A message from President Philomena V. Mantella

Photo of President Philomena V. Mantella
Grand Valley State University President Philomena V. Mantella
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

Grand Valley State University President Philomena V. Mantella sent a message to the campus community June 17, 2020.

Dear Grand Valley Community:

The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are a clarion call as we reflect on our individual and collective responsibility to our Black community, following the reprehensible killing of George Floyd and the ongoing racial and social injustice that exists in our society. “If you wait for the right time, chances are that you might never find it,” Dr. King said. “You must do it now, it is now or it is never, and for the right thing, delay is its worst enemy.” For Grand Valley State University, and for me, that time is now.

As an institution that educates the next generation of leaders, we will fail them, our communities and ourselves if we do not act when we know that more than words are expected of us. Learn. Understand. Act. Lead. These are the standards against which we must be measured.

During the past several weeks, the university’s senior leadership team and I have been working to assess where we are and where we need to go. We are facing two viruses: COVID-19, where racialized health outcomes have become even more apparent, and systemic racism, which underscores for Black members of our community that equal justice under law is all too often not equal. We acknowledge the hurt, anger, fear, and distrust that many of our Black faculty, staff, students, and administrators must feel. We also acknowledge that the well-being of our entire community rests on fulfilling the elemental promise that every member of our campus community is welcomed, supported, respected, and valued.

Our Charge

• We must elevate the voices and experiences of our Black faculty, staff, and students.

• We must listen carefully, valuing each member of our community.

• We must fulfill our goals for inclusion and equity.

• We must all deepen our understanding and knowledge through education. 

• We must then use this knowledge as the basis for understanding and addressing institutional and systemic racism and oppression to make meaningful change.

To that end, I am today announcing the first of several action steps that will support this charge for social and racial justice, ensure that our own house is in order, and assist the greater community with its undertakings. I realize some actions will take time, but I expect all to act with thoughtfulness and urgency. Each action identifies someone to hold us accountable to ensure progress toward implementation, improvements, and/or changes. 

• I am appointing a campuswide network of advisors to allow broad input and commitment and ensures Black faculty, staff, students, and alumni voices are elevated to the highest level of engagement with me and all university senior leaders leading the work outlined below. I have asked George Grant, Dean of the College of Community and Public Service, to convene and facilitate this network along with Vice President for Inclusion, Equity, and Presidential Initiatives Jesse Bernal. The network will examine previous institutional recommendations as well as consider new opportunities for improving campus climate and equity for Black members of our community and other underrepresented communities. 

• I am appointing a Grand Valley Campus Safety task force to review current policing practices and recommend any needed change. I have asked Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Sanial, Vice President Bernal, Dean Grant, and GVPD Chief Brandon DeHaan to identify and work with a diverse group of scholars and community members to advance this important action-focused review that will include interagency agreements.

• Associate Vice President for Human Resources Maureen Walsh is charged to identify opportunities and look to implement the formation of greater and clearer promotional, developmental, and recruitment pathways for employees of color.

• Vice President Bernal is charged with identifying structural changes and opportunities that strengthen accountability across the organization for leadership and supervisors in advancing inclusion and equity, including in our recruitment, evaluation, and promotion processes, campus climate metrics, and their own education.

• I am instituting a universal training for all members of our university community to enable each of us to build the necessary understanding, knowledge, and skills for social justice, power, privilege, and anti-racism. The Division of Inclusion and Equity, Human Resources, and the Pew Faculty Teaching and Learning Center will be responsible for the program and our network of advisors will assist us in shaping the most meaningful experiences. All appointing officers, including the deans, vice presidents, and I, will fully participate.

• Because of COVID-19, three important actions have been slowed. As all demonstrate direct impact for our underrepresented communities, we will move forward swiftly as the fall approaches. This includes: hiring a university ombuds, finalizing a salary equity study, and issuing final recommendations for the 2019 campus climate study with plans to reassess next year.

Academic Enhancements

• Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs and Provost Maria Cimitile is committed to leading work together with the University Academic Senate Chair Professor Felix Ngassa, and Vice Chair Shawn Bultsma, to explore ways we can expand education for our students and one another on the forces of systemic racism, with an eye to ensuring every graduate deepens their understanding of social justice and racial equity through a Grand Valley experience.

• Provost Cimitile and Dean Grant, along with the university’s Criminal Justice and Social Work programs, will embrace the opportunity for the GVSU Police Academy to lead the way in enhancing public safety education with more robust requirements for diversity, inclusion, and de-escalation. 

Student Support

• Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Loren Rullman and Associate Vice President for Inclusion and Student Support Marlene Kowalski-Braun are charged with supporting Student Senate in its development of peer-to-peer learning and other initiatives.

• Upon his arrival in July, Vice President for Enrollment Development B. Donta Truss will be charged with developing an even more aggressive program for the recruitment and retention of students of color that will be undergirded by policies that remove barriers to access. A new strategic enrollment management plan will be developed with strategies and initiatives with the bold goal of removing all equity gaps.

• Under the leadership of Associate Vice President Michelle Rhodes and Vice President for University Development Karen Loth, the university’s financial aid program will be expanded to include a racial equity scholarship in honor of the Black lives that have been lost due to racialized violence. Students who demonstrate a commitment to social justice and racial equity may be eligible. 

Leading a National Dialogue

• When social distancing requirements allow it, Vice President Truss will bring his experience and passion to host a national conversation on the need for racial equity, the disproportionate impact on male-identified Black members of our community, and how it can be strengthened in an institution and community that is historically white through a Black Male Symposium on campus. This convening, and extensions from it, will confront other transformative institutional and systemic responsibilities we have for our diverse Black community, including female-identified and transgender members. This symposium will inform K-12 and postsecondary educators, education adjacent leaders and organizations, non-profits, business and community leaders on the necessary equitable ecosystem that must be created to best serve our Black community.

Strengthening our Commitment to Grand Rapids

• We also have a special obligation to the City of Grand Rapids which hosts nearly half of the university’s enrollment and many of our public service degree programs. We will commit university talent and resources to the City’s development of a new youth employment program – GRow1000 – a commitment to provide paid employment to at least 1,000 Grand Rapids youth ages 15-21 this summer with priority to those neighborhoods and zip codes which have been most heavily impacted by disproportionate outcomes, including from COVID-19.

• I will waive all financial requirements for Pell-eligible students in the City’s high schools for enrollment in Grand Valley’s new Math Advantage Program for rising high school seniors and college-bound high school graduates. Success in this gateway program will help to improve college readiness and retention which disproportionately impacts our communities of color.

Grand Valley has a long-history of work to advance inclusion and equity. Today, I am committing us to double down on our efforts to ensure our words are not rhetoric, but rather forces for institutional change. We have started a new website to keep the university apprised as efforts continue and additional actions are identified at www.gvsu.edu/inclusion/action

I welcome your input to this agenda of action; listening never stops. We will be calling on you to help with many facets. When you hear from me and the other leaders identified in this email, say “yes.”

With gratitude and hope,

Philomena V. Mantella



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