Race, Education, and Protest: A Conversation with Hamline University’s President

Podcast

Race, Education, and Protest: A Conversation with Hamline University’s President

Episode 12

Hamline University is less than ten miles from where George Floyd was killed by police late last month. In the second installment of EAB’s Leadership Voices series, EAB’s Sally Amoruso talks to Hamline President Fayneese Miller, Ph.D., about the impact of recent events on Hamline students and staff.

Dr. Miller shares how she’s responding to the civil upheaval in the Twin Cities, drawing a line between her experiences as a Black student during segregation and the candor with which she speaks with students today. She also talks about the tradition of social responsibility at Hamline University, and ways that she encourages her students to volunteer in the community beyond campus and to do their part in the fight for social justice.

Education leaders everywhere are making fast, difficult, and bold decisions. This podcast episode is part of our Leadership Voices series, where we spotlight leaders who are meeting extraordinary challenges with vision and courage.

Dr. Fayneese Miller

“Social justice for Hamline University means being actively engaged, being civically engaged, understanding and appreciating the various communities in which you live and work in every possible way.”

Dr. Fayneese Miller
Dr. Fayneese Miller

"We encourage our students to know what’s going on and to be a part of it, not to be silent, but to be active participants."

Dr. Fayneese Miller
Dr. Fayneese Miller

"What I see happening now that gives me hope is that it is a problem that is perceived as not just a problem for black, brown, and indigenous people. It is a problem of our nation.”

Dr. Fayneese Miller

Transcript

00:12 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours, the weekly podcast covering education’s top issues. In the last few weeks, we’ve experienced some mass protests in this country and a lot of calls for social justice that were sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis just late last month. Talking about how these events have impacted students, we’re joined today by Dr. Fayneese Miller, President of Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to chat with my friend, EAB’s own Sally Amoruso. This is our second installment of Leadership Voices, and Dr. Miller shares how her experience growing up as an African American woman in a segregated community informed her response to recent protests as a leader in her community. She’ll also talk about how that experience, it shaped this candid approach she’s taken when talking with students, and the ways she encourages her students to do their part in the fight for social justice beyond campus in the Twin Cities, keeping this tradition of social responsibility at Hamline. Thanks for listening, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:20 Sally Amoruso: I am here today with President Fayneese Miller, the president of Hamline University and a constant source of inspiration for me personally, so I’m delighted to be here. And we are going to talk about some of the current challenges facing our society and how higher ed is addressing those and how she has brought her own perspectives to bear on those issues as well. So President Miller, Hamline is in Saint Paul, Minnesota, less than 10 miles from the intersection where on May 25th, Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as he begged for his life. And protests across the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area have continued for the last several weeks, as they have across dozens of other US cities. You, President Miller, are an African American woman, a mother of a young black man, an esteemed social psychologist who founded Brown University’s Ethnic Studies program, and the president of the oldest university in Minnesota. What a unique personal and professional perspective you bring to the racial tensions that are facing our country and indeed Hamline’s community right now. So first of all, how are you doing?

02:36 Fayneese Miller: Well, Sally, let me begin first by thanking you, and thanks for asking how I’m doing. I’m fine. These are troubling times. We’re navigating the waters unlike waters we’ve navigated in a very long time, but I’m happy to say that I’m healthy, I’m safe, and I remain hopeful. There’s lots still to be hopeful about.

03:05 SA: I’d love to hear you share what you’ve seen on your own campus and in the surrounding communities over the last few weeks.

03:12 FM: Well, my campus has been part of the protest in the sense that a Target is very near Hamline’s campus, and a Target is where much of this happened. So the day after the murder of George Floyd, the protesters came down Snelling Street, and Hamline is right off Snelling Street. Near us, catty-corner to our campus, a pharmacy was burned down, a Speedway was vandalized, and many came on our campus. But for whatever reason, I don’t know, they did not damage our campus at all. No fires were set, no windows were broken, no attempts to break into buildings. So Hamline is doing fine, and this is important to us because even during the pandemic, beginning of the pandemic, we had over 200 students on our campus and we still have students on our campus. Not over 200 anymore, but we still have students on our campus, so it’s very important to us that our campus remain as safe as we could possibly make it. So we suffered no damage, and I want to say that the reason why this is so important is that Hamline is only about a mile away from where Philando Castile was murdered.

