On Nov. 10, members of the Racial Reconciliation Commission (RRC) hosted a Town Hall meeting, inviting members of the William Jewell College community “to meet the Commissioners as we provide a detailed update of [the RRC’s] recent activities” and to share their concerns and perspective on the RRC thus far.
The meeting was led by Rodney Smith, chair of the RRC and vice president for access and engagement. Other College staff members were also in attendance, including Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, president of the College; Gary Armstrong, interim vice president of academic affairs; Clark Morris, vice president of advancement and executive director of Harriman-Jewell Series; Angela Bass, executive assistant to the president, and, additionally, some members of the Board of Trustees.
Commissioners of the RRC – in addition to Smith and Morris – were also present: Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City and distinguished Jewell alumnus; and Robert Powers, electronic resources and archives librarian. Powers was announced as the RRC’s newest commissioner at the Town Hall meeting.
The meeting began by Smith sharing “Principles of Commemoration” under which the RRC operates:
In accordance with these principles, the RRC drafted a “Statement of Atonement” – this statement will be publicly shared on the Jewell website some time in the future.
The statement restipulates the aim of the RRC as expressed in the College’s official page for Diversity and Inclusion: the RRC is tasked with “finding and expressing both an historical and moral truth about the racial history of William Jewell College.”
To accomplish this end, the RRC “for over a year has investigated the connections between the College, its founders and the institution of slavery.” The RRC concluded that “the connections [between the College, its founders and the institution of slavery] are clear and undisputable.”
After presenting the Principles and Statement, Smith presented actionable goals which the RRC recommended the Jewell community pursue to achieve racial reconciliation. These goals were separated out into four headings: “Addressing Historical Inaccuracy,” “Commemoration,” “Repair and Restoration,” and “Creating a Better Future.”
Addressing Historical Inaccuracy
Under the heading of Addressing Historical Inaccuracy, the statements reads:
Smith clarified that the role of the RRC with respect to providing a history of the College. Though “there was a perception that the commission would write a history of the College,” as Smith explained, the role of the RRC is to commission a report — not to write one. However, Smith stated that a “deeper and more fulsome report” building on the RRC’s initial report of January of 2022 will be released in the future.
Throughout the Town Hall meeting, MacLeod Walls emphasized that the College plans to commission experts to undertake the necessary research required to compile a comprehensive report on the history of the College. This commission is necessary as ”no experts on campus are conducting research in the history of the College,” MacLeod Walls added.
Further, MacLeod Walls stated that, previously, “we had reached out to Dr. Wilkins, but that didn’t happen,” in reference to the Slavery Memory, and Justice Project (SMJP), a group of 25 students, as well as alumni and faculty – including Christopher Wilkins, associate professor of history – who have conducted extensive research in the history of slavery’s influence on the College.
Over the past two and a half years, the SMJP carried out research in the William Jewell College Archives, as well as other historical archives in Clay County, Boone County and Jackson County. SMJP researchers have also worked with archivists from the State Historical Society of Missouri, the Missouri Historical Society, and Kentucky’s State Historical Society. SMJP members have presented their scholarship to the campus community in 2021 and 2022, in a series of Hilltop Monitor articles (see here, here, here, here, and here) and academic conferences. Furthermore, the work of the SMJP has been recognized by the Kansas City Star, the Kansas City Beacon, KCUR, and the Pitch Weekly. On the basis of the scholarly expertise acquired in its research and publications, the SMJP will publish a 100+ page report and present it at this year’s Duke Colloquium. Members of the SMJP were in attendance during the Town Hall meeting.
After students in the audience voiced confusion about the distinction between researching and commissioning, MacLeod Walls stated that commissioning is something that “has no end in sight” and is concerned with the unfolding of the history of the College and its continuing effects to this day. Research, on the other hand, is “a specific scholarly activity,” MacLeod Walls elaborated – a commission is larger than just research insofar as it tells an unfolding story.
Howard noted that, to his knowledge, very few institutions are engaging in the kind of work in reconciliation that Jewell is – though Howard also noted that the Kansas City Star had completed similar work.
Adding to Howard’s statement, Ian Coleman, professor of music and chair of performing arts, noted the importance of taking time to commission work: “We have to get it right… [we must recognize that] not every step forward will be the right one” and that the Jewell community must exercise grace and long-term commitment to “getting it right.” Such an attitude of grace and commitment would manifest itself as “not being defensive when criticisms are offered” and “constantly… doing better after making mistakes,” Coleman added.
In support, Smith emphasized the importance of taking concrete steps as soon as possible, but maintained that ”we need to deliberate” in an appropriate fashion. Smith further emphasized: “Perfection is not possible. Excellence is.”
In response to concerns about not moving quickly enough, faculty in attendance suggested potential first steps. Kelli Schutte, professor and chair of the Department of Business and Leadership, indicated that the College could commission art works and begin changing the names of relevant buildings and programs such as the Doniphan Leadership Institute.
Schutte and Smith both agreed that it was certainly possible to achieve this “low hanging fruit,” with MacLeod Walls adding that it would not be necessary to get approval of the Board of Trustees for each and every change in the College. In fact, MacLeod Walls explained that the Board of Trustees has “been informed on this issue… [it’s just a matter] of taking the show on the road.”
As a further clarification of the RRC’s role with respect to addressing historical inaccuracy, Morris added that “the Commission brings recommendations to the College, the President and the Board of Trustees.” The President and the Board of Trustees ultimately make the decisions based on these initiatives, though, as MacLeod Walls explained, not all decisions require Board approval. Morris also concurred that the “recommendations of the Commission have already been brought to the Board.”
