Building on Broken Foundations

Examining Community Responses to Tufts’ Latest Anti-Racism Initiative

 Note: Following the final night of layout for this issue on February 23, the original concerned faculty member came to the writers with the clarification that the university discontinued Accenture’s partnership with Tufts after the faculty member in question urged Senior administration to reconsider these services.

Tufts’ legacy begins with its occupation on Wampanoag land and extends to occupying a campus adjacent to the Isaac Royall House, the only surviving slave quarters in the state, previously owned by the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. As recently as this year, Tufts experienced two explicit incidences of hatred via Zoom, one against a Black academic during a School of Engineering event, and another with little detail, along with the closure of a months-long investigation into the controversial incident between Tufts University Police Department and three women of color.

In grappling with the lack of diversity, and to mitigate racist incidents on the campus, two notable task forces had been created before 2020. One was operational from 1996 to 1997 and included subcategories of Institutional Policy, Campus Life, and Academic Experience. The other was an eighteen-month study, culminating in a final report in 2013 that detailed the strategic plan: “Tufts: The Next 10 Years.” 

Some recommendations for the path forward from the report included a “diversity dashboard” in an effort to have more transparency regarding data. Rob Mack and Dr. Joyce Sackey, both key players in the present-day efforts, detailed two quantifiable metrics that have been implemented since the 2013 report, one of which included appointing both Mack and Sackey as co-chief diversity officers. “As of 2020, every school at Tufts now has Assistant/Associate Dean level position (ADDI) and [h]as [a] lead diversity officer responsible for implementing DEI goals at the school level. The full report of the internal audit has been previously shared,” they said in a written statement. 

Within the ten years since the original report, in mid-2020, Tufts announced the “Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution” initiative, with five workstreams established in order to work towards increasing equity across the university, culminating into five assessment reports. In the official announcement of the initiative, the university described the workstreams framework as focusing on “different aspects of our academic and administrative enterprise,” with each workstream “reaching out to stakeholders across the university to create larger, representative working groups.” Progress pages of the five workstreams—Campus Safety, Compositional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Institutional Audit and Targeted Actions, and Public Art—were made available soon after the announcement of the initiative, as well as a feedback forum. 

Mack and Sackey also clarified that the current initiative is independent of the Tufts 10-year plan:“The Antiracism Initiative was a new effort launched in June 2020 and included work that had not previously been done, such as an institution-wide external audit (conducted by a third party) to elucidate structural racism and eradicate it.” 

The “Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution” initiative reports were released to university faculty, students, and staff approximately two and a half months following the initial December 1, 2020 deadline. The reports are cumulative of the opinions and work of various faculty, staff, and students, none of whom were compensated for their efforts. Tufts’ Executive Director of Public Relations, Patrick Collins, explained in a written statement that the reasoning behind not compensating was due to university standard: “Members were not compensated, in keeping with university practice that regards committee membership as an act of service to the greater good of the university community. “ 

Conversely, global consulting giant, Accenture, was compensated for its part in the strategic plan. The company was chosen as the consulting partner through the Institutional Audit workstream, though the details of payment are confidential, Collins said. He explained that “[Accenture] was selected after a review of proposals from multiple firms with significant experience providing diversity, equity and inclusion consulting services to large organizations and, in particular, higher education institutions.” 

In an anonymous op-ed to the Tufts Observer, a faculty member of color detailed discomfort with the initiative’s collaboration with Accenture. The letter highlighted Accenture’s partnership with a military contractor and exploitation of labor of marginalized communities, and how such a relationship appears to conflict with the sentiments of anti-racism—which Tufts emphasized as the basis of the initiative.

Though Accenture was hired through the Institutional Audit workstream, Collins explained that “[they were] retained to handle the institutional audit of policies and practices, help administer focus groups and community conversations as part of that workstream, and assist in the process of synthesizing the final reports from the five workstreams.” He confirmed that the extent of the company’s work with the initiative had been concluded. 

