Continuing the conversation about UVM’s diversity & inclusivity

Letter to the Editor

In the past year, Wes Richter has used “racist and threatening language,” according to an Oct. 5 Seven Days article, and J. T. Reichhelm stole the Black Lives Matter flag, according to a Sept. 29 VTDigger article.

These were racist acts. Their implicit message was: UVM is not a school for black people. They don’t belong here.

NoNames for Justice — a community of black, brown and white students — has organized to demand strong, honest steps forward, according to an Oct. 2 Burlington Free Press article.

Instead of taking meaningful action with these leaders, UVM has responded by lauding its current policies in a Nov. 3 letter to the editor written by Thomas J. Gustafson, vice president for university relations and administration.

Compared to other universities, the administration here is impressive; they are responding and continuing the conversation. “Good,” however, leaves room for “better.”

It is “okay to be white,” as the black-and-white posters around campus told us.

I’m feeling pretty okay as an Anglo-Saxon from Maine, but my skin is not the problem.

Silence is the problem.

It is not okay to be white and silent, white and passive or white and apathetic where racism is found.

It is “the appalling silence of the good people,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, that allows bad things to happen. To be quiet is to be part of the problem.

Unfortunately, our campus has at least two monuments to silence. Guy W. Bailey and George Perkins have buildings named after them.

Their associate, Henry Perkins, championed Vermont’s eugenics. The University’s website has a “Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History” page which owns up to Vermont’s obscure history of “forced sterilization of Americans.”

It explains that during that time, those who were black, brown, disabled or otherwise were not welcome in Vermont or at UVM.

Former University President Bailey allowed funding for The Eugenics Survey of Vermont and Perkins, former Dean of Arts and Sciences, regularly ate dinner with his son. Neither of them stopped what was going on, though they could have.

At the very best, they were quiet men when speaking up mattered most. Despite that silence, we honor them.

Years later, our country is in the middle of a horrible crisis of courage.

People with evil ideas are holding power because of the appalling silence of good leaders, voters, students and parents. We haven’t learned from the past, it seems. It is not too late.

I support all of the demands of NoNames for Justice. Those I am passionate about are listed here:

1) Rename the buildings. Students deserve to see the names of heroes where they go to learn and honesty about the mistakes of past leaders.

Name them after David Jamieson ‘91, an artist who spoke up to create diversity courses and died in 1992, a year after his graduation.

Or after Brooks McCabe ‘72, a UVM leader who wrote and organized against the horribly racist Kake Walk throughout the early 1970s.

Or after Bernie Sanders, a college kid who led a protest in 1962 against segregation at the University of Chicago, according to a May 2015 TIME article. But whatever the alternatives, change the names.

2) Strengthen our diversity courses. We all ought to learn about the worst that can happen to people who are marginalized, silenced or ignored.

3) Fund the people who try to make a difference. This school is about to spend $85 million on a new sports complex, according to a Feb. 3 Seven Days article.

Comparatively, the combined budget of all of UVM’s diversity clubs is under $75,000, roughly 0.01 percent of the complex’s cost. Our sports teams are fun, but they’re not out to change the world. Put money where it matters.

And to our administration: please reach out a few times every semester and have a meal with upset students.

We will have a very hard time understanding one another if we never talk outside of the opinion section.

This editorial is public because I feel that it must be public; it would be wonderful for leaders to speak over coffee afterward.

Halsey Payne

UVM 2018

The Slade Cooperative