Submitted By Bruce Jerrell, MD, FACS

I am writing as provost of the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) in response to the letter published Feb. 15, “A Call for Racial Justice and Anti-Racism at the UMSSW.” In that letter, which references an op-ed in a social work newsletter, a current student and several former University of Maryland School of Social Work (UMSSW) students made serious accusations about the school’s culture and curriculum, and what they feel is the university’s failure to acknowledge and remedy the situation.

While we welcome criticism and dissenting points of view which can inform our work to create a more just and effective institution, many of the criticisms in the letter are misleading, and much of the story of the school’s evolution was ignored. The fact is that the UMSSW now has the most diverse student body, staff, and faculty of any time in its 58-year history, and great efforts are underway to improve faculty diversity and reform curriculum.

First, let me dispel some misstatements.

Bruce Jarrell (Couresy Photo/www.umaryland.edu)

“There are currently no black or Asian tenured faculty.” This is not accurate. It is certainly true that our faculty is less diverse than our student body, or of Baltimore, but we reject any minimization of the impact our faculty and staff of color have within the school. Indeed, we are now in the final stages of recruiting a diverse cohort of faculty including the School’s first African American Chaired professor.

“School administrators … continued to deny funding for anti-racist trainings, and failed to focus resources on preventing institutionalized oppression.”  The fact is that the UMSSW has had a Diversity and Anti-Oppression Committee at work for the last five years, and many initiatives and improvements have resulted. Training opportunities have been provided to faculty on a regular basis.  Recently, the faculty has agreed to curriculum reforms that will include additional online, in-person, and internship-based education that is anti-racist and focuses on understanding and reducing oppression from all sources.

“The University doesn’t have a clearly delineated and publicized Title VII process.” As the letter’s writers observe, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employer-based discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. UMB and every one of its professional schools is concerned about protecting the civil rights of our students and fully observing the law—we firmly believe in its broad intent. We have well-publicized policies and procedures regarding complaints of discrimination . We conduct regular training on these and they are posted online along with all UMB policies and procedures.

“A Black faculty member was refused entrance to an administrative building last year because of their skin color.” Two years ago, a university business office employee refused to allow entry to an adjunct faculty member; that much is accurate. The reason for the unfortunate incident are many. For the safety of our students and employees, our security rules forbid entry to anyone who cannot show a university ID. Without evidence of an ID, not knowing the employee, and unable to locate the colleague who was being sought, the UMB employee ultimately decided to refuse admittance. This decision was very probably spurred by implicit bias. The Dean of the SSW met with the faculty member within days and apologized for this unfortunate and painful incident.  All the staff in the business office have since been trained on implicit bias and ways to better handle future situations, such as taking extra effort and alternative means to verify employment so that everyone’s needs may be met.

So, how is UMB going forward in light of these concerns? First of all, the letter reminds us that we must continually encourage and listen to criticism and calls for change. To that end, our president has directed the university’s chief accountability officer to contract for an independent external review of the recent complaints and an independent climate assessment of the UMSSW and all other schools.

At the same time, within the UMSSW, the dean and faculty–with the president’s full support–will be: adding talent to the SSW’s administration to better foster diversity and inclusion; supporting the new anti-oppression course offerings; and endeavoring to improve diversity and inclusion training.

The mission of the University of Maryland, Baltimore is to improve the human condition and serve the public good. To do this, we must continuously examine and dismantle conscious and unconscious bias, and engage with the widest possible array of life experiences, viewpoints, and beliefs. I am confident we will not veer from that commitment.

Bruce Jarrell, MD, FACS is executive vice president, provost, and dean of the graduate school.

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