Advocate for Empowerment and Justice
Although this is not the easiest topic for me to discuss, I feel I need to share my story of speaking out against injustice in hopes that it will empower and assist others who experience unjust circumstances and desire change.
In January 2019, I did something that I would never have anticipated earlier in my career—I stood in front of a packed room and made a passionate appeal in support of my university’s diverse community; and then I fucking asked that the university president resign. Soon after, I filed a federal lawsuit that outlines the ways in which my employer violated my First Amendment rights, retaliated against me with adverse employment actions, engaged in gender discrimination and pay inequity, and punished me for advocating for people of minority and underrepresented status.
I took this step because I love my university. I have been a professor at the University of Oklahoma for more than twenty years. I have served the university community at every academic rank and in multiple positions – from a professor and faculty-in-residence to an administrator and dean. The University of Oklahoma is my home, and I want it to be a safe and welcoming home for all students, faculty, staff and administrators.
Unfortunately, during my two decades at OU, I have seen that this is not always the case. I discovered that corruption has long been ingrained in the system and I am unwilling to sit silently by and watch members of the community suffer any longer. I believe that if you have any power to act to make an environment better for all, you should.
I am fighting for a university where women and underrepresented minorities are treated fairly and equally; where members of marginalized communities are welcomed, included and treated equitably; and where all members of the university community are not afraid to speak up for what’s right.
My recent journey to challenge the status quo at OU began when I spoke up about the community’s dissatisfaction with the search to replace President David Boren. I did this despite my own fear, because I believed that a secret search for the next president, performed by the university’s elites behind closed doors, would not yield the best president for students, faculty or staff. I believed that an open, transparent search process was necessary to find a leader who will facilitate a positive and safe learning environment for students, and a work environment free from discrimination and harassment for faculty and staff. I and others asked that finalists for the OU presidency be publicized so that the wider university community—the very community the president and the regents should serve—could weigh in.
Later, I was unwilling to let a new university president selected in complete secrecy to cut nearly half of the funding for international education without a fight. I believe that access to an international experience is essential for university students. Learning about the world opens up so many doors, both personal and professional. How can a university say it’s giving its students the best possible education when only the wealthy can afford to spend time abroad and when fewer students can take advantage of international opportunities? Beyond that, how can a university serve the broader global community when it’s eliminating the programs that would give graduates the knowledge and sensitivity they need to advocate for peace and human rights? But that fight – a fight perpetuated by university leadership to create misery, marginalize, and silence me and the advocates of international education – ultimately ended in my firing.
I was then asked to add my voice in support of OU’s students, faculty and staff who were calling for Boren’s closed-door replacement, President James Gallogly to do better in the wake of yet another racist incident on our campus. Many were unhappy with his leadership – noting that he and his administration were not doing enough to respond to racist incidents, alter racist structures, and fully support diversity and inclusion on campus. One thousand students and faculty had gathered for a rally condemning both a video of a now-former student wearing blackface and using a racial epithet, as well as the president’s weak response. I felt that I had a responsibility to take action to support the safety and civil rights of students at the university by accepting an invitation to participate in the rally, despite my having been removed from my dean position only a few days before.
Needless to say, the rally was an exceptionally emotional experience. I stood in the back of the room and watched the many brave students, staff and faculty of color appeal to the university’s president and members of his administration to be seen and heard and understood. And yet I knew after months of working with the new president that he was not there to dismantle racist structures and make OU a more inclusive university. The tension and emotion in the room also brought to the surface years of difficulty with my employer – the sexism, the discrimination, the misconduct – all of the unfortunate things I have experienced and witnessed. There was just no way I could stand idly by and watch the injustice any longer. But speaking up and attempting to hold powerful people and institutions accountable comes with a price.
Although this is a difficult topic for me to discuss, I feel like I need to share my story of speaking out against injustice in hopes that it will affect change. And I hope that my actions help to build a community of support that emboldens everyone to share their stories and fight for equal and fair treatment for all. To be sure, I own the fact that I fucking asked for a president’s resignation in a very public manner. And I don’t regret it. This “violation” of university culture and white solidarity was a necessary step toward empowerment and a more just university. But it isn’t over yet. There is more work to be done and a lawsuit ahead of me. I will be sharing more about my experience fighting for equality on campus on the Life Is Short Stories website, as well as in future publications, so stay tuned.