A Message to the Huntingdon Family from President West
September 23, 2020
Dear Huntingdon Family,
On June 1, following several months of work, the College announced that we had been awarded a Vocation Across the Academy Grant from the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE). With this new grant, we are now able to give our students not only the opportunity to think about and discover their callings in life — which we have made an institutional priority for the last two decades — but also to think about, and discover, how race and justice issues impact that experience of vocational reflection and self-discovery. The grant was developed by an outstanding project roster consisting primarily of Huntingdon faculty from a wide variety of academic disciplines. Much of the programming envisioned in the grant centers around curricular and co-curricular academic experiences and readings, as well as the creation of new courses and adaptation of existing courses.
On June 10, shortly after the announcement of that grant, I created the Huntingdon College Race and Justice Initiative (RJI) with three Working Groups — Alumni Engagement, Student Engagement and Academic Engagement — and appointed Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Dr. Tom Perrin as RJI Chair. My hope at the time was that, through the Race and Justice Initiative, Huntingdon would seize the energy surrounding nationwide efforts to redress racial injustice and build upon the June 1 grant by engaging a wide swath of leadership — not only academic leadership but also alumni and student leadership all working in a coordinated, complementary endeavor. My hope was that our College would work more intentionally than we have ever worked to be a place where students who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) can thrive. My hope was that this College of the United Methodist Church would work to rededicate ourselves to living up to our Judeo-Christian heritage of full opportunity, full justice and full reconciliation. My hope was that we would make The Home We Love So Well the best of all possible homes for all God’s people to study and be formed in wisdom… and thus be prepared justly to go forth in service.
As we reach fall midterm, I am writing to report that my hopes in creating the Race and Justice Initiative are being realized thanks to the more than 50 alumni, students, faculty, staff and trustees who have been engaged since mid-June in one of RJI’s three Working Groups: Alumni Engagement, Student Engagement and Academic Engagement. They have my profound gratitude and appreciation. Already, their work is giving us the opportunity to think about and act upon the deepest of moral questions that face not only our society but our College. In this message, I want to provide an update to the Race and Justice Initiative’s work. I also want to speak with you as your President about RJI’s importance to the identity and the mission, the present and the future, of Huntingdon in a global and complex world that needs informed, thoughtful, courageous, ethical citizen leadership.
MIDTERM UPDATE ON THE RACE AND JUSTICE INITIATIVE’S WORK
The Alumni Engagement Working Group is actively committed to six goals and has invited all alumni of the College to join its work: (1) Finding, informing and reconnecting with “hidden” alumni who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC); (2) Increasing BIPOC alumni campus presence and participation as speakers and mentors; (3) Supporting the Black Student Union (BSU) in highlighting its value on campus and off; (4) Assisting students, especially BIPOC students, with career and vocation programs; (5) Recruiting BIPOC students to Huntingdon; and (6) Raising funds to match the Vocation Across the Academy Grant, as well as funds for the BSU. Ms. Laura Tyree Brelsford ’05, Director of Alumni Engagement, is eager to speak with anyone wishing to plug into this vital work, and she can be reached at 334/833-4563 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Student Engagement Working Group has been busy this fall discussing and planning for a series of Courageous Conversations on campus, and faculty are submitting course proposals in support of the prospective minor in African American Studies being shepherded by the Academic Engagement Working Group. More information about both of these projects will be forthcoming as the fall term progresses.
Last week, Dean Perrin and I issued a directive advancing the goal of the Academic Engagement Working Group to increase diversity on the College’s faculty. Effective immediately, the shortlist presented to the President for a faculty appointment must include a diverse pool of finalists. I am fully committed to increasing diversity on the faculty and have made that goal of the Race and Justice Initiative a major priority of my presidency.
I am also fully committed to increasing frank and constructive discussion around issues of race and justice that impact both our College and broader society. Dr. Christopher Clark ’07, who co-chairs the Academic Engagement Working Group, approached me midsummer to propose offering a course during the fall term on “Racial Disparity in the American Application of Law.” Dean Perrin accepted my recommendation that this course be offered for fall term and expedited approval for the course through faculty governance channels. Ten students are enrolled in this Criminal Justice Seminar, which I hope will become a regularly-offered elective in our curriculum, and I am grateful to Dr. Clark for his initiative in creating and teaching this course on top of other teaching and administrative duties.
