The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith equal employment opportunity (EEO) officer did not find substantial evidence of race discrimination in an incident that has blown up social media over the past week.
On Sept. 2, UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley informed the UAFS community of an allegation of race discrimination had been reported by a former player against the university’s head basketball coach.
A letter by Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Williams and Tyler Allen Williams, a former UAFS student and basketball player, was posted on Facebook Aug. 31. The letter described what the Williamses called a racist act by Coach Jim Boone in regards to the Tyler Williams “dreadlocks” hairstyle. Williams, from Edmund, Okla., was a guard and the second-leading scorer for UAFS for the 2018-19 season.
In the posted letter, Williams and his parents said Boone, who was hired as the coach to replace Justin Bailey, who resigned in March, told Williams he did not like hair like his and he would not recruit players who had hair like his. In his 2018-19 roster photo, Williams sports chin-length dreadlocks that are pulled back from his face.
“When I met Coach for the first time, he made an offensive and racist statement directly to me,” Williams is quoted as saying in the letter.
The comments made Williams feel as if he “had fallen back into the darkened days of African American history that he had read books about, has seen in movies, television and discussed in our home. To witness this tragic setback was devastating to Tyler,” his parents wrote in the letter.
According to the post Williams and his parents met again with Boone to discuss the first meeting. At that time Boone said, “We make it clear that once you get in here, you are not going to have your hair a certain way.” The post noted that because he was a senior, Williams would not be required to change his hair. In the letter Williams’ parents stated the whole hair issue was racist, because it is Williams’ natural hair.
“Boone is attempting to enforce grooming policies that disproportionately affect people of color, particularly black people,” the letter said.
Williams later tweeted a post on Twitter that he would leave UAFS “due to undisclosed reasons” and would attend Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla., for the 2019-20 season.
On Wednesday (Sept. 11), the UAFS EEO officer “sent formal letters to the former student and to the head coach which state that she did not find substantial evidence to support the claim of race discrimination; however, the process revealed a need for better communications when addressing a sensitive matter, particularly when raised by a student,” Riley wrote in a statement.
“The past few weeks have been tremendously challenging for me and for many members of our community. We have spent this time asking incredibly difficult questions about our core values and how we show people that we value and respect them,” Riley said.
She said over the past week, she has been contacted by members of the Fort Smith community, local and state legislators, alumni, members of the NAACP and students” who voiced their opinions and concerns in incredibly meaningful ways.”
“Each person expressed confidence in the process which is used to collect and analyze information in order to come to a final conclusion. I am particularly grateful for the meetings I have had over the past week with the student athletes on our men’s basketball team and the leaders of the Black Student Association. I respect all of these students for their leadership and desire to improve the university,” Riley said.
The investigative report is legally protected as part of an employee performance and evaluation file, but Riley said she has struggled with the fact that she is unable to release it.
“I have debated how to live up to the promises I have made to you as your chancellor during this time when many people are questioning what we stand for as a university. I will show what we stand for through my actions, not my words,” Riley said.
In her statement, Riley said the UAFS athletics department “will not condone or allow a policy, procedure, or practice—conveyed verbally or in writing—to dictate the hair styles or hair lengths for its student athletes.”
She also said she would allocate resources to hire a director of campus diversity and inclusion.
“I will work with members of the UAFS community to create a campus diversity and inclusion committee that will be tasked with the creation of a diversity and inclusion strategic plan which includes increasing the number of faculty, staff, administrators and students of color on campus, and I will work with the newly formed campus diversity and inclusion committee to review and improve policies, procedures, actions, and practices to fortify a more inclusive educational environment,” Riley said.
An open forum that will include campus leaders and students discussing race issues is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 in the Reynold’s Room of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center at UAFS.