Staff and students at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest file inside the university's chapel to listen to university President Russell Dawn address concerns of racism and discrimination on campus. | F. Amanda Tugade/Wednesday Journal

At an April 12 town hall meeting, more than 100 students and staff packed the pews of the chapel to listen to Concordia University Chicago President Russell Dawn answer questions and respond to their concerns of racism and discrimination on campus. The meeting, which lasted about an hour, was held shortly after the protest. Leaders of the Student Government Association helped moderate the event, using students’ submitted questions to guide a portion of the conversation. 

Opening the conversation, the CUC president told students they are a “top priority” and that he would strive to serve them. He then provided a response to the ban issued against English professor Paul Stapleton. 

Dawn informed staff and students that “employment information is confidential” and therefore he could not share details about banning Stapleton from the campus and teaching in person. 

But, he noted, that bans are put in place when “an individual poses an unreasonable risk to one or more members of the community.”  

“You might ask: Has he done that?” Dawn said of Stapleton, adding that brings him back to his first point – confidentiality. “I cannot talk to the specifics of the situation but understand we only ban when someone poses a risk to more and more individuals in the campus community.” 

During the meeting, one student asked Dawn why CUC had changed its mission statement, choosing to drop the words “diverse,” “women” and “creativity.” Some students of color say losing those words have made them feel invisible on campus, “like they can’t be themselves,” while others claim it illustrates the university’s lack of commitment toward its liberal arts programs which were slashed in 2020.  

In December 2020, university officials let go of 51 faculty and staff members and closed 15 academic programs, including the Women and Gender Studies program in the College of Arts and Sciences. The university reasoned that the cuts were part of a prioritization process and a cost-saving measure to reallocate funds elsewhere.  

Dawn, at the meeting, informed faculty, staff and students that the mission statement was revised before he became president. While the actual word “diverse” does not appear in CUC’s mission statement, Dawn said that word is still referenced, as the university acknowledges that students live in a “diverse world” and is committed to preparing them to live and serve that world. 

When asked if Dawn could amend the mission statement, he replied “no” and explained that he did not have the sole authority to do so. But, he said, the Board of Regents does.  

“Will I change it? No, because I’m not that important to change it,” Dawn said. “But will I bring it to the Board of Regents for reconsideration? Absolutely.”

Eric Matanyi, the school’s communications chief, reiterated to the Journal that the mission statement “is not connected with the president or the on-campus administration. It is fully under the auspices of the Board of Regents.”  

In the meeting, another student asked Dawn to explain why the university has taken down Black Lives Matter signs around campus, which were initially hung to show support for Black students and raise awareness of recent racial injustices. 

“The only reason there is any discomfort with the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ has to do with the organization by that name that has specifically anti-Christian roots, at least some specifically. It’s true. You can look it up,” Dawn said, before the crowd erupted.  

The Black Lives Matter movement began almost nine years ago, first as a social media hashtag in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin. In 2012, Martin, an unarmed Black teen from Florida, was fatally shot by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman. On the Black Lives Matter site, the organization highlights its mission to end white supremacy and systematic oppression, affirm Black people’s humanity and contributions to society and continued calls for “Black lives to matter.”

During the meeting, a handful of students shared incidents of racism they experienced by professors and coaches and voiced concerns over the university’s use of an online portal where students are encouraged to report those incidents. One student said he submitted a complaint at least three times but felt ignored by university officials, while another said the university’s lack of diverse staff impacts students of color who need mentorship. 

Dawn said the university has a “zero tolerance policy” on racism and discrimination and maintained that the online portal is not “meant to be a barrier” but rather a “pipeline” to better understand students’ concerns. 

“It’s not acceptable if racism is being perpetuated in the classroom or anywhere else that is notable,” he said. 

Another student asked Dawn whether CUC would consider creating a different worship space for students who are not Lutheran and belong to different religious faiths. 

“We welcome students from any religious faith or no religious faith at all, but that does not mean we are required to provide them a space to practice their religion on this Christian campus,” Dawn said, adding other universities are not obligated to provide that space either. 

“This is a Christian community based on the Christian Scriptures, and we’re not providing a space for worship other than Christian worship,” he said.  

Russell gives an update

In the days following the meeting, Dawn sent a schoolwide email recapping the April 12 town hall forum. 

“And let me be very clear: Your voices are heard, and we will do better,” he wrote in the lengthy email to staff and students. 

Dawn reiterated that the university has a zero-tolerance policy for racism, discrimination, harassment and misconduct by students, faculty and staff and promises to “do everything in my power to ensure that every member of our university community feels welcomed and respected.” 

In the email, the CUC president also encouraged students to continue sharing their issues and concerns using the school’s resources. That included the online portal that students at the rally and town hall forum were critical about.

Dawn also said students have options for spiritual counseling and mental health services, which are provided on campus through the counseling center or through local mental health providers. Dawn mentioned that a team of university officials has partnered with student leaders to develop a set of action steps, which will be shared in the coming weeks.  

“As I made clear on Tuesday, Concordia-Chicago remains committed to serving our students – ALL of our students – faithfully within the Biblical worldview of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,” Dawn wrote.

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