By Charise Cheney, Lynn Fujiwara, Brian Klopotek, Sharon Luk, Ernesto Martínez
The University of Oregon is on the verge of losing one of its only professors who studies race and the criminal justice system within a social justice framework.
Ironically, this is happening at a historic moment of national crisis, where anti-Black violence is not only rampant but newly visible, where multi-racial coalitions all across the nation are demanding justice, and where leading scholar-activists have an enormous role to play in helping us understand a way forward. Professor Michael Hames-García is a national leader in the study of race, incarceration and policing. He has been teaching and institution building at the UO since 2005, and he has earned two of the UO’s most prestigious research and teaching excellence awards.
Currently, he is being recruited by another esteemed university, but the UO administration has decided they will not match Hames-Garcia’s outside offer. They claim this is because of the budgetary crisis. Yet, we see where their financial priorities rest: an unnecessary police force, million-dollar jumbotrons, massive stadiums, a president’s exorbitant salary and publicly-funded assets (including his housing and transportation) and new residence halls.
If the UO administration is truly invested in racial justice, when might we expect this value to match their practices? Might the active retention of a leading scholar of race, incarceration and policing — at this historical moment — be a good start?
The UO Makes Excuses and Undermines Activist Scholars of Color
We often hear white faculty and administrators at the UO say that the UO can’t recruit and retain top ranking faculty of color because they don’t want to live in Oregon.
The irony of this statement is that Oregon is Hames-García’s home. This is where he grew up, this is where his extended family currently lives, and this is where he would continue to maintain his active commitments to community development. He will be forced to split his time between a job in one state and his life’s work in another precisely because the UO administration refuses to admit that its commitments to racial justice, at this historical moment, remain thin. They are rhetorical gestures that allow the administration to claim to value racial justice at the same time that they actively undermine justice in practice.
Hames-García’s case is an example of how “the academy” does not necessarily have to be considered an ivory tower apart from “the street.” In direct connection with social justice movements around the world, Hames-García has invested decades of teaching, research and service, working to better understand and transform the criminal justice system in the very place he lives.
He continues to serve on the Eugene Police Civilian Review Board in addition to past and current work with Sponsors Transitional Home and Social Services, Oregon State Correctional Institution at Salem, and a long list of community, labor and student activist groups committed to social justice. He is a community leader and major force for transformative change here in Oregon.
Some of us have been at the UO for decades. Our perspective is informed by previous moments where the “revolving door” for faculty of color at the UO resulted in an endless stream of departures.
For a brief period, from 2008 to 2016, we built a strong body of faculty of color through strategic recruitment and retention efforts. In 2016, the UO lost a Black woman tenure-track faculty member who actually took a salary cut to join another university rather than endure the racist indignities in her department.
In the past few years we have seen another exodus of Black faculty from the UO, including the only Black woman full professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. We have also seen faculty of color consistently diminished, used as tokens, then removed when they don’t meet the administration’s goals for either optics or compliance to meaningless program building. Black women faculty on this campus are expected to toe the university line of racial harmony, and when they speak out, they pay dearly and often publicly.
In 2002, the university signed a racial discrimination settlement, known as the Joe Wade settlement agreement, that established a number of affirmative action requirements, among them a promise to conduct exit interviews of all faculty and staff of color leaving the UO. To this date, those exit interviews do not happen. Many faculty of color have left in just the past five years, so many that we have lost count, and we have yet to see university accountability measures that take stock of why these faculty left and what their experiences were.
Faculty of color have nowhere to go with complaints of racial bias, hostility or discrimination. We used to have an Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity. At a time when a large group of faculty of color reported a systematic experience of racialized harm by a white dean, the university fired the affirmative action officer overseeing the complaints.
Notably, that officer was the only woman of color to ever hold that position. She also happened to have made comments that sounded supportive of the faculty union. Once fired, faculty of color were diverted to a newly restructured system of “Investigations and Civil Rights Compliance,” which was overseen by a hand-picked former UO law school graduate. Does any of this sound familiar?
Show, Don’t Tell: Support and Retain Social Justice Scholars at the UO
The UO administration is hand-picked with people who refuse to implement meaningful change, and the voices of faculty of color continue to be minimized. The College of Arts and Sciences dean’s office has only been led by white men and women. In at least the past 20 years, there have been zero deans of color at any rank, and almost no staff of color in the CAS administration office.
Hames-García has certainly used his voice and First Amendment right to raise criticisms of the UO administration. He has also been instrumental in creating an intellectual and supportive community for the faculty of color who have remained here. This cadre of faculty of color are on the front lines, educating students about systematic racism and validating and supporting students of color to help them thrive despite the challenges they endure at a predominantly white university.
Hames-García’s departure will leave a gaping hole in the faculty of color community, and the community of color more broadly.
We urge the UO administration to, as the saying goes, put its money where its mouth is. We have had enough lip service, with a thousand empty proclamations of support without willingness to step up when the moment calls for it. In a time when it has become clear that our racist criminal justice system is as grave a threat to our nation as COVID-19, it is unconscionable to let a leading specialist on this topic depart the university. He is a resource that all UO students and our state desperately need.
We call upon President Michael Schill and the Provost Patrick Phillips to do the work this moment calls for: Retain Professor Michael Hames-García. Show us, don’t just tell us, that the UO is committed to racial justice.
Charise Cheney, Lynn Fujiwara, Brian Klopotek, Sharon Luk and Ernesto Martínez are associate professors in the UO Department of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies.