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

More than a week after Concordia University Chicago students lodged a protest and demanded an overhaul of diversity and inclusion efforts, university President Russell Dawn emailed staff and students late last week, outlining the university’s next steps to “take action together.” 

In an April 22 email, Dawn informed staff and students about the university’s five-point plan to continue the conversations on Concordia’s campus culture, with some initiatives taking place immediately.  

This week, the Student Government Association looks to release a survey to students to gather feedback and ideas for future action steps. University Provost Erik Ankerberg and Dean of Students Kathy Gebhardt will also be meeting with leaders of six primary student organizations: Black Student Union, Latino Student Union, Spiritual Life, Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Campus Activities Board and the Student Government Association, Dawn wrote.

Other efforts include offering regular events and roundtable discussions starting next fall where students can talk with administrators and student leaders. The university will also partner with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and its Northern Illinois District to host a workshop that offers “a Biblical understanding of civility in a diverse community,” Dawn noted in the email. 

A few dozen Concordia students held a peaceful protest on campus April 12 and voiced concerns over their perception of the university’s unwelcoming environment toward students of color, as well as those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community or practice other religious faiths separate from LCMS. The protest – which took place on the same day and just prior to the university-led town hall meeting where Dawn addressed students’ concerns – ensued after a Concordia professor was banned from campus. 

Paul Stapleton, a visiting English professor, previously told Wednesday Journal that he believed he was banned from campus because he has been outspoken about the racist incidents faculty, staff and students have experienced. Stapleton said he has also been vocal about the major changes Concordia has undergone in recent years, including the layoff of 51 faculty members in 2020 and the gutting of liberal arts and sciences programs such as Women and Gender Studies. 

Stapleton, who claimed university officials failed to tell him why he was barred from being on campus, was arrested April 11 for returning to the school to teach his students in-person.

“The ban seems very arbitrary. I have no clue why I’ve been banned,” Stapleton told the Journal in a previous interview. “No policy has been given to me – nothing. I just got banned, and I have no idea why.” 

The university has declined to comment on the banning of Stapleton, citing the issue as an employment matter governed by confidentiality. Stapleton remains an employee of Concordia but has since been suspended from his position until the end of June.

During the April 12 protest and town hall meeting, students shared stories of racism or bigotry they faced in the classroom with professors or on the athletic fields with their coaches. Others pointed to the recent changes made to the university’s mission statement, dropping the words “diverse” and “women,” which they say reflects the way the university sees them and follows a pattern. Back in 2019, Eric Arno Hiller was removed from Concordia’s Board of Regents, after he made racist and sexist comments online. 

An online petition created by alumni drew thousands of signatures, calling for Hiller to be ousted from his position. 

In the town hall meeting, Dawn publicly addressed students’ concerns, directly replying to some questions. When one student asked Dawn why the university had taken down Black Lives Matter signs, which were initially hung to show support for Black students and bring awareness to police brutality and racial injustices, he answered that the Black Lives Matter organization itself has “specifically anti-Christian roots.” 

The university has yet to look into Dawn’s response on Black Lives Matter, but Concordia spokesperson Eric Matanyi told the Journal in an email that Dawn was unavailable for an interview.

In Dawn’s email, he wrote that the action steps are part of Concordia’s commitment to “mutual respect.”  

“I wish to reiterate that we value each and every member of the university community as a unique creation of God – we care deeply about you and you matter to us. Together, there is much work to be done toward achieving our strategic goal of creating a vibrant and unified community,” Dawn wrote. 

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