FARGO — Dozens of North Dakota State University employees have signed an open letter asking the university to take action to improve diversity and inclusion on campus.
The letter that began circulating Monday, July 13, had collected 215 signatures from faculty and staff as of Tuesday afternoon.
The document calls on administration to create an office dedicated to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. It also asks NDSU to develop a statement promoting those topics in the strategic plan, form a funded advisory council that can analyze policies and practices in an effort to eliminate institutional racism, and develop definitions "articulating the social causes and consequences of systemic racism."
“We are writing as a group of NDSU employees who affirm the value of our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students and colleagues,” the letter says. “We recognize the ways in which predominantly white institutions, such as our own, often perpetuate systemic racism and the injustices that are tied to it.
“We hope that implementing the above actions would form the beginning of a process of substantive change.”
The letter is not exhaustive and is more of a first step, said religious studies and English professor Sean Burt, who was involved with others in organizing the content of the letter before circulating it to all NDSU employees.
NDSU started working on a strategic plan a year ago, and one of the main focuses was equity and diversity inclusion, said David Bertolini, Dean of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences College. The strategic planning committee co-chair said his group is working on many of the actions suggested in the letter.
“One of the things that is entering into this conversation in general … is the idea that we need to be more intentional about creating policies that actually include inclusivity and diversity and address these things,” said Molly Secor-Turner, committee co-chair and associate nursing professor.
Burt said the letter is meant to show a unified message in addition to the work NDSU is conducting.
“We would like to pull those things that are already happening ... and go further,” he said.
The letter also called on NDSU to support the adoption of a statement that officially acknowledges the school is on Native American land.
A small group is working on a land acknowledgment statement with hopes the university will adopt it. The University of North Dakota and North Dakota State College of Science adopted statements acknowledging their campuses are on land once occupied by Native Americans.
The open letter also asks to clarify policy brought up in a June 4 letter from President Dean Bresciani. The NDSU leader discussed school and North Dakota University System policy that prevents NDSU from taking positions on political matters, though he noted policy permits employees to partake in political activities as long as they are not representing NDSU by doing so.
Bresciani’s message could be misunderstood as implying statements made against racism or racial injustice could be taken as political, the open letter said.
Fighting racism is a human issue, not a political one, Burt said.
The NDUS policy on political activities, updated in January with substantial changes to decades-old language, does not refer to stances on racism, justice or inequality, university system spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said in an email.
The open letter thanked Bresciani for acknowledging in a June 19 letter the significance of Juneteenth, which marks the day the last slaves in the U.S. were told they were free after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.
“Across the country, we have started a long-overdue conversation about racism and privilege,” Bresciani wrote in the letter. “As a land-grant institution, NDSU has an important role to play by providing educational opportunities and a venue for respectful listening and discussion.”
NDSU has several programs and initiatives that promote inclusivity, but there is always room for improvement, Secor-Turner said.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is always do better,” Bertolini said.