Dating back to the fall semester of the 2019-2020 academic year, SU has undergone a deep dive into the racial prejudices and tensions within the community, almost a parallel to the national civil unrest happening daily across the nation.
In Oct. 2019, a string of racially charged vandalism struck the Fulton School of Liberal Arts over a period of weeks, bringing the issue of systematic injustice to the forefront of the campus community.
A month later, Fulton was vandalized with racist remarks for the fourth time since the semester had begun, which eventually culminated in a student-led protest in Holloway Hall to demand action from administration.
A day after the protest, SU President Charles Wight held a forum in the Guerrieri Academic Commons Assembly Hall to have an open dialogue with the campus community and uncover the deep-seeded grievances felt by members of the university.
Prior to the forum, the SU Student Government Association invited students to join them in front of Fulton before proceeding to the Assembly Hall together in a show of unity, where over 800 students and staff — dressed in all black in solidarity — marched in a collective statement.
The event’s turnout heavily exceeded expectations, as the Assembly Hall reached maximum capacity 15 minutes before the forum even began. As a result, the administration was forced to quickly organize overflow rooms in Perdue Hall and Henson Hall for students to receive a broadcast of the forum and submit questions virtually.
President Wight, SU Police Department Chief Edwin Lashley and other key administrators fielded questions from students and expressed their deep disdain for the acts of hate that had taken place across campus over the preceding months, as well as discuss potential solutions to implement in the weeks to come.
Lashley insisted that the acts of vandalism were under an “intense, ongoing police investigation” as he reassured campus community members during the forum.
In an attempt to prevent future racially charged attacks, changes implemented by the President’s Office included making the Office of Diversity and Inclusion its own independent body and creating the position of chief diversity officer (Joan Williams would eventually be hired for the position in May 2020 after a thorough interview process involving the entire campus community). President Wight also commissioned a special task force to aid in developing initiatives for the office to improve campus diversity and support.
However, in Feb. 2020, two more incidents of racist acts of vandalism occurred in both Henson Hall and Fulton Hall, respectively.
Following this set of attacks, President Wight announced that all classes would be canceled that Thursday to allow the campus to heal, while many events were also organized to allow for discussion and support for affected students.
Still having yet to uncover the person responsible for any of the attacks at that time — a common point of contention for critics of the administration’s response — SU administrators and campus police worked alongside agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help identify the offender.
Near the end of Feb. 2020, a suspect was finally identified with the teamwork of the SU Police Department and the FBI, per a press release from the President’s Office.
In June 2020, according to an email from the President’s Office, it was reported that 54-year-old Jerome K. Jackson — who has no known connection to Salisbury University — would plead guilty to “maliciously defacing property while demonstrating racial animosity in connection with the racist, misogynistic and threatening vandalism discovered on campus during the 2019-2020 academic year, under Maryland's hate crime statute.” Jackson accepted responsibility for every incident of vandalism that occurred throughout both semesters.
Just days later, in the wake of the summer’s global Black Lives Matter movement, SU community members organized a protest outside the university’s Guerrieri Academic Commons to stand against acts of racially charged violence and police brutality.
Upon the return to campus for the fall semester of the 2020-2021 academic year, a petition circulated calling for the SU administration to implement “zero-tolerance” policies for future acts of discrimination against university members, among other further improvements for diversity and inclusion, led by the SGA’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion Dorien Rogers. In total, the petition received over 200 signatures from students, staff, faculty, alumni and other campus allies.
And finally, the latest incident to plague the university was an inferred noose found on campus grounds, which after a campus police-led investigation, was found to be a bird feeder support infrastructure installed by the SU Biology Department.
After nearly a year of confronting the campus community’s struggles with injustice, Salisbury University continues to work towards improving the quality of life for persons of diverse backgrounds and welcome better inclusivity in the future one day at a time.
By JAKOB TODD
Featured image: Emma Reider image.