In the summer of 2020, motivated by the social unrest and national dialogue that followed the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain, the Rev. James Maher, C.M., Niagara University’s president, established a task force to identify, and subsequently formulate, comprehensive recommendations for change related to racial injustice for the campus community.
Led by Dr. Rolanda L. Ward, associate professor of social work and endowed faculty director of the Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Race, Equity and Mission, and Kara Oliver, director of strategic initiatives in the Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement, the Identifying and Dismantling Racial Injustice Task Force was charged to ask critical questions about how Niagara University supports and nurtures BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and to suggest ways in which the university can leverage its resources to impact the surrounding community in essential social justice areas, including criminal justice, education, and health.
“There is never a time for violence in our world, and we must seek peace while we walk with our brothers and sisters who suffer personal and systemic oppression and violence,” Father Maher said in announcing the formation of the task force. “The Niagara University community must demonstrate actions that enhance diversity, inclusion, and belonging. We must continually engage in purposeful ways to identify and dismantle seen and unseen systemic and institutionalized racism.”
Over the course of eight weeks, the members of the task force, which comprised 11 representatives from faculty, staff, executive leadership, and students, researched, evaluated, and crafted comprehensive recommendations that support the vision for a campus community that is anti-racist and embodies spaces of inclusivity, respect, and value of the human person. On July 30, 2020, the task force presented Father Maher with its initial report and recommended actions, which he accepted in totality. Based on this report, work began to implement both the short- and long-term actions that are needed.
One of the first steps taken was the establishment of a scholarship to assist BIPOC students in their academic pursuits at Niagara University. The Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom Retention Scholarship will financially support students of color, specifically those who are not eligible for the university’s Niagara University Opportunity Program and who are not athletes, as they complete their degrees and establish and pursue their career goals.
The scholarship pays tribute to Hamer, a civil rights activist and co-founder and vice chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, and her commitment to advance civil and voting rights.
Other actions taken include:
- The approval of a new sector for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with leadership at the level of vice president.
- The development of a series of comprehensive training and education sessions for staff, students, and faculty.
- The intentional focus of Enrollment Management’s marketing division to promote diversity.
- The broadening of students’ academic choices, to include expanding the number of courses available in existing programs and establishing new ones
- Revisions to the minor in Africana/Black Studies that enhance course offerings across college and program choices.
- The hiring of new faculty members whose teaching and research areas focus on race, systemic racism, and immigration.
- The creation of opportunities for dialogue about BIPOC within the Niagara University community and the local community through panel presentations, guest speakers, and student-centered discussions.
- Establishment of Niagara’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board to provide resources and support for student diversity and social justice initiatives.
- The creation of broadened holistic support for BIPOC and at-risk students utilizing a care coordination approach to provide these students with academic and financial support, counseling, mentoring, and career and professional services to expand opportunities.
These efforts have extended into the community, as well. Father Maher was selected by Mayor Robert Restaino to serve as a member of his Niagara Falls Social Justice Commission to address inequality across a variety of platforms in the community, and he has also implemented a series of presidential initiatives, the first of which was an assessment of the Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy, which is housed on the Niagara University campus.
These, and subsequent projects, are tangible evidence of the university’s commitment to create systems to support and nurture its BIPOC students, faculty,
staff, and alumni. These progressive actions are embedded in the university’s strategic plan and guided by the foundational work of the Identifying and Dismantling Racial Injustice Task Force.
“Together, we will walk with our brothers and sisters who suffer personal and systemic oppression and violence,” said Father Maher, “and we will build our collective strategy and action to contest racism and racial violence as we continue to strive for a campus community that is not only inclusive, but is anti-racist and embodies the true Vincentian mission and spirit.”