In order to properly assess the efficacy of the workstreams, René LaPointe-Jameson, a student activist and invited speaker to a recent Bridging Differences event, argued that one must assess the idea of an “anti-racist institution” to begin with. “If becoming an anti-racist institution means making a space for everyone to thrive—a safe and accessible place for everyone, what have we been doing up till now? Has that not been part of the goals of the space beforehand?” she said. 

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When discussing with members of Tufts’ workstreams, some were cautiously critical, whereas others were more optimistic about the process. 

Parker Killenberg, a student on the Institutional Audit workstream, characterized the initiative with optimism. “The workstreams were necessary to do a lot of education on the part of faculty and staff, and reaching out into the community and seeing the problems that are there,” she said. However, she also stated that the work was just beginning, noting that a lot of the workstreams’ recommendations were long-term, and by effect, “didn’t solve anything on their own.” 

In November 2020, the Institutional Audit workstream announced its collaboration with Accenture to assist with their objectives, including “analyz[ing] the ways in which the history of racism is relevant to Tufts” and “recommend[ing] prioritized targeted actions to remove any structural racism.” The workstream itself was the result of the efforts of a steering committee, where “members representing all schools and units, including faculty, staff, and student representation” were established. In addition, the collaboration was explained as Accenture providing “expertise, frameworks, tools, and resources” for the initiative. 

Killenberg described that throughout her time on the workstream, her explicit contributions were limited and that the workstream functioned more as a conversation. Organizers Joyce Sackey and Kim Ryan set up initial meetings with the whole workstream before November, and after Accenture was appointed, the consulting partner took lead. On an individual level, Killenberg met with the consulting partner a few times as a result of missing committee-wide meetings due to other commitments, though she would not describe her interactions as “working directly” with Accenture. Killenberg characterized the relationship more so as, “[Accenture] would take the data, come up with a plan, then get our feedback. So it wasn’t like we were working with them. It was mostly that they were saying this is what we think, and then people would give their opinions.”

The consulting partner then led four public meetings, alongside Ryan and Sackey, which Killenberg attended, and described as a presentation of information found: “[They asked] what do you think about this? How could we improve on this? They received student feedback, then compiled all of that.” 

In a written statement, Collins explained that Accenture was hired to develop the structure for completing the institutional audit, including community input. “They worked collaboratively with the steering committee and with each of the working groups for the schools and units, meeting with them weekly … Accenture designed the structure and conducted focus groups … they synthesized results and reviewed the findings,” he said, concluding that all actions were in collaboration with the steering team. 

Overall, Killenberg had a positive impression of the consulting partner. “They seemed like they were really invested in the work, and making sure that it was all moving in a positive direction,” she said. She believed that by hiring an outside consultant, Tufts demonstrated a monetary commitment to their initiative. Killenberg was inspired to join the workstream after being approached by a leader in her research group, because to her, it was “important to hold the university accountable. And make sure that they weren’t just saying they were going to do something.”

Kim Dao, a student member of the Compositional Diversity workstream, was similarly inspired to join after being approached by her research advisor, Dr. Chris Swan. Dao described the workstream as being dedicated to increasing transparency and suggesting improvements to the diversity makeup of faculty, students, staff, and senior leadership. She explained that she was motivated into joining the workstream to represent the communities she is a part of. Notably, she sought to represent students from the Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) and Bridge to Liberal Arts Success (BLAST) groups, two programs designed to “support, develop, and retain” students from marginalized backgrounds, like first-generation college students and students from under-resourced high schools.

She also further explained that a major motivation for her joining this particular workstream was the amount of work imposed on Dr. Swan. “Someone was supposed to be hired to help him do [this] work,” Dao said, “but now he’s doing the majority of it.”

