’s lackluster initial response which affirmed that Black Lives Matter, but lacked the urgency and care the situation necessitated. Rather than doing the work to mend the wounds, it was up to students to defend the Fence overnight, to spread the message throughout the entire Pittsburgh campus that Black lives matter at Carnegie Mellon. It was up to Black students to create a virtual space for community members to reflect, to feel sad, and to be angry.

The biggest grievance on the minds of many Carnegie Mellon students, staff, and faculty is this institution’s inability — or rather, refusal — to do something meaningful about the reprehensible hiring of Richard Grenell. Instead of admitting that the hiring was at least irresponsible, the university has defended the racist, xenophobic, and factually incorrect statements made by Grenell with ‘free speech’ rhetoric that doesn’t address the issue of content. Again, it was up to students to write letters and petitions. It was up to alumni to stop their donations and encourage others to do the same. It was up to staff and faculty to write and personally sign a letter against Grenell’s hiring. To much of our disappointment, the university has failed to step up in ways other than adding another commission or committee to their growing roster.

My last bit of hope vanished when the university announced its compromise between Student Senate and the University Education Council: the ability to elect a course for pass/fail grading as part of the voucher process and an extra late drop voucher for the academic year. I admit that this is better than simply ignoring student senators and students who have been advocating for a more understanding grading policy during a pandemic, but it is not enough. Carnegie Mellon students have notoriously struggled with mental health issues on top of a stressful class schedule; when you throw in a pandemic that has been handled in a dangerously irresponsible manner, a decreased access to staff, faculty, and campus resources, and the inevitable unforeseen circumstances that exist in a virtual world, this struggle is multiplied by a thousand. It should not be ludicrous to suggest that maybe we need a grading policy similar to the one presented in the Spring 2020 semester — and students agree, as noted in a petition that gained over a thousand signatures. It is embarrassing to see my university decide against empathy, understanding, and kindness for the sake of prestige or academic rigor. It is shameful.

For clarification, there is good work happening at Carnegie Mellon — specifically from Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) staff, faculty, and students who often do not get the credit they deserve. I want to make it clear that I know this work is happening and I am proud of it. It is Carnegie Mellon students, faculty, and staff that make me proud to be a Tartan — not the structures of this institution that have been inherently complicit to racism, sexism, elitism, and more.

Students have had the fear that Carnegie Mellon does not care about anything that threatens their bottom line goals and opportunities for profit; however, in a short span of four months, this university has proven itself guilty as charged. It makes some of us angry, sad, and disappointed that a school we pay to attend, that we are supposed to be proud of, will not give us the time of day. To me, it is unbearably heartbreaking.