Message from Dean Hess on School’s commitment to racial justice

The following message from Dean Diana Hess was emailed to students, staff, and faculty across the School of Education on Monday, June 15:

Dear School of Education students, staff, and faculty,

Many years ago, as a high school teacher, I was working to better understand why it is that people are often better able to judge wrongs in the past rather than those that are in the present. In the process, I started asking the question: What is happening now in our society that future generations will look back on with shame and horror? I wondered what events students in the history classes of the future would question and ask: How could that have happened? Why wasn’t it stopped? Why wasn’t it changed? These are not rhetorical questions, and in reality, asking them in retrospect is much too late.

The brutal killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others have prompted outrage across our city, state, and country and throughout the world. The racism that permeates our society, the police brutality and violence against black people, and the persistent white supremacy that infects so many aspects of society are ongoing, horrific, and shameful. And while I would like to believe that the arc of history will swing toward justice, we know from that same history that will not happen unless there is a real reckoning and unless we make it so.

I am hopeful because of the millions of people who are protesting, who are rising up, who are so clearly communicating that this cannot go on. I am hopeful because there are so many students, staff, and faculty in the School of Education who are deeply committed to ending the atrocities of anti-black racism and violence in our society, who have devoted their lives and their life’s work toward these ends, and who are leading the way.

As a School of Education community, we must stand against racism in all of its forms and stand for justice. And we must act. Let me suggest three broad goals that can serve as our north stars.

  1. We need to create a School that is explicitly anti-racist, more diverse, and works more consciously, continually, and meaningfully toward the goal of ensuring that everyone experiences the School as a place where they feel fully included.
  2. We must prepare our students to create a society that is anti-racist and just, and doing so must permeate our academic programs, our research agendas, and our partnerships on and off campus.
  3. We must teach toward political and civic engagement, and that must be one of the primary purposes of our programs. As we have learned many times in our history and are seeing now, protesting matters. Voting matters. When critics identify advocating for voting, protesting, and other ways in which we can seek to create meaningful change as partisan, we will argue back. If educating for political and civic engagement is partisan, then it stands to reason that educating toward creating a fair and just democracy is also partisan. And that is simply not so.

We must recognize that as a School, as departments, as units, as individuals, we have a deep obligation, as well as the ability, to be the change that simply must occur. I know that we have a lot of work to do in our house, in the School of Education. While we are legitimately proud of the meaningful work that has been done by so many to create a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just School and society, we have a heavy lift in front of us. As part of that process, I invite you to attend the events and forums about racial justice that are being organized in the School of Education this summer by Associate Dean LaVar Charleston (https://education.wisc.edu/about/diversity-inclusion/). I also invite you to reach out to me directly with your concerns and ideas about what the School needs to be doing going forward.

I know these last three weeks have been very challenging, and in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, have been very hard to bear. The connections between the deep inequalities in our society, and the fact that black Americans are both the victims of racial violence and more likely to be the victims of the COVID-19 virus, underscore why we must stand and act for justice and take care of one another in our community.

Sincerely,

Diana Hess

Diana E. Hess, Ph.D.
Dean, School of Education
Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education
University of Wisconsin-Madison