Loss of Black professors in UI English department prompts petition

Change UIowa English created a petition and letter, asking university administrators to make the department more inclusive and diverse.


Natalie Dunlap, News Reporter

University of Iowa senior and Earthwords nonfiction editor Shalini Jasti said when she entered the English department, she had a lot of hopes and believed she would find her home in the department.

While in class, however, Jasti said she discovered that many white professors didn’t know how to handle diverse subject matter in texts.

“I’ve definitely been in workshop classes and English classes where my professors would either tell me to write more like white authors, or to write more like my personality — but they didn’t mean my personality,” Jasti said. “They meant write more how I look.”

Her experience, including the loss of five Black English faculty within the last two years, led her to join leaders of student organizations close to the English department in creating a letter and petition addressed to UI President Bruce Harreld, the Offices of the Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Provost.

It includes a list of demands for improved diversity and anti-racism training for white professors; a committee in the liberal arts college dedicated to assessing the department’s commitment to diversity; prioritization of the retention of faculty of color, and priority given to Black faculty that want to teach African-American literature courses.

The letter’s co-signers shared the petition on social media and have posted updates on the Facebook page Change UIowa English. As of Monday, the petition had nearly 700 signatures.

The deadline to sign was Monday at 11:59 p.m. And the letter was scheduled for sending to Harreld, the liberal-arts dean, and the provost on Sept. 1.

Since the letter started circulating, faculty within the English department have worked with students to address their concerns. In response to a previous letter from the nonfiction writing program, UI English Department Chair Loren Glass drafted a racial-justice action plan.

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The plan included syllabi amendments, diversity and inclusion workshops for faculty and Teaching Assistants, revising the department’s procedures manuals, creating anonymous climate surveys, and confidential reporting and consulting lines for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students.

Glass said he has talked with Jasti and other drafters of the latest letter about ways the department can meet their demands, and some areas in which change might be more challenging due to faculty resistance or the liberal-arts college’s rules and regulations.

“I think the department has needed to meet this challenge for some time, as has the college and university at large I would say,” Glass said. “I was proud that we had students who had both the courage and the fortitude to make their demands known.”

UI Director of English Undergraduate Studies Adam Hooks said the department has talked about curriculum reforms for a couple of years, and recently began their implementation. The letter pushed curriculum reform up to the forefront as something to address in the coming year, he said.

Glass and Hooks said while the English department is making these strides, it will need support from UI administration, particularly in regard to hiring practices.

Glass called the recruitment and retention of Black faculty both the most important and most difficult objective of reform.

“The English department would love to become a more diverse educational environment,” Hooks said, “… but we desperately need the support of upper administration to do that — we cannot do that on our own.”

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UI Interim Dean of the liberal-arts college Sara Sanders, who is also the college’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said the college just launched its Diversity Equity and Inclusivity action plan, which will address hiring practices and support of professors of color, and require implementation of annual DEI work plans and educational opportunities for leadership.

“…I look forward to talking with [students] directly about the legitimate issues they raise and their ideas for addressing them,” Sanders said.

Glass added that hiring Black faculty won’t be enough on its own, and the college needs to improve the environment of a historically white university in a predominantly white state, so that Black professors feel more comfortable living and working at the UI.

Jasti said she hopes that demands made in the letter will spark change that affects students after she graduates.

“We just really want this change to reform what the University of Iowa is labeled as because people will say is Iowa is Iowa, there is no diversity, but I don’t think a state should have the permanent label of a lack of diversity,” Jasti said. “I think that’s something that can and should be changed. “… I’m really hoping that this [petition] will shine a light on the greater need of diversity and inclusion within the University of Iowa and sort of the environment of the state as a whole.”