Posted by: Louis Lavelle on June 10, 2009
By Mandy Oaklander
We all like to think that we’ve evolved beyond the point where things like race matter. But matter they do.
Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management is in the midst of a heated controversy over a case of alleged racial profiling. The incident involved two administrators, both white, and a black student, Northwestern junior Joshua Williams. The case has ignited demonstrations, an apology from the police, and a promise from the Northwestern president to create a new advisory board to deal with these incidents.
Williams’ story, published in the online student magazine North by Northwestern, begins last month, when he was waiting at the Kellogg School of Management for his class in a nearby building to begin. According to Williams, he was approached by a Kellogg administrator. She asked if she could help him with anything; he declined. Minutes after she walked away, another administrator asked Williams about his reasons for being in the building. Williams said he was a student, but the man walked away unconvinced. “Had he asked for my identification card, he would have proved himself wrong. Instead he decided that there is no way this black boy dressed in baggy clothing could attend a school like this,” Williams wrote in an e-mail to Northwestern students.
Offended, Williams left the building. But less than five minutes later, he was stopped by a Northwestern police officer, who told Williams he had been contacted by the Kellogg administrator Williams spoke with last. After handing over his school identification, Williams waited while the officer called it in to see if it was stolen or fake.
The incident, which Williams describes as a case of racial profiling, sparked a series of student-led anti-racism initiatives at Northwestern, including a forum about racial profiling held on May 27. There, to an audience of over 100 peers, Williams and other students shared their experiences with racism on campus. Members of the Northwestern Police Department also made an appearance, including NU Chief of Police Bruce Lewis, who declined to speak with BusinessWeek. But according to a story about the event published in The Daily Northwestern, Lewis spoke on behalf of the police force at the forum. “We're not a perfect police department no more than we're a perfect community," said Lewis. “Even when our intentions are good, we make mistakes. When we mess up, we mess up, but we step up.”
So did Northwestern students. Last Friday, the black student union staged an outdoor rally, drawing about 75 students, faculty, and staff—as well as the local news station CBS Chicago, which filmed the event. Students called for specific solutions to the problem of racial profiling on campus. “At the forum, the police told us that it’s impossible to determine what is and is not racial profiling. When it’s the police’s word versus that of a student, the police are usually listened to,” Williams said in a phone conversation. To combat this, the rally called for the formation of a committee of students, faculty, staff, and police officers to specifically review cases of racial profiling. Students also await a university apology to Williams and a statement that the Kellogg administrator’s actions were his alone and not reflective of the university.
On June 9, Northwestern President Henry Bienen and Provost Daniel Linzer met the first of those challenges. In an e-mail to all of Northwestern, they wrote that the new Advisory Board would begin its partnership with the University Police at the beginning of the 2009-2010 academic year “so that our police regularly hear the perspectives of our students, faculty, and staff and incorporate these views in their policies and procedures.”
Williams received an apology from Angela Edwards-Campbell, Northwestern's director of diversity and inclusion, and Sunil Chopra, the senior associate dean of curriculum & teaching, who could not be reached for comment. Williams is still trying to find out the identities of the administrator who confronted him at the Kellogg building. Williams says he's been told by Pamela Pirtle, the associate director of equal employment opportunity, that the investigation was complete and the administrator had been cleared. Through Pirtle, Williams says he requested to meet with him, but the administrator refused.
“Previously, I was quoted as having been satisfied with the way the university was handling the situation," Williams says. "But I’m not anymore.”
What's everyone else think? Did Northwestern handle this properly? Or should it have taken a harder line with the administrator? Is racial profiling on campus something that others have encountered? Is it getting better or worse? Are other schools doing anything about it?