To the university and campus community,
Academia is designed to be a center of learning and scholarship; a place where scholars who are able to participate grow intellectually and develop a greater understanding of themselves. There is a reason why co-curricular and extracurricular activities are taken into account in graduate school applications –– these activities allow for an estimate of how much a scholar may or may not have been willing to embrace all that academia has to offer.
Participation in Pre-Health clubs are, for example, an indication to medical schools that an applicant has leadership potential and a solid work ethic. Likewise, participation in student government is indicative of one’s ability to champion policies that might bring about change and perhaps make our world better.
However, given the low number of Black students, faculty and staff, Black students do not see ourselves as participants in these structures –– this is the genesis of the lack of ability. The harsh reality is that academia, just like these extra- and co-curricular activities, have a history deeply rooted in a system derived from and built upon objectively racist machinations.
Our academic system divests Black academics from the ability to participate and grow intellectually. This deprivation has many manifestations ranging from outright exclusion as a hiring practice to a lack of substantive effort to increase the number of Black students on campus.
This is the context within which I met the Reverend Dr. Michael Warren Combs, the man who has had the most profound impact on my and countless others’ intellectual development.
So great and sacred is the legacy of Dr. Combs that it proves difficult to write this statement. I met Dr. Combs on Aug. 23, 2016, on the third floor of Oldfather Hall at 11 a.m. –– I was enrolled in his African Americans in American Politics course. It was a Tuesday, and I sat in the classroom awaiting his arrival. I hold that there’s unease with which college freshmen orient themselves: I was no exception. After all, as a pre-medical student, how would this class even help me in my journey to medical school? And what right did any man by the name of Combs teaching in Nebraska have to teach me about blackness and my own history that I did not already know?
See, you have to understand the conditions that shaped my approach and my agitation as I sat there. Four days prior I had moved to Nebraska; three days prior, a blonde white woman called me nigger in jest; and two days prior I realized that in my present environment, my blackness did not enjoy the same harmonious character it held in Chicago. Rather, there was a special type of discord that my very presence, my very color, presented to the framework of this state, this city and more painfully, this university.
As my early experiences forced me to contemplate leaving the university, Dr. Combs showed me that I belonged and as a result, provided me with ability. Dr. Combs was, and remains, a force in my life, and he was paramount to my entrance and participation in academia. I will not tell tales here of the specific ways in which Dr. Combs aided in my becoming. What I will tell you is that there was a moment in class where Combs called me ‘Scholar’; that there was a moment in his office when he showed me compassion; and that there was a trek across the Union greenspace where he listened to me. There was a Thanksgiving in which he fed me; and there was a cold night during which he delivered me home safely.
I might cry while writing this, and if you understood or knew the man I speak of, then you might cry whilst reading this.
This, however, is not about Dr. Michael Combs alone. This is about other persons on campus whose endurance has affirmed my existence. This is about Dr. Gwendolyn Combs, AVC Charlie Foster, VC Marco Barker, AVC T.J. McDowell, Instructor Marianna Burks, Dr. Lory Dance, Dr. Kalu Osiri and others who are too countless to list here but not too countless that their scarcity is not felt.
Certainly, this is about the legacy of Dr. Combs and his impact, and this is a call of urgency to the UNL administration. The lack of representation we find at our institution and the emotional and academic impact it has on scholars, especially those students of color who are so conveniently placed on the margins, needs to be acknowledged and redressed.
The lack of representation within the student body is in and of itself a potent issue. But the lack of representation of our mentors, the faculty and staff at UNL, is the focus here.
This is about the foundational impact that our Black faculty and staff have on our experience at UNL. If as an institution, we extol the virtues of mentorship, why then should I be deprived of the knowledge and warmth of mentors who might know me best?
At present, there are 34 Black faculty members at UNL. This already minuscule number is further reduced when compared to the more than 1,300 white faculty members. This is a disgrace and any leaders of an institution for higher learning that so comfortably maintains these numbers ought to be ashamed of themselves and consider a wide scale assessment that goes beyond a Halualani report or implicit bias trainings.
The truth is that while we have inaugurated the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (a resource I am grateful to have), we as an institution, and our administration, are not doing enough. The ODI does not absolve us of our current reality, and as a senior preparing to leave, a true sense of fear strikes me, as this current reality would be a nightmare for those who would come after me.
However, the ODI does present an opportunity to correct past wrongs, but this is contingent on real participation by the university. Our university claims to uphold such pillars as diversity and a global understanding, yet we do a disservice to the students here by not diversifying our faculty and staff.
As a student, I have founded the Black Student Union, the Minority Pre-Health Association and served as a Vice President of our Student Government. These experiences were born out of the need to build structures that are to our benefit as Black students. They were born out of the tears that the UNL experience can force upon a Black Student, and they were inspired by folks like Dr. Combs who helped me reclaim my identity.
I am the legacy of Dr. Combs, and every patient I will treat as a physician will have Dr. Combs to thank for it. For I know that without him, I would not be where I am, and without him and those like him, academia and UNL would be more homogenous than they currently are, and both would be the worse for it.
As a community, the Black caucus of UNL misses their champion, and as a legacy of our champion, I call upon UNL’s administration to do better. UNL desperately needs more Black faculty and staff to enhance our personal and professional preparation –– we need mentors who will aid in the provision of ability.