04:28 SA: Yes.

04:29 FM: So the protesters moving in that direction, and understanding the weight of everything that’s occurred and the anger, the anguish that’s there, they could have responded in a very different way at our campus, but I think they saw a place… A campus is a very important place and therefore did not want to… They saw it as being a part of the change, not pushing back against the change.

04:55 SA: I see, because that’s not the case with all of the campuses across Minnesota or the Saint Paul-Minneapolis area by any means.

05:02 FM: That’s correct, it’s not. There are campuses that have sustained some damage, but we have not, and we’ve continued to… We’ve lifted some of the things that we were doing because they have respected our campus. But again, when I look at the protesters and what they’re doing, it is very respectful. I live on Summit Avenue, and if anyone was watching some of the news over the last few days, some of the bigger protests have been on Summit Avenue, because that is where the governor lives. And so, the bigger protests have been right in front of my door, because I live near the governor. And I have been impressed with the way in which they have presented themselves. I’ve been impressed with the message that they’re sending. I’ve been impressed with them in so many different ways, so again, when I say I remain hopeful, they are one of the reasons why I am hopeful.

05:57 SA: Hamline’s known for its culture of social justice and service, actually, and I’m curious, what does that mean for how you and your students are approaching the current situation?

06:09 FM: Social justice for Hamline University means being actively engaged, being civically engaged. It means understanding and appreciating the various communities in which you live and work in every possible way. So we encourage our students to know what’s going on and to be a part of it, not to be silent, but to be active participants. And as a result of that, many Hamline students, many members of our community are a part of the protests. They are out there, they’re letting their voices be heard, they’re making it clear that what is happening and what has happened for many, many years is not acceptable. We have students every year, beginning of the year, first-year students, we send everyone out into the community to find out what they can do for the community. So they go to various agencies and they volunteer.

07:00 SA: Wow.

07:00 FM: Yeah, and we want them to know they are part of a community, not separate from a community. Hamline University students have been recognized for being among the top voters, the highest percentage of college students who vote in the nation. Again, that’s a part of our DNA. We have a criminal justice department. Our criminal justice department has been working with the Saint Paul police for years, not just on cultural awareness, but on policing. How do you do responsible policing? All of those things has been going on as a part of campus, that’s a part of our DNA, it’s part of who we are at Hamline University.

07:36 SA: You know, when I think about you as a leader, Fayneese, you are not only in close contact with your students, but you’ve actually chosen to present a very authentic self, and at times to show your vulnerability as well. Has it always been the case? And also, what benefits do you see to that level of openness?

07:56 FM: You know, I do not see myself as somehow separate from my community. I see myself as very much a part of this community. And I say to my team all the time, when I walk down the street, unless you’ve picked up a newspaper or looked at something, I’m just another member of the community, who happens to be president of Hamline University. When I arrived, I made it clear to all of my community that we are just that. So I say to students, “Come see me, come share whatever is on your mind. I don’t care what it is. If it’s a problem or not, come talk to me.” So I have open office hours for students, ’cause I say to students on the very first day that I demonstrate to them what it means to be a part of this community. I stand with my arms open wide, and I say to them, as a member of this community, this is what now happens, and I demonstrate for them my arms wrapping around them. They are part of my family, they are part of who I am, and I want them to know that they matter in every possible way. And so I don’t want to see myself as an us versus them. I wanted all of us to see ourselves as part of the same community. To me, that is what it means to be an effective and caring leader.

09:19 SA: I love that.

09:20 FM: So when we say that we’re servant leaders, what does that truly mean? It means allowing your vulnerabilities to be present, sharing those vulnerabilities with your community and asking them for input, involving them in coming up with solutions. That’s what that means.

09:44 SA: So I can imagine it would be quite intimidating to go to a presidential office hour as a student, but you’ve talked about how they have come to your office hours, how you’ve done listening circles, and they’ve brought up many, many different types of issues. Can you talk a little bit about that?

