Ambitious anti-racism center shrinks amid accusations of mismanagement | ET REALITY


In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, protests, looting, and anger erupted on the streets of Boston, a city that has played host to both abolitionists and fierce race riots. At Boston University, black students demanded action to address racism on campus.

The university had a dramatic response. A few days later he announced that he had recruited Ibram X. Kendi, the famous professor who had generated a movement through his book “How to Be Antiracist.”

The plans were ambitious. Dr. Kendi would head a new Anti-Racism Research Center. The university would develop undergraduate and graduate degrees in anti-racism. Within months, millions of people had flocked to a center whose mission, Dr. Kendi said, would be “to solve seemingly intractable problems of racial inequality and injustice.”

Now, just three years later, the center is being downsized. Last week, more than half of its 36 employees were abruptly informed they were being laid off. The center’s budget will also be cut in half. Planned degree programs have not come to fruition. And the downtown news site called “The emancipator” is no longer an association with The Boston Globe.

The reorganization is partly a sign of the times. Enthusiasm for funding racial justice causes has increased. diminished as Floyd’s murder has faded from media attention and conservatives direct their ire toward efforts to diversify businesses and institutions and teach race in schools.

But the center’s struggles come amid deeper concerns about its management and approach, and questions about whether Dr. Kendi, whose fame has brought him new projects, from an ESPN series to children’s books about racist ideas in America , was providing leadership to the newly created institute. necessary. Until the university established the center, Dr. Kendi, 41, had never led an organization anywhere near his size.

On Wednesday, Boston University announced it was conducting an investigation into complaints from staff members, including questions about the center’s management culture and faculty and staff’s experience with it, as well as its practices. grant management.

Dr. Kendi said in an interview that he made “the painful decision” to reduce the size and mission of the program in an effort to ensure its future, even though the center is currently in good financial health. The university said Friday that the center has raised nearly $55 million and its endowment contains about $30 million, with an additional $17.5 million in reserves.

Most of the donations came from pledges made during the first year, and the university reported $5.4 million in cash and pledge payments in the most recent fiscal year.

Despite the university’s statement that it would examine the center’s management, acting university president Kenneth Freeman on Thursday expressed strong support for Dr. Kendi, saying the professor had arrived at the university earlier this summer. with his idea for the reorganized center. .

“We continue to trust and support Dr. Kendi’s vision,” Mr. Freeman said.

But several former staff and faculty members, expressing anger and bitterness, said the cause of the center’s problems was unrealistic expectations fueled by the rapid injection of money, initial enthusiasm and pressure to produce too much, too quickly, even when there were delays in hiring due to the pandemic. Others blamed Dr. Kendi himself for what they described as an imperious leadership style. And they questioned both the center’s management of subsidies and its productivity.

“Compared to the amount of cash and donations received, the results were minuscule,” said Saida U. Grundy, a sociology professor at Boston University and a feminist scholar who was once affiliated with the center.

The turmoil comes as Dr. Kendi’s work continues to face attacks from outside. In his books he maintains that there is no middle ground when it comes to race: everyone is racist or actively anti-racist. And he suggests that all disparities in black outcomes and achievements are due to racism. That has drawn criticism from conservatives, from some black intellectuals to Republican-led state governments, which have banned his books from their classrooms and libraries.

Dr. Kendi acknowledged that the fundraising environment for the center “is not like it was in 2020, when it was the most popular.” But he added that the center still has committed funders.

And calling the changes to the center a “major pivot,” he said, “I really had to make sure that 20 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, the center will exist.”

The center’s new model, Dr. Kendi said, will be the first of its kind, a fellowship program for anti-racist intellectuals who will reside at the university for nine months, participating in public events while conducting their own research.

Dr. Kendi was a professor at the University of Florida in 2016 when his book, “Stamped From the Beginning,” a history of racist thinking in America, was a surprise winner of the National Book Award. A subsequent book, “How to Be Antiracist,” became a bestseller in 2019.