Kudos go also to the Houghton Memorial Library faculty for partnering with Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) on the September 17 Constitution Day Zoom presentation, “Situating Voting Rights and Voter Suppression in Historical Context.” The presentation by Dr. Kayla Vinson, EJI Law Fellow, was attended on Zoom by 47 alumni, students, faculty, staff and trustees, and stimulated thoughtful questions and dialogue with Dr. Vinson.
I am excited to announce that on Saturday, October 24, at 1:00 PM, the College will celebrate a Ceremony of Dedication and Naming of the Wanda A. Howard ’81 Black Student Union Center, which will be located in the renovated ground floor of The Hut in the center of campus. The ceremony will be held outside in The Grove, located between The Hut and Catherine Dixon Roland Student Center. During her student days, Ms. Wanda Howard was one of the founders of the Black Student Union. She has served on the College’s Board of Trustees for 11 years and been a mentor and counselor to generations of students. It will be my high honor on October 24 to speak about her devout faith, her practical wisdom and her generous service to her beloved Alma Mater. Full renovations of the Wanda A. Howard ’81 Black Student Union Center will take place during the extended Winter Break. Stay tuned for more details about the historic October 24 Ceremony of Dedication and Naming.
WHY THE RACE AND JUSTICE INITIATIVE IS CRUCIAL TO THE COLLEGE’S LIFE
The work of the Race and Justice Initiative reflects the mission and the soul of Huntingdon College at its best. The College’s name, “Huntingdon,” was chosen in 1935 by the Board of Trustees to honor the work and ongoing influence of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, a patron of the original Methodist movement in England. She was also a patron of the poet Phillis Wheatley, who literally wrote her way from enslavement to freedom when, in 1773, she became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poems in English. Phillis Wheatley entitled her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and dedicated the volume to the Countess of Huntingdon. Our 21st Century work in the Race and Justice Initiative, together as a diverse community of learners, builds upon the foundation and legacy of the Countess of Huntingdon. What we do today keeps us true to her commitment to valuing all people regardless of color and condition in life.
Early in the summer — following the heinous killings of Mr. Ahmaud Arbery, Ms. Breonna Taylor, and Mr. George Floyd — I had the opportunity and privilege to read letters from a number of the College’s young BIPOC alumni and listen to them individually over the telephone while they each spoke to me of their concerns. They talked with me straightforwardly about their experiences as Huntingdon students, both the positive times and the difficult challenges they had while on campus as students. They spoke with me directly about their hopes for how Huntingdon can grow to be a transformed institution that lives up fully to its mission, its soul, the spirit of its namesake.
After listening, learning, reflecting and praying, I have come to understand and believe that the College has not lived up adequately to the heritage bequeathed to us by our namesake the Countess of Huntingdon. Action and change must be imperatives as we move forward together. A College of the United Methodist Church, by definition, “seeks to create a community of scholarship and learning which facilitates social justice.” As President of the College, I pledge my renewed commitment to that article of faith and will lead the College into an intentional way of living together that reaffirms both its letter and its spirit.
I am so very grateful to these young alumni for taking the time to speak with me straight from their hearts. Their total honesty has moved my heart. I look forward to encouraging the ongoing work of the Race and Justice Initiative in a spirit that will, unstintingly, seek to transform concretely the Huntingdon learning community into one more open and inclusive to BIPOC students. I look forward to partnering with Dean Perrin and the leadership of the RJI Working Groups in our ongoing efforts to create a campus environment fostering appreciation of the contributions of BIPOC individuals both to the College and to society. Thus, together, we will better educate and prepare all students who enter Huntingdon to go forth into a diverse, multicultural workplace and world able to forge relationships of respect, equality, and justice with all God’s people.
I invite you to join me in this sacred charge and righteous cause.
Faithfully your President,