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Beginnings of change hold promise, but our work must continue  

One year ago, on May 25th, George Floyd was murdered as bystanders watched helplessly. Due in large part to the bravery of one of those witnesses – 17-year-old Darnella Frazier – who filmed the event, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd was held accountable by the justice system. But justice in a single case is far from justice in every case. And while it is heartening to see the beginnings of change over the past year, it should not have taken George Floyd’s death to plant the seeds of the reckoning now underway. There is still much work to do to achieve the profound, sustained and systemic reforms needed for an equitable society, and that work is required of us.

We recognize that the University of Washington must continue enacting changes to more fully realize our values and commitment to equity. While these changes are urgent and never rapid enough, this work is taking place at the heart of our mission — creating equitable access and opportunities for excellence for our students. We are currently reexamining the undergraduate diversity requirement with the goal of both increasing the number of credits required and giving it a clearer focus on understanding systemic inequities that marginalize BIPOC people and communities, both in their historical context and now. We are actively making progress in faculty hiring, including the recently launched Faculty Diversity Initiative, to recruit, welcome and retain a faculty that can better serve the needs of our diverse community. The UW is also working to remove other systemic barriers to entry and degree completion that disproportionally affect BIPOC students, such as making the SAT and ACT optional, discontinuing the practice of asking about student applicants’ criminal record, and broadening the pathways to enrollment for community college transfer students.

We recognize that welcoming a diverse faculty, staff and student body is just one component of increasing equity – retention and degree completion are equally essential. Creating a community in which BIPOC students and faculty can do their best work and feel welcome as their full, authentic selves demands that we build a culture of equity and inclusion across the university. To date, 16 college, schools, and administrative units on the Seattle campus have hired diversity officers who are leading efforts to put into practice the anti-racist and inclusive values we aspire to. Across the UW, anti-racist and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are being implemented or enhanced, including a Foster School initiative to support diverse-owned small business and the nursing school Center for Antiracism in Nursing. A focus on equity is important in every system and space within the UW, from applying an equity lens to the budgeting process to the creation of a UW Facilities Equity Group to represent staff and advise on issues around education, infrastructure, justice and workplace improvements.

Through the establishment of the Black Opportunity Fund, we are seeking to meet the immediate and ongoing needs of Black faculty staff and students. We are also in the process of taking a new approach to campus security and community policing with the goal of reducing the need for armed police on campus. At the same time, we are improving response systems situationally, putting campus safety officers and resources where they are needed and have streamlined and expanded mental health resources for students. Most critically, it is incumbent upon us as an institution to ensure that these efforts — and so many others — are sustained and supported so everyone on our campuses can feel welcome and secure.

As a public University, our commitment to equity does not – indeed, cannot – end at the edges of our campuses. More than a year of pandemic has exposed and intensified the pervasive and systemic inequities here in Washington and across the nation, and underscored our University’s critical role in working with underserved communities. From the earliest days of the pandemic through today, UW healthcare providers and experts have been working with communities to facilitate COVID testing and expand access to the vaccines, complementing ongoing work by UW researchers and public health experts to address systemic health disparities and inequality. Across the UW, scholars are doing important work to expose the root causes of systemic racism in the United States and seek ways to address and redress these injustices. From increasing the number of trained dentists, pharmacists and primary care providers in the communities that need them most, to research that saves lives and informs policy, dedicated experts and professionals across the UW are working to build a more equitable world. As part of this work, they are mentoring and teaching the UW students who will carry this work forward in the years to come.

For many of us, Black Americans in particular, this anniversary is painful – both as a reminder of the violence that occurred and of the continuing context that made it possible. Yet, when George Floyd’s murderer was held accountable for his killing, his young daughter said, “Daddy changed the world.” Now, one year later, there are reasons to be hopeful. But there also remain reasons to accelerate and sustain progress, and amplify calls for equity. Let’s remember to care for each other, always, but especially now, and let us recommit ourselves to a world in which Black opportunities, voices and lives matter.