Judge Bill Wilson's July 8 decision in Nolan Richardson's lawsuit against the University of Arkansas has triggered considerable public discussion and media comment. Almost nothing has been said about the judge's observations regarding racial insensitivity at the highest levels of University of Arkansas administration. At page 30 of his opinion, Judge Wilson wrote:
"There was troubling testimony from witnesses about racism in the higher ranks of UAF. A former member of the Board of Trustees (and former board chair), and a current board member admitted, during examination by Plaintiff's counsel, that they still use the word 'nigger' and tell racial and ethnic jokes. Anyone 'amongst the folks' knows that racial terms and jokes are acceptable conversational coin with some people. It seems to me, however, that when a person accepts an important position of trust with the entire University of Arkansas system, he would purge his vocabulary of such words -- and work on his heart and mind in the same vein. Most troubling to me was that neither of these witnesses seemed abashed by their admissions."
Judge Wilson also found that UA Athletic Director Frank Broyles used the term "nigger" while talking to Clay Henry, publisher of Hawgs Illustrated, at a Feb. 18, 2000 banquet to honor senior football players, and that Broyles urged Henry to publish an article equating Richardson's use of the term "redneck" to a white person calling a black person "nigger." The judge said Broyles' conduct demonstrated his willingness to "stir the racial pot." Mike Nail, a UA defense witness, gave such disingenuous testimony that Judge Wilson declared him unworthy of belief. The University, which professes to hold students and faculty to an honor code and advocate racial diversity, made Nail's testimony and Broyles' argument integral parts of its defense to Richardson's lawsuit.
It is inexcusable - if not unpardonable - that UA trustees are unabashedly using "nigger" to refer to black people and telling racist jokes in 2004. Progressive leaders should condemn Broyles' attempt to publish the view that "nigger" and "redneck" are analogous terms. Instead, the University adopted Broyles' argument as part of its defense. Judge Wilson rejected that argument, stating: "It should ring out loudly and clearly - an African-American calling a Caucasian person a redneck is nowise the same as a Caucasian person calling an African-American a 'nigger.' Although some may argue that there is no real difference, they are wrong, and I suspect they know it." Judge Wilson found that Broyles urged Henry to publish an article asserting his argument, but did not want to be associated with it. Judge Wilson observed that no person in leadership met with Richardson about his frequent and blunt public remarks about racial insensitivity and lack of diversity at the University. And the judge commented that Richardson's termination might have been delayed, if not avoided, had UA administrators conducted themselves differently.
These "troubling" revelations show what UA black alumni and our families have long realized: racial insensitivity is yet practiced, condoned, excused, and defended - but not challenged and corrected - at the highest levels in the University of Arkansas. We enrolled at the University of Arkansas when racially insensitive conduct was openly practiced and tolerated. In 1998, six years ago, the Black Alumni Society of the Arkansas Alumni Association issued a resolution that complained about racial insensitivity and lack of diversity within the UA Athletic Department. We have tried to work with UA administrators about racial insensitivity and lack of diversity at the University of Arkansas. Judge Wilson's findings show that UA leaders have failed to correct the problem.
None of the people whose racism was exposed during the trial - but known about long before trial - have been reprimanded or otherwise held accountable. Broyles leads the UA Athletic Department. The trustees have legal and political oversight for the entire University of Arkansas system, including the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the largest and only state-supported historically black college or university in Arkansas. The University of Arkansas is our state's flagship institution of higher education. Students (and student-athletes), parents, faculty members, and staff of all racial and ethnic backgrounds entrust their futures, children, professional aspirations, and employment to the trustees and campus administrators. People who perpetrate unabashed racial insensitivity, instigate race-baiting schemes, and provide cover for racist conduct have no business leading public institutions.
One would hope that most other Arkansans condemn, rather than ignore or condone, such behavior by leaders of a publicly funded university. Yet, no public policymaker has criticized University administrators for the racism Judge Wilson mentioned. Hardly any editorials have been written about it. University of Arkansas leaders are putting together a political action committee to lobby for higher budget appropriations. They are aggressively seeking increased private financial support. But they are making no observable improvement in rooting out racism. Institutional and personal racism are not attitudes and practices that deserve and encourage public or private investment.
Racial insensitivity has been excused and defended at the University of Arkansas for decades. UA trustees and administrators should have aggressively confronted and corrected it long ago. It is a shame they have not. Moreover, it is most revealing that other leaders are not talking about that abysmal failure, let alone doing anything to change it.
Wendell L. Griffen and Gene E. McKissic are alumni of the University of Arkansas. Griffen (B.A., 1973, J.D., 1979) is a Little Rock minister and a state appellate judge. McKissic (B.A. 1973, J.D., 1976) is a Pine Bluff attorney and was the first black person elected student body president at the University of Arkansas (in 1972).