Dao described the work done within the Compositional Diversity Workstream as the continual assessment of Tufts’ ability to either “retain or drive students away,” especially students of color, by assessing trends from recent enrollment and outreach. The reports created by the Compositional Diversity Workstream are detailed by timeline, and the workstream internally posed questions regarding the efficacy and efficiency in the university’s ability to respond to student feedback. 

Dao noted that the work done by her workstream could stand to be communicated to the student population much more transparently. “It’s not good data … it’s not what people want to see,” she explained. Data collected by the workstream were not publicly released alongside the report. However, the University’s public Diversity Data Dashboard states that over 50 percent of students enrolled at the undergraduate level were white students and that 71.4 percent of Tufts’ faculty were white as of Fall 2019. In the same period, only 4.4 percent of the student population and 2.7 percent of the faculty were Black.

Dao went on to say that it would perhaps be more effective to keep the general Tufts student community more in the loop, as the workstream and her involvement are relatively obscured. “I think it could be more transparent … transparency would remind people that work is being done,” she explained. Dao believed that her workstream could have updated the Tufts community more regularly on a weekly or monthly basis. The workstream released an initial statement in November 2020, before their final report was released in conjunction with the others. 

There was also a lack of transparency for Dao herself with the relationship between Accenture and the five workstreams. She characterized the dynamic as “try[ing] not to step on their toes,” and keeping their work separate from the Institutional Audit workstream, as the consulting partner was not involved within her group. 

Dao and another student brought up policing on campus, and Tufts’ lack of response to harmful events, during a workstream meeting: “[Tufts didn’t respond to] the incidence[s] of bias on campus, and how damaging that is for students—and prospective students—of color to see that, and that they probably don’t want to come to Tufts, or people who do go to Tufts, they don’t feel safe anymore.” Though, she noted that it was difficult to balance or analyze such issues in their own workstream as to not duplicate efforts from a separate group, like Campus Safety and Policing.

The safety and comfort of students of color on campus was a common thread for many workstream members. “The idea of the workstream is that Black and brown people would feel more at home at Tufts by seeing images of themselves,” an anonymous member of the Public Art Workstream explained. They described that all of the workstream members came up with recommendations on their own, based on various experiences, all rooted in expertise in art. Accenture then went in and “scored” those recommendations. 

In a written statement, Collins explained that while Accenture originally scored the recommendations, they ended up removing the scores. “The intent behind the scoring was to prioritize the targeted actions; however, because the Public Art Workstream had already done their due diligence, that exercise was not needed,” he said. 

On the faculty level, Dr. Swan, the dean of undergraduate education as well as the co-chair of the Compositional Diversity Team, explained his methods in creating the Compositional Diversity Workstream, as trying to make the workstream as diverse as possible across schools. In assessing the University’s recent measures to address its racist practices, Dr. Swan asked, “Is the effort for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, writ large, or it is limited to a specific audience?”

Rather than solely collect data on the current state of diversity, the workstream also focused on scoping out diverse voices for hiring. During hiring processes within the faculty, he questioned where job opportunities were being posted, and how candidates were being selected. Though Swan felt this initiative was a promising start, he described the progress of these efforts as “not at the “let’s-high-five-and-slap-hands together” part yet … we are only getting started at implementing things.”

The workstream had little involvement with Accenture, Swan reiterated. “I do not know the level of input that they gave to the Institutional Audit [workstream]. I do not know if they interacted with other workstreams specifically, but I do know that they opened up the discussions with people who were in workstreams,” he said. Swan detailed Accenture’s involvement in the initiative as “a component of the flock of things” that were being done, but was unsure as to whether or not “[Accenture] took the role of being the Shepherd of the Flock.” Collins explained that Accenture’s role was to create “an inventory from all five workstreams.”

Swan described the fervor among students and faculty to address Tufts’ practices hopefully within the greater national urgency for equity and justice. “I’ve never seen this desire to try to do something to be any stronger,” he said, “400 years of injustice doesn’t change after four days of thoughts and wishes. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get it out of our … consciousness, to get it out of our lineage, to get it out of the ways in which … we’re going to operate in this country, in this world. So we got some stuff to push on … and we’re all going to learn in this process.”

