A public forum to address inclusion and diversity at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in response to alleged discrimination by the university’s basketball coach discussed steps needed at the university but did not satisfy questions by the public or their need for a public apology.
The UAFS Black Student Association hosted a public forum on conquering bias and improving understanding on campus Tuesday (Sept. 17). The forum, titled “Safe Space: Let’s Talk Race,” aimed to expand and engage the discussions around diversity, inclusion, race, and community, following a decision released Sept. 11 that the UAFS equal employment opportunity (EEO) officer did not find substantial evidence of race discrimination in an incident that blew up social media earlier in the month.
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 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 has since left the university.
At the time Riley released the findings, she said the EOC officer did not find substantial evidence to support the claim of race discrimination but that “the process revealed a need for better communications when addressing a sensitive matter, particularly when raised by a student.” 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. She said members of the UAFS community, including faculty, students and administration, along with members of the community would be part of 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.”
Tuesday night’s forum addressed those issues. A panel, made up of Riley, UAFS Athletic Director Curtis Janz, Crystal Lougin, a mental health professional with experience in diversity and inclusion efforts, Wesley Hooks, UAFS Technical Coordinator and president of the LeFlore County branch of the NAACP, and UAFS police chief Ray Ottman and Dr. Ron Darbeau, dean of the College of STEM and interim dean of the College of Health, answered questions developed by the student association as well as from the audience of nearly 300. UAFS professor Dr. Daniel Maher acted as moderator.
“Questions being asked tonight are being asked across the country. Fort Smith is a microcosm for the rest of the nation,” Maher said.
Panelists were warmed up with a fairly easy question: When does a personal preference cross the line when it involves difference rooted in another’s culture? All panelists agreed that when a misunderstanding looks like insensitivity not disagreement, then it becomes offensive. The panelist said the key is communication and understanding.
“When you are in a position of power, you cannot make a person feel less than they are, inferior,” Hooks said.
Questions turned to toward white privilege and whether conditions, procedures or environment at UAFS inadvertently or explicitly support white advancement.
“Of course,” Riley said, noting that when the institution was founded almost 100 years ago, it catered to the audience it had. It was system of privilege that focused on the privileged.
“That is why we have to have a commitment of learning about each and every one of us. We need to know everyone who has been disenfranchised and learn how to fix it. We want to recognize those things that are not right. It’s why we are here,” Riley said.
Hooks commented that knowing there are issues is a good start but that real discussions need to happen in order to find solutions.
“We need to really sit down at the table and listen,” Hooks said. “If we have those kinds of conversations, can really truly become allies. … But we can’t continue to use the excuse of I didn’t know, I wasn’t aware. This isn’t the 50s or the 60s anymore.”
Darbeau repeated several times throughout the evening that education and communication are the keys to working toward fairness and equality. He also said that fight would not be won overnight or within the next 10 years but would be a continuing battle. Darbeau suggested sensitivity training could be very beneficial.
“If we have deliberate, purposeful education by the campus to do better, then that is what happens. We construct learning that is not limited to academics,” Darbeau said. “I am sad for this incident. I am sad for the student, for the coach, for the campus and for the community. But I am grateful for the opportunity it is providing for us to learn and to move the institution forward.”
While those in attendance agreed with what the panelists said regarding how to move forward in ways of inclusion, they not at all satisfied with answers as to why Boone was still coaching and had answered questions to the public nor issued a formal apology. Boone’s absence from the forum was noted. It was first stated that Boone was not invited to the forum, but members of BSA clarified to say that while he had not been asked to be on the panel he was not intentionally left out or asked not to attend the forum.
Riley said she did not know why he did not attend but that he had never been required to do so. She also said answering to the public was his decision, though many in the audience said he should be required to answer for his actions and to apologize to the community and to Williams.
“You are ignoring the reason we are all here and that is to discuss what happened to Tyler Williams. An apology is required to say the least. He was a scholar, a student a person who deserves respect. Why is he (Boone) not here? Why is he still on the staff? Until that is addressed, everything else is lip service,” said Fort Smith City Director André Good.
Riley answered saying that UAFS players overwhelmingly came out in support of Boone and want him to be their coach.
“They believe in him,” she said.
Women’s basketball team member Alexsis Brown of Little Rock said she felt like the student athletes deserve a public apology.
“It’s important to the athletes here and those who might consider coming here. They need to know you can be who you are here,” Brown said.
Janz agreed that apologies are necessary but said they are not enough.
“If all we get out of this is an apology, we have all failed. We have to have real communications. We need to make real changes. We need to learn to look at everyone with love,” Janz said.