Both a public influencer and an academic, Dr. Kendi became a flashpoint in the culture wars with his idea that to be anti-racist, you must first recognize that you are racist.

Dr. Kendi arrived in Boston at an opportune time (amid the racial reckoning of 2020) and a challenging time: the early months of the Covid pandemic.

Acknowledging a rocky start amid the pandemic, along with some conflicts among staff members who had strong and divergent ideas about the center’s approach, Dr. Kendi said he was proud of the center’s work so far.

The center says its key initiatives and achievements include The Emancipator; its National Antiracist Book Festivals; political conferences on intolerance and racial classifications; 10 amicus briefs filed in racial justice lawsuits and an anti-racist technology initiative.

Even as the cuts were announced, the center was preparing this weekend for a meeting of 60 journalists that cover the race. From the outside, however, the center’s operations appeared to be struggling. Parts of their website had been removed.

And the center’s work, perhaps inevitably, has become synonymous with Dr. Kendi’s celebrity and notoriety.

Even as he oversaw the center, along with a staff of administrators and academics that at one point totaled 43 people, his business franchise has continued to grow. And some worry that he has taken on far more work than can be done while he runs the center.

In publishing, he has created children’s books based on his theme. “Antiracist Baby” is aimed at young children and “How to Be an Antiracist Youth” is aimed at young people ages 12 to 17. He has also published a parenting guide, “How to Raise an Antiracist.” Her other children’s books include adaptations from the work of Zora Neale Hurston. He is a contributor to The Atlantic.

In broadcasting, he has presented his own podcast in addition to appearing as a commentator on CBS and cable television. He has formed his own production company, Maroon Visionsrecently involved in an ESPN+ series exploring racism in sports, “Skin in the gamewhich premiered on Wednesday.

He teaches an undergraduate course at BU on anti-racism and frequently speaks at universities and conferences across the country, sometimes drawing controversy.

Dr. Grundy said that despite Dr. Kendi’s busy outside schedule, “Ibram didn’t want to give up any power.”

And in academia, where popular success can often lead to rejection, his work has been criticized by some. scholars those who question its academic rigor and also by some on the left who fear that it has been influenced, to some extent, by the big donors who have helped create the center.

Spencer Piston, a political science professor who worked in the center’s policy office, criticized the university’s original decision to hire Dr. Kendi, which he viewed as a substitute to address more specific student complaints, including criticism of the force campus police and the lack of teaching diversity.

“It’s a failure of a particular kind of corporatist university response to those same struggles,” Dr. Piston said.

Within the first year after Dr. Kendi was hired, more than $43 million in grants and pledges had been received, including a $25 million anonymous donation and $10 million from Jack Dorseyco-founder of Twitter.

Money was pouring in, but new staff came on board slowly as the fledgling operation attempted to work remotely.

More than one former employee complained about how grants were handled, and their allegations included conflicts of interest or misleading promises to donors. The center’s staff also engaged in a political struggle of sorts: a debate over what anti-racism should look like.

Dr. Piston, for example, questioned whether the center was respecting the interests of donors at the expense of interaction with community groups. He cited the participation of the CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which is developing a treatment for sickle cell anemia, in a center conference on public health. The company’s foundation is a donor.

Phillipe Copeland, a professor in the university’s Department of Social Work who also worked at the center until he resigned in June, said some professors had become irritated with Dr. Kendi, making Dr. Copeland’s job – developing the program graduate in anti-racism studies).

“There were some bad feelings about the interactions people had with Dr. Kendi that made some people not want to participate and support what we were doing,” Dr. Copeland said. “I heard that a lot.”

In an interview, Dr. Kendi said critics were using the situation “to settle old scores and prove that I’m a problem or that anti-racism is a problem.”

“Unfortunately we live in such a polarized and rancorous, reactionary time,” he said.

Colby Edmonds contributed reports.

Leave a Comment