Southern Adventist University became the second area school to publicly denounce racism after a former student's inflammatory social media post disrupted a cultural celebration earlier this month.
Alongside administrators, faculty and student leaders, SAU President David Smith released a video statement last week apologizing on behalf of the institution for "not doing more to foster racial harmony" and announcing his new initiatives to make the university more welcoming for students of color.
"There has been a repeated pattern of listening to concerns from black students without pursuing strong actions to address them," Smith said in the Feb. 13 statement. "While we have been making efforts, they have not been enough."
The remarks came about a week after an annual cultural showcase hosted by the school's Black Christian Union, when an individual used a racial slur to describe the event's proceedings on Snapchat, an image messaging application.
Operating from a personal account called "Southern Stories," the anonymous user posted a video of black students marching in with native flags, adding the caption "Happy n—— day."
In 2017 ranking by U.S. News and World Report, Southern Adventist University tied with Keiser University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke for most diverse university in the South.
Here is a breakdown of SAU's student population:
White - 46.8%
Hispanic - 23.2%
Asian - 12.6%
Black or African American - 10.9%
Multiracial - 5.8%
Other - 0.7%
School officials were quick to respond, pointing out that the "Southern Stories" account had no affiliation with the university.
Students later came forward to identify the perpetrator as an individual who had previously been expelled and banned from campus for other reasons, said Phillip Warfield, senior and president of the university's Student Association.
The university reached out to Snapchat soon after the incident to request they remove the offending account, said SAU editorial manager Janell Hullquist. Representatives from the social media platform acknowledged that the post violated Snapchat's community guidelines, which prohibits hate speech, and the account has since been terminated.
Moving forward, Smith said the university is recommitting itself to listening and acting upon accounts of discrimination reported by its students. The move will start with a series of focus groups designed to foster open, honest dialogue about minority students' concerns and brainstorm actions the university could take to best address them.
As part of the new push for racial harmony, the university will also create a new "vice president for diversity" position.
Though no job description has yet been crafted, Smith said the new employee will be expected to reach out to all minority groups on campus to offer them support. That support may take the form of listening to students' grievances, creating new programming to tackle diversity issues and more, he said.
Finally, to further address racial issues, Smith will become chair of the university's Diversity Committee. The change will allow the committee to feel fully empowered and give its members the ability to act quickly when future issues arise, Smith said.
He hopes to jump-start the committee with "new direction and a more ambitious agenda" as they work to support the new vice president for diversity.
"We know it's not going to solve all our problems or make them go away, or prevent something negative from happening," Smith said in a follow-up interview, "but it should give us a much better way as a university of addressing our issues and coming up with positive results."
Smith said part of the reason school officials made the video was to openly acknowledge the university's history of racism as an institution in the South. Established in 1892, SAU only made the decision to begin enrolling students of color in 1965.
As a member of SAU's black community, which now makes up about 11 percent of the student population, Warfield said he was glad to hear that history addressed.
"Since there had never really been a public acknowledgment and response to several moments in Southern's history when such racism has occurred on campus, it's almost as if Southern had been ignoring its history all the while encouraging togetherness on campus," he said.
Using his office as Student Association president, Warfield plans to join the effort to foster racial harmony by hosting a multicultural performance night on April 21 to bring all cultures together. He also hopes to keep administrators accountable as their goals are outlined to fruition.
"I think the steps that Smith outlined are a great leap forward for our campus," Warfield said. "Some may argue that his efforts aren't enough, but one must understand that racism, bigotry and prejudice will always find a way to nudge itself in hateful hearts."
Following an issue of vandalism on University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's campus by a white supremacist group, Trae Cotton, UTC's new vice chancellor for student development, called SAU's response "courageous" and encouraged all area universities to stand up and speak out against oppression, injustice and "anything that even slightly smacks of bigotry or hatred."
"Our institutions of higher learning are the first and last bastions of critical thought and places where all have something to offer for the greater good of humanity," said Cotton. "This says to our community that we are in this struggle with you and will push to find the best in ourselves to make society the best it can be."
Email Myron Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org.