Note: The original version of this letter was published Tuesday, June 9. Following President Tenny’s statement on June 10, it was updated by the author, and reposted on June 11.
To President Tenny, for whom this must concern,
George Floyd was murdered by the police via suffocation. He informed the officers that he could not breathe as they placed a knee on his neck, smothering him. In his final moments, he called for his mother, who herself has been dead for two years now. He died scared, alone, and most importantly, he died at the hands of the police. He was murdered by the police. In years past, many have claimed that the system is broken or flawed; this is a fallacy. The system is doing precisely what it has been designed to do since its inception: to oppress and silence. George Floyd was murdered by the police on May 25, 2020. And the next day, when the world began to protest, the system began to enact itself.
On May 30th, 2020, our downtown area began burning itself to the ground all in the name of the fight for justice, equity, and — simply put — what is right. Our nation across the internet, and within its individual communities, began holding hands together to help those on the forefront; to protect those stepping out in the wake of the dangers of consistent systemic oppression. As a response, many corporations posted to social media as little as a black square and vapid message of “we stand with you” as a means of support. And for several days, SAIC stood as one of these corporations.
But on June 10, 2020, you announced — in very broad strokes — steps SAIC planned to take in aid of the fight for equity and defeat of systemic racism.
You have now graduated to the bare minimum. This is far from enough.
The world is caught at a standstill; those who aren’t actively protesting are left to wonder what will happen. This movement — this fight — now has more eyes and ears on it since the days of the Civil Rights movement of seven decades ago. We are at a definitive moment of the 21st century, and we need to use this momentum to our utmost advantage.
I call on you to clarify the statements made in your June 10 email. I call on you to hold you yourself accountable for the injustices here at SAIC.
• Chicago is bleeding, and we can provide a bandage. Despite the city returning to a state of “normality” and the bridges of The Loop being lowered, there is still much to be done. In your email, you acknowledged that SAIC “will continue to [its] practice of not having contracts with the police.” While appreciated, it has already been decided that, in this radical reach for change, it is not enough to not be racist, but we must be anti-racist. Meaning that it isn’t enough for SAIC to not fund the police, but we must condemn the police. I ask you to publicly condemn the actions of the CPD for attacking protesters who were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. I ask you to sign petitions in support of the arrest of the officers that have murdered these innocent black lives such as George Floyd or Breonna Taylor — who herself was murdered in her home by the Louisville Police Department; as the public declaration of signing these petitions provides a clear signal to your students that you have paid attention to the outcry around you, and acknowledge that something be done.
• The school’s most recent tax return shows that you, President Tenny made $637,000. In your email, you stated that the school would donate a cumulative $25,000 across seven different foundations. If divided equally, that’s approximately $3571 to each group. That’s almost $2000 less than it cost to take a course here at SAIC. You can donate more. You claim in the email that the school will match donations up to $10,000; well I now call on you to practice what you preach. SAIC has just donated a collective 4% of your own personal salary. I call on yourself, on Martin Berger, and other higher-ups across the institution to personally donate to these foundations. As we “move forward as an institution,” we will need to do more than lampshade white privilege and hide behind donations that amount to what it would cost a student “disadvantaged by systemic racism” (quoted from your June 10 email) just one semester at SAIC.
• As an institution that prides itself on its inclusivity, we have some truly terrible blemishes that must be fully brought to light. Such is the case when then Dean of Faculty Martin Berger used the “n-word” in quotation of black activist Elizabeth Eckford in 2018. Following this event, he was then unanimously promoted to Provost by the same committee he served on just a few short months prior. After there was obvious outrage in the form of direct emails, Berger sent an apology only to those who came out directly seeking one. Deemed not enough, it wasn’t until one year later — last October — that an “open” forum was held to address the matter. This event came and left with so few at SAIC the wiser, as it took nearly five months for articles regarding the meeting to get released. Students were never notified; left ignorant as this was labeled a staff issue.
I implore that you not only publicly apologize and publicly reprimand Martin Berger — the white man who thought to use the black voice — but also publicly inform the students that you have called on to have the “difficult conversations” (quoted from an email sent June 1, 2020) of this horrid blunder made by the administration. Berger must also publicly come forward and directly act on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement. The plight of a people is not a crutch.
• We will need to do more than use the art of our black students to stand in solidarity. By suggesting to SAIC Alumni Adreain Jovan Guillory, who was contacted by SAIC’s fashion department to use their work as a backdrop for an official statement that read: “The SAIC Fashion Design Department stands with Black Lives Matter. In support, we will be posting work by our alumni of color in the days to come.” Your black students are not a shield; a flag to tote an aura of progressiveness. It is actions such as the above mentioned — in tandem with so many others left unnamed — that causes students such as myself to demand so much more from this institution. Action speaks louder and does more than words, and yet what does it say about an institution that chooses its action to be that of taking the black image and hiding it behind a white voice?
• In your June 10 email, you state that Jefferson Pinder, new head of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion — a department of SAIC that was called upon to lead the discussion and investigation of Berger’s actions, a call you denied — will serve as a herald of anti-racism across the campus in the future. You also clarify that Pinder will report directly to you. A black man leading a group designed to combat institutional racism that must answer to the same white command that waited thirteen months to address direct racism on her campus? What must that say to your students? As Guillory puts it, SAIC must do better.
Typically, the hardest part of anything is getting started. In the case of SAIC — in the case of you, President Tenny— this is not so. The actions promised by your email are merely a paramount beginning. I say that it is not revolutionary, but reactionary. I say this because you are presented as a mogul, a figurehead to an institution that seeks to protect their image above anything else. You have a chance to prove yourself a true ally. It is not enough to not be racist. You must be anti-racist. And to be anti-racist is to act on behalf of your black students in “concrete” direct fashions; to stand with them, not behind. You can “complete the in-process external assessment of equity in faculty and staff compensation,” but the only thing it will amount to is paying those getting crushed under the system, the same as those crushing them.
The student body saw your emails — your black squares — and called them out what they are: vapid, empty, and a true representation of what SAIC actually stands for.
It is now up to you to prove them wrong.
All the best,
From an alum (MFA 2014), I applaud you for speaking out and standing up against systemic and institutionalized racism. To other students, alums, and faculty: you are either with us or against us. There is no “middle ground” anymore. So I wonder where you stand.
Elissa needs to fire Martin and the board need to fire Elissa. Then the faculty need to be held accountable.
Beyond the N-word incident, Martin Berger has time and time again proven his dislike of people of color, from the way he treats faculty to students – as the various videos recently posted online that attest to that. Martin is not only incompetent but unapologetically racist.