10:03 FM: Yes, we had… When Trump put in place the travel ban, at one of our forums, students took over the forum in a way that I didn’t think was appropriate, and I made it clear to them at that time that their voice is important, but how they share that voice is equally important.

10:27 SA: Yes.

10:27 FM: So as a result of that, we created listening circles so students could tell us how they were feeling, what was on their mind, without us always responding back. It meant we listened to what they had to say. And in many instances, what they had to say was important enough until we implemented change. We did some things in a very different way. Now, there are other times because of that, because I’ve been so open with students, sometimes if my statement or the decision I make is not one they like, of course they get upset. But I try to help them understand that in life, not all decisions will go your way, and let’s figure out how to address that. It doesn’t mean that I will change my mind, but it means that we need to have a conversation about it. So students know that we can converse about something. We might not always agree, but we can talk about it.

11:23 SA: Do you have an example of one of the decisions you made that perhaps students didn’t quite agree with where you had to engage in a conversation to get them to a level of understanding?

11:34 FM: Oh, my, yes. [chuckle] In September of last year, we had an incident with four of our athletes who, new to Hamline, very enthusiastic, singing a very popular hip-hop song and using the N-word, singing the N-word. They come from rural Minnesota. In their community, they’ve been doing it all along, it was a very homogeneous community. They now come to Hamline, very heterogeneous, very social justice oriented, very all those things. What they did, unfortunately, one of them recorded themselves and put it up on social media.

12:15 SA: Oh my goodness.

12:16 FM: Of course, that gets back to us because we monitor all social media with Hamline, you know, it gets back to us, and we immediately addressed it. What students wanted me to do was to punish the students, and I said no, that this is a learning opportunity. They need to learn what they can and cannot say. But if we punish them, they will not learn what it is… How to respond in the future. And so I did not take a punishment stance, I took a learning stance, and that did not… Some students did not like that at all. They wanted punishment. And so trying to get the students to understand that we’re an institution of higher learning. If they had used the N-word directly against a student, then the… How I would have responded would have been very different than I responded to students singing a song and not really understanding the problem with it because of the community in which they had come from. So that was a time when some of the community were angry with me, they did not like the fact that I did not punish, I did not ask for a public apology, but instead used it to educate, and I still stand by that decision to educate.

13:31 SA: It’s a great example. You recently shared that during the protests, there was a student who had been protesting on the I-35 Bridge when that tanker truck drove into the crowd and they sent you a pretty passionate message, similarly wanting you to do something in a specific way. Can you tell me a little bit about what they said and how you responded in this case?

13:55 FM: Yes. In this case, the email was the students wanting me to write a message that clearly stated that white supremacy was wrong, to take a stance against white supremacy. I understood why the student wanted me to do that because they were shaken up, they were hurt, they were all those kinds of things, because it was the first time that particular student had ever experienced something like that. This was a white student who was writing and asking me to write against white supremacy. And I responded to the student to remind them that what they experienced was what I have been experiencing all my life as other people like me, and this was their first opportunity of having someone come at them because of what they suspected about them rather than what they actually knew about them. So it was, again, using the opportunity to educate the student about why I did not feel the need to write an essay or write something condemning white supremacy when in fact, I’ve been doing that all my life, and that my life was a testament of standing up against white supremacy. But the student did not understand that because they had not lived the experience of a person of color. They were they’re supporting the cause, and now they themselves were being caught up in that and that was a new experience for them. So I did not denigrate the student, I understood that this was a student who was hurting, who was passionate about something, but also was naive.

15:41 SA: In both of those situations it strikes me that there may have been some implicit expectations of you because you are an African American leader, and that that might have led to even more of the surprise when your response was measured and when it was perhaps not as visceral and off the cuff as they wanted it to be. Do you think that’s true?

16:07 FM: I do think it’s true because right before getting that email from that student, I got an email from someone else who was connected to Hamline telling me how I should respond at this time. And in that email, they were using the example of another president and another president’s response to this whole incident, and that president, the University of Minnesota president who had taken action, action as a result of the president of the student government, who’s a black female that asked the president to sever the contract with the Minneapolis Police, because they have contracts with police coming on and being at their events, their large events.

16:48 FM: Well, one, Hamline doesn’t have large events that require police presence and we don’t have contracts with police, but what that person said to me is they wanted me to be bold just like the president of the University of Minnesota. So take a stance against the police, just like the president of the University of Minnesota. And I thought long and hard about that, and I finally wrote back and I said, I have been bold all my life, I have not had a choice to be anything other than bold. And to say to a black woman, a white woman saying to a black woman, here’s an example how to be bold like a white woman, show again a sense of privilege and not understanding my experience, although I understood why she was saying that, it did not… She did not understand the privileged position in which she found herself.

17:42 SA: Yes.

17:43 FM: And did not understand my life. I am someone who is a product of a segregation, did not understand my life at all, and I got it, but I felt as though I couldn’t be silent at that moment. I needed to say to her how I was feeling, and I still not quite sure she understood how I was feeling because the response back was, “But I want you to be bold.” And I’m going, “Hmm.” There isn’t a day in my life that I haven’t been bold, for me to become president of the Hamline University, that all kinds of things had to happen along the way.

18:24 SA: Yes.

18:24 FM: And I mean, when I was a graduate student, and I had a… And I was the only black person in my doctoral program at that time, it’s my first year as a graduate student. And I had a professor who would walk down the hallway with a toothbrush in his shirt pocket, and every time he saw me, he would put that tooth brush in his mouth so he wouldn’t have to speak to me. The fact that I showed up every single day and sat in class meant that I had to be bold, but if you don’t understand those experiences, if you don’t know it, then you feel as though you have the right to tell a black person how to be bold, when you don’t know that that’s what we have to be all of our life, bold, bold.

19:09 SA: It’s such a nuanced and complex message and you’re managing it so beautifully and with so much compassion for those students who were demanding this as well. A few minutes ago, you talked about the fact that you had experienced segregation, and I remember when we were first starting to get to know each other, you shared some of those stories with me and it was really quite impactful. In fact, I will never forget the story that you told me of having to walk by the whites only library every day to go to the much less well-resourced library for blacks. I would love to hear you ruminate a little bit on the similarities or differences that you see between this time of unrest that we’re facing and some of the protests following Dr. King’s and Robert Kennedy’s deaths.

20:06 FM: You know, I have a vivid memory of that time period. One, because very shortly after Dr. King’s death and Robert Kennedy’s death, there was a Poor People’s March, at the summer of ’68 was the Poor People’s March, and that Poor People’s March came through my home town, and my parents opened up our doors for people to stay at our home while they were making their way to Washington DC. As a child, I was in the thick of this and learning and understanding why people were making that march. Remember that march, even the reason why Dr. King was in Memphis was because of the two black sanitation workers who were killed. So here you again, you have neglect, you have… Not making sure that there’s a right thing in place in terms of a job to do to protect the people in the way which you need to protect the people. Now this is a different situation, but in some ways it’s not because they were both asking for justice, they were… In both instances, both looking at freedom, looking at equality, looking for a certain way of living your life, looking at appropriate wages. All of those kinds of things.

21:30 FM: Now, we could say maybe the march isn’t dealing with all those issues now, but yes it is, yes it is. Because the march is dealing with injustice today as it was dealing with freedom, equality, and the right to a decent pay in 1968. So I see that… Well, and I would say one of the big differences between the march today and the march in 1968 is that the march today is a rainbow, it’s a rainbow. You’ve got… I mean, I looked outside my house when I was out there with the protesters for a while on Thursday of last week, and I looked, and you had native indigenous people coming down in their indigenous garb, they’re dressed. You’ve got blacks, you’ve got whites, you’ve got Latinos, you’ve got Asians, you’ve got the whole racial spectrum out there together. And that’s not something you saw in 1968. So in some ways, the movement is similar, but it’s also very different and who’s owning the problem now? And not seeing it as a problem that is black, brown and indigenous people only, but as a problem that’s affecting all of society, and that’s the difference in the movement now. When you look at young people, it’s a significant number of young people around the world.

23:00 SA: Yes.

23:01 FM: Even in those communities where black and brown people are almost invisible, they’re also marching, they’re also speaking out. That’s the difference between the 1968 movement and the murder of King and Kennedy, and the 2021 situation and the murder of Mr. Floyd, that is the difference.

23:24 SA: I hear so much optimism in your voice, and it’s easy to get disheartened in this situation because on some fronts, we haven’t come very far since 1968, and with the backdrop of COVID and the disproportionate impact it has had on black and brown people, both from a health standpoint, and economically, I think the videos that we’ve been seeing of these moments of systemic racism have created an incendiary environment. Tell me what makes you optimistic, is it that we are really uniting across racial barriers to own the problem? Are there other elements here that you see portending more sustained change?

24:13 FM: Again, I think it’s… I think what I see happening now that gives me hope, is that it is a problem that is perceived as not just a problem for black, brown and indigenous people, it is a problem of our nation. And when I go back to when I was a young child, that that was not the case. It was a problem for blacks and blacks only. And I do think that while we still have a long way to go, we have come a way, but we’re not there yet, we’re not there yet. In the back of my head, I’m thinking of Dr. King and we haven’t yet made it to the promised land. We have a long way to go, but we’ve made some baby steps because if I go back to my childhood, I was in a segregated elementary school. I started high school, of course, because when we had forced desegregation in Danville, Virginia, we all had to go to the same high school, and I entered that high school, the police officers with dogs and their belts off ready to attack us. I now see kids being able to go to school without having to walk in that door and walk through a line of police officers who’re ready to attack them at any moment.

25:30 FM: Now, there’s still some problems that we have with policing in our schools, but that’s a separate issue, at least they can walk through the door when I could not walk through the door in the same kind of way. That’s movement. But are we still where we’re subject to the same rights? We already know there’s wage disparities, we know there are health disparities, we know there are all… We have the housing disparities, all these kinds of disparity, wealth… There are all these kinds of disparities that exist.

26:00 SA: Yes.

26:01 FM: And we haven’t done… We haven’t dealt with those in the way which we need to. That said, I still have hope. I hope the young people who are out there now, will understand and appreciate the fact that when they are in the CEO position, that they will not find it difficult to hire someone who’s different, that it will not be a long debate behind closed doors trying to determine the merit of someone who looks different. Or if the CEO might even be someone who’s different, or the superintendent might be someone who’s different. Because when we look at those statistics, we still find that people of color are less likely to be superintendents than others. That’s still there, less likely to be CEOs, less likely… I could go on and on and on. And even when you’re in those positions, the wage gap is very clear. So we still have, in my opinion, a long way to go, but I’m hopeful that we will continue to make strides to get there. We have to. And I won’t say for my son, because my son is out there doing his thing, and I would hope… I know my son is gonna be a part of the change, but it’s gonna be his children who are going to actually take it to the next level. It will be his children. And my son, I hope understands it, because my son’s biracial.

27:36 SA: Yes.

27:36 FM: And had to live in both of these worlds, even though my son considers himself black. Because he knows when he walks outside the door, that’s how he’s judged, and so he embraces that part of his heritage, but he also understands his dad is white and what that means for him. So it’s kids like that who are code-switching, for lack of a better way of putting, navigating these environments, living and going back and forth in these various worlds, who’re gonna make the difference. And they’re gonna bring along their friends who might not come from these environments, but have been around them long enough to know that change needs to occur. So I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful. Our children and their grandchildren will change this world. Again, but when we change it, we will still have more to go. I’m not so sure, given the beliefs that people hold and that they inflict on their children, that we will ever truly reach the promised land. We can only hope, and keep doing all we can to get there.

28:40 SA: Yes. President Miller, Fayneese, thank you so much for sharing your perspectives, your insights, your lessons, and your optimism. It was such a pleasure to speak with you today.

28:55 FM: Well, I thank you, because like everyone else, I want to breathe. And I want my children, who are my students, to breathe as well. Thank you.

29:15 MP: Thanks for listening. Join us next week on Office Hours, where some of EAB’s student success experts, Ed Venit, Meacie Fairfax, are gonna be here to talk about equity gaps in higher education and how to mitigate the impact COVID is having on student populations that already lag behind some of their more affluent peers. For Office Hours with EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.

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