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Race, education, and protest: How one president leads boldly

October 12, 2020

Education leaders everywhere are making fast, difficult, and bold decisions. That’s why we launched Leadership Voices, a series on leaders who meet extraordinary challenges with vision and courage.

This story is adapted from a Leadership Voices podcast interview with President Fayneese Miller of  Hamline University.

“Like everyone else, I want to breathe. And I want my children, who are my students, to breathe as well.”

– Dr. Fayneese Miller, President of Hamline University

In echoing George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” President Miller positions Hamline University—and education at large—within the larger racial justice conversation. Located less than 10 miles from where Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck and about a mile from where Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer, recent history has deeply affected the university. Dr. Miller’s lived experiences have prepared her to respond to the moment. As the first African American and second woman to hold the office of president at Hamline, Dr. Miller is no stranger to leading boldly.

In her conversation with EAB’s Chief Partner Officer Sally Amoruso, one of our most downloaded Office Hours podcast episodes to date, Dr. Miller discusses nurturing a campus that sees racial justice not as an overnight project, but an enduring commitment for the university and the community at-large.

Responding to police brutality as a Black president

Dr. Fayneese Miller
Dr. Fayneese Miller

In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, Dr. Miller received many communications from students and members of the community. In one email, a member of the community implored Dr. Miller to take bold action like the University of Minnesota president had when they severed the university’s contract with the Minneapolis Police. Dr. Miller explained, “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…to take a stance against the police. I thought long and hard about that, and I finally wrote back and said, ‘I have been bold all my life. I have not had a choice to be anything other than bold.’

As a graduate student, Miller was the only Black student in her doctoral program. During her first year as a graduate student, she 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 toothbrush in his mouth so he wouldn’t have to speak to me,” Dr. Miller recalled. “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.”

Not far from campus, the greater Minneapolis community rose up in protest in response to George Floyd’s murder. On May 31, a truck drove into a crowd of protestors on the I-35 bridge. After the incident, a white student protestor who had been part of the crowd urged her to declare opposition to white supremacy.

“…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.”

– Dr. Fayneese Miller, President of Hamline University

“I understood why the student wanted me to do that,” Dr. Miller said, “because they were shaken up, they were hurt. 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.”

Teaching her students to learn from racist incidents

In September of 2019, Dr. Miller was confronted with a complex situation involving Hamline’s student body. The incident involved four Hamline athletes who had recorded and published on social media a video featuring them using the N-word while singing along to a popular hip-hop song. The outcry from students was insistent: that those involved should be punished. Instead, Dr. Miller took a different approach.

“I took a learning stance. They need to learn what they can and cannot say, and if we punish them, they will not learn how to respond in the future. Some of the community was angry with me, but I did not ask for a public apology and instead, used it to educate, and I still stand by that decision.”

She commits to open office hours for students to demonstrate what it means to be part of the community and an effective, caring leader. “I see myself as very much a part of this community. 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.’” She has also established what she calls “listening circles” as forums where students can express their feelings and thoughts without Hamline leaders responding back. Whether or not change is implemented or whether students walk away satisfied or disgruntled, Dr. Miller’s primary objective remains the same: to prioritize conversations as the first step. “I try to help them understand that in life, not all decisions will go your way. Students know that we can converse about something, and while we might not always agree, we can talk about it.”

The widening equity gaps exacerbated by the pandemic

Leaders are currently grappling with challenges operating through the COVID-19 pandemic, but Dr. Miller sees beyond the near-term challenges. In particular, she fears that the crisis will cause more low-income students and students of color to stop out.

“There will be students who won’t return to our campuses and therefore not have the ability to be tested because they won’t be able to afford to come back in the first place. Parents have lost their jobs, they’ve lost their jobs, and I’m going ‘Wait a minute, we’re talking about those that can return. What about those who can’t?’ To me it’s a bigger concern and I’m thinking if we don’t focus on that issue, that divide is going to widen and the injustice that students are fighting against will remain.”

A movement that gives her hope

During this stressful and painful time in our country’s history, it’s not always clear where to find hope. Dr. Miller is not only able to find it, but she is determined to derive energy from it.

Dr. Miller attended a segregated elementary school and started high school around the time Danville, Virginia was forced to desegregate. She entered her high school with police officers holding belts as weapons and flanked by dogs ready to attack. “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 are ready to attack them at any moment. That’s movement.”

She contrasts today’s Black Lives Matter movements with the Poor People’s March on Washington. “I think what I see happening now gives me hope. That seeing this as a problem that is perceived not just as a problem for Black, brown and indigenous people, but a problem of our nation. And that’s not something you saw in 1968. The march today is a rainbow. I looked outside my house when I was out there with the protesters for a while and…you’ve got the whole racial spectrum out there together.

I do think that while we still have a long way to go, we have come a long way. We’re not there yet, and in the back of my head, I’m thinking of Dr. King. We haven’t yet made it to the promised land. We can only hope and keep doing all we can to get there.”

Following the tragedy of George Floyd’s death, Hamline University endowed a scholarship in George Floyd’s name to support African American students and future leaders. Two Hamline alumni started the scholarship with an anonymous gift of $50,000. Hamline University welcomes donations to support their work.

Leadership Voices is a series spotlighting vision and courage through crisis. Nominate college presidents who have acted with extraordinary leadership at [email protected]

More conversations with college presidents

"Our people are afraid, whether it's our board members, faculty, staff, students, or members of our community. But I am hopeful and confident that information can help us overcome fear," says Dr. Melinda Treadwell, president of Keene State College.

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