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Open letter to Chancellor Carlo Montemagno

This letter was sent to new SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno on August 23, 2017.

Dear Chancellor Montemagno:

On behalf of the SIU Black Alumni Group (BAG), I would like to congratulate and welcome you to your first semester as Chancellor of our beloved university. For decades, SIUC has served an important role in the advancement of African Americans both personally and economically, as the university was one of the first in the state to allow African Americans to enroll. That unique status and SIUC’s historically affordable tuition has enabled thousands of working-class Black people to access higher education and provided us the opportunity to strive for economic equality. At the same, the university’s location has made the work of diversity a conscious conversation, and in turn, has often showcased us as a model for working through issues of race, class, sexuality, and nationality.  

Sometimes, we have exceeded expectations. During my years as a student, I made friends with people from different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and nationalities. Today, as a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, I travel frequently to higher education institutions across the country, and everywhere I go I meet Salukis. We all agree — making it in Carbondale means you can make it anywhere.

Other times, we have failed our expectations. The number of Black faculty and staff has steadily declined for the last six years and has never been reflected the percentage of the SIUC student body. Moreover, employment of Black administrators has fallen at an even faster rate than faculty over the same time frame. The amount of invisible labor that these faculty, staff, and administrators do on behalf of our Black students is an undervalued but critical factor in both recruitment and retention. As the university’s leader, it will be crucial that you acknowledge and support your Black faculty and staff in this work. Another cornerstone of the Black student experience is the Africana Studies department. Transparency, as it relates to the relationship between the university and the department, has been unclear at best. As alumni, we are troubled and alarmed at the ongoing efforts to dismantle this important department, particularly at a time when it is imperative that we institutionalize opportunities to build and foster cross-racial understanding. Without this department and the important role it plays in the lives of SIUC’s Black students, any effort to rely upon voluntary efforts from the area of student affairs to do the work of deliberate and conscious historical and cultural education is insufficient. The entire student body of SIUC needs the opportunity to learn about the many forms of diversity if we are to train all of our students to be productive and transformative citizens of our state, our nation, and our world.

We are genuinely excited to hear of your interest in developing a vision for SIUC and in prioritizing diversity along with learning of your previous track record for improving African American student success. In an interview with the Daily Egyptian on June 15, 2017, you stated your a desire to create a colorblind, institutionally focused approach to SIUC student identity. Given the confusion, turmoil, and crises of our present time, we must caution that we feel that erasing part of one’s identity does not make a community richer or more tolerant. When moments of racial conflict arise, we hope you will seek to embrace them as opportunities for discussion and growth for the entire university. As Black alumni, we are hopeful that you will look to the past to honor and build on SIU’s exceptional history of creating opportunities for Black students, and lead in a way that embraces diversity among the student body and recognizes this is from where the university derives its greatest strength. We are the SIU Black Alumni Group because of our common sense of pleasure and pain associated with growth in an ever changing national, local and campus community.

We look forward to meeting you, working with you in the future and sharing in the vision you have for our family.

Sincerely,

Kevin Winstead
President
Black Alumni Group
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
President@siucbag.com

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