Note from the Chair: On 9/23/19, the English department faculty voted unanimously to release the following statement.
–David Ainsworth, Chair
Dear President Bell,
This letter is written on behalf of concerned faculty in the English Department in the wake of the recent departure of Dr. Jamie Riley, formerly Vice President and Dean of Students at UA. On Sept. 5, 2019, after less than a year on the job, Dr. Riley tendered his resignation. The resignation came one day after Breitbart News released a story highlighting anti-racist tweets he posted in 2016 and 2017. In one tweet, he asserted that the U.S. flag and problems in our current law enforcement structures point to a history of systemic racism. In another tweet, he pointed out that the best arbiters of what is and isn’t racist are those who are the targets of the racism. He posted these tweets while serving as CEO of the Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., the oldest black fraternity in the nation. The organization, of which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a member, has a long history of civil rights activism, the very civil rights activism that led to the integration of this University. Dr. Riley’s tweets, then, are part of a tradition of anti-racist activism that must be supported and protected as free speech.
His resignation, according to a statement released from your office, was “by mutual agreement.” Due to a lack of transparency, it is difficult to determine the extent to which Dr. Riley stepped aside of his own volition or resigned through coercion. The university also has not issued a statement about the timing of Dr. Riley’s resignation, to explain whether or not it was related to the news story and the tweets.
We are concerned about the Administration’s silence in the wake of Dr. Riley’s resignation. We are concerned especially that Dr. Riley’s resignation came one day after the news story about his tweets was published. We are concerned that the resignation appears punitive, a result of Dr. Riley’s willingness to speak truth to power and deploy anti-racist speech to bring to light the long-standing systems of oppression that continue to haunt this university and the nation. Above all, we are concerned that Dr. Riley’s resignation and the university’s subsequent silence undermine the university’s larger efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive community.
In April 2016, you first announced the four pillars of a new strategic plan that would advance the University of Alabama. One of those pillars is “To enrich the learning and work environment [at UA] by providing an accepting, inclusive community that attracts and supports a diverse faculty, staff and student body.” Since that time, the University has taken great steps to address that pillar, such as appointing a Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Dr. Christine Taylor. We in the English Department have followed your lead by implementing a number of measures designed to foster diversity and inclusion in our classrooms. For example, we routinely host guest lectures and organize symposiums and workshops that address issues related to diversity and inclusion. We have begun incorporating more diversity training for our graduate students teaching first-year writing and working in the University Writing Center. We sponsor a gender- and race-specific support group for our African American graduate students. A number of our faculty and graduate students participate in professional development opportunities and/or implement pedagogical programming related to diversity and inclusion. With increasing frequency, we offer courses that emphasize diversity in terms of race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and ability. We still have a long way to go in these efforts, and we remain committed to doing the work.
However, all of the University’s efforts and those of our Department are undermined by events like Dr. Riley’s resignation. His tweets were not expressed on behalf of the University or connected to his position as VP and Dean. He composed these tweets in another time and context that appear relevant to his position at the time. Not only is his departure an issue of free speech and campus morale, his departure speaks to the public image of the university. Given incidents like this one, recruiting and retaining faculty and students of color becomes impossible. What is more, the Administration’s silence gives the impression that the university kowtows to media outlets (with their own racist and anti-free speech agendas) that must be even now scouring the internet archives to find more tweets and Facebook posts from UA administrators and faculty of color. When this campus appears to be punishing anti-racist speech, we are all vulnerable. Who can effectively do the work of ensuring that UA fosters diversity and inclusion under these circumstances? Even now many of our faculty and students in the Department articulate fears about pursuing anti-racist work and the freedom of expression.
Given the factors above, we ask that the University clarify the details surrounding Dr. Riley’s departure and, more important, publicly affirm the University’s commitment to its faculty and students of color and allies who exercise their right to free speech to denounce racism in all its myriad forms.
Concerned Faculty in the English Department