In a separate email after the town hall, Smith offered further clarification on the extent of the Board of Trustee’s involvement in the recommendations presented by the RRC. The board is completely aware of the recommendations that were presented [during] last week[‘s Town Hall meeting],” Smith stated. “As you know, some of the recommendations are low-hanging fruit and will not need Board approval, but as you’ve stated, some are more impactful and will need Board approval. With that said, the board has not ‘signed off’ on the Jewell Hall recommendation yet; they requested more time to deliberate. And yes, the Board is quite familiar with the Commission and the Commission’s recommendation regarding Jewell’s official history. In fact, one of the Trustees serves on the Commission.”
Smith’s statement regarding ‘the Jewell Hall recommendation’ is in reference to one of the actionable goals under the heading of “Commemoration.”
Under the heading of “Commemoration,” the statement reads:
Smith used the suggestion of changing the name of the “Alexander Doniphan Leadership Award” as an example of names that continue to do harm. The award is named after Alexander Doniphan, a 19th century Missourian attorney, politician and soldier who played a crucial role in founding the College. Investigation by the SMJP uncovered Doniphan’s pro-slavery stance and ties. The SMJP’s findings were made public in an article published through The Hilltop Monitor in April 2021. It is in light of the public dissemination of the SMJP’s research that the RRC recommends that the College endorse Student Senate’s action to rename the award to the “William G. Summers Award.”
The recommendation that Jewell Hall be renamed caused much discussion, as the suggestion does not stipulate what Jewell Hall’s new name should be. Smith indicated that the RRC intentionally has not suggested a name thus far because they feel that the topic should be discussed with the broader campus community. As Smith later clarified in the aforementioned post-meeting email, renaming Jewell Hall was one of the recommendations that the Board of Trustees had not yet signed off on, citing that additional time was needed to deliberate.
One way of fulfilling the RRC’s recommendation would be to rename Jewell Hall after a particular slave who was involved in building it; however this consideration prompted a student in the audience to ask whether the RRC knew the names of the enslaved persons. Smith responded that such facts were not yet known, but said that it was possible that research conducted by the SMJP could shed light on this question.
Students also raised the issue of whether the name of the College itself was something that the RRC recommended the Board review. In the RRC’s initial report, William Jewell – who was responsible for the $10,000 endowment that started the College – was found to have owned slaves. Smith responded that this was just a consideration which he wanted the Jewell community – especially students – to engage with.
Difficulties in changing the College’s name were raised by Bass in particular. Though she emphasized that she was not claiming to be “one way or the other” in terms of a name change, she asserted that “changing the name of the College, at this point, would be extremely detrimental to the institution.” However, Smith added that in some respects “the Jewell community is already changing the name of the College” by the kinds of commitments that are undertaken by the institution – the RRC being one of these. Smith said that he supported recommendations to change the name of the College to simply “Jewell” or “Jewell: The Critical Thinking College.”
Over the course of the conversation, Howard noted that “name changes are, of course, not the only solutions” available to the College. He elaborated that it is also possible to commit to a long-term engagement of “increasing the number of black faculty, making changes to the budget and creating scholarship opportunities that facilitate an entrenched African American presence at Jewell.” Howard emphasized that this undertaking is “an evolving process.”
Repair and Restoration
Under the heading of Repair and Restoration, the statement reads:
Creating a Better Future
Under the heading of Creating a Better Future, the statement reads:
The recommendations under the headings of “Repair and Restoration” and “Building a Better Future” concur with Howard’s statements recognizing the many opportunities available for achieving racial justice. Building on Howard’s comment, Smith emphasized that he personally hosts Radical Inclusivity workshops. Further, he noted that this year’s incoming first-year class, by composition, was approximately 38% Black or otherwise constituted by people of color.
To confirm this statistic, Eric Blair, vice president of marketing, enrollment and student life, was contacted independently via email. According to Blair, “38% diverse was the number [the College] reported in August at the start of term. The official percentage fell to 35% diverse at census date in late September. Census date is the date we capture student data for reporting to the federal government and other agencies for compliance and reporting mandates.” Blair shared the following accompanying graph illustrating the “Percentage of cohort by race/ethnicity, Fall 2022 new student cohort.”
At the institutional level, the Jewell community engages with the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) Survey, a 50-question survey that Smith described as a kind of Myers-Brigg of cultural difference. More information on the IDI survey generally can be found as reported by The Hilltop Monitor.
Smith also emphasized that “we are working to inform search committees on their implicit biases” and that work is being done to “[qualify] the applicant pool to ensure some candidates of color will be considered.”
The entirety of the meeting was punctuated by an insistence on the importance of including student voices in the work of unfolding the College’s historical narrative with respect to the institution of slavery. In keeping with this theme, professor of history and chair of the department Daniel Kotzin – apart from emphasizing the importance of institutional partnerships for the purposes of expert research – indicated that a “student-led commission” investigating the history of the College could be a crucial component moving forward.
Towards the end of the Town Hall meeting, Ian Wooldridge, the records and finance officer of Student Senate, asked: “What amount of the research may have already been done by the Slavery, Memory and Justice project and the students and faculty that are a part of that, and will the RRC recognize the work of the SMJP when it is released?”
Smith responded: “Absolutely… we welcome the scholarship of the SMJP project and we look forward to when [the report is] published. Absolutely, and we’ll cite, reference and want their expertise [and] their voice to be a part of this work.”
Given the town hall’s repeated emphasis on including the voices of