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At the nexus of these workstreams, Tufts’ reconciliation with its own history, and the new involvement of Accenture, is a picture that continues to develop. While knowledge around the workstreams varied on campus, some members of the Tufts community were distinctly aware of shortcomings of the process.

Anonymous faculty members were particularly critical of the relationship between Accenture and the initiative. One voiced their concerns in an interview: “There is a deep contradiction: while the university is saying it is addressing its racist systems, and doing that by addressing policy, in fact, the very policy that it’s using is perpetuating the problem. The policies and processes that Accenture is using and that the university is endorsing are, in fact, making the problem worse.”

Aside from Accenture’s contentious involvement in the initiative, others were critical of different mechanisms. LaPointe-Jameson observed that professors of color were taking on the labor of running additional committees on top of joining workstreams, similar to Dao’s conclusion in regards to Dr. Swan. She explained that these actions often go unnoticed, given the structure of the university, and what is valued in academia: “Culturally, within this institution, I think that professors putting energy into making our school have a better climate, and making our environments more accessible and equitable, [are]n’t celebrated and appreciated.” The Compositional Diversity report recommends making service in the community , like being involved in workstreams, “an equal to research in evaluating faculty.” The roles of faculty vary in intensity but nonetheless remain relatively unrecognized. 

The tasks of the faculty involved in this workstream included setting goals at the hiring level, along with metrics, housing, and culture. The Compositional Diversity report emphasized diversity in creating positions, stating, “areas likely to attract more diverse candidates must not be seen as a bonus to be invested in but core to fulfilling Tufts’ mission and values.” LaPointe-Jameson, however, was skeptical of the true implementation of this recommendation. “If we’re just bringing more Black, Indigenous, and people of color into this place that’s not been made accessible and equitable, then you’re bringing them into an unsafe space. That’s not growth, that’s not progress,” she said. 

At the administrative level, there is hope and momentum forward, as described by Mack and Sackey. In the aforementioned written statement, the two co-chief diversity officers stated that “the Antiracism Initiative and the recommendations that will be implemented are all part of a central effort.” While students and faculty within workstreams have said that the changes have yet to come into action, Mack and Sackey stated that there were other continual efforts that will allow the community to “engage in the work of becoming an antiracist institution.” 

An anonymous student of color, who is not directly involved in the initiative, echoed sentiments shared by Dao and other members of the workstream. “I think making Tufts an anti-racist institution requires more than just making that declaration,” they said in a written statement. “I don’t understand how Tufts can make that statement when there are many Black and brown members of our own community who, for example, feel traumatized and uncomfortable as a result of their interactions with armed TUPD officers.”

Despite this, the student also highlighted that the initiative “provided space for important dialogue to happen” and “more transparen[cy]” than in the past. But they feel that without “specific dates in place … it’s really easy for there to be a lack of responsibility and accountability.” 

As Tufts continues to reconcile its past and future, it must also be actively aware of the damage already done to faculty, students, and staff of color who are oftentimes doubtful of the impact of new initiatives like this one. The anonymous student described that their “hesitancy stems from the fact that I’ve seen so many BIPOC members of our community advocate for change over the past four years that I have been here.” In their opinion, much of the skepticism towards the administration comes from the fact that “many BIPOC students on this campus have felt ignored, uncomfortable, and unsupported for so long. I just don’t think most people understand the urgency behind this.” 

The ongoing process to dismantle the racist structure upheld by the institution will require discomfort, LaPointe-Jameson explained, but not on behalf of community members of color: “If we’re not making people who’ve been prioritized uncomfortable, and if we’re not challenging the way that they’ve been centered and benefitting from my oppression and [the oppression] of other people of color … what’s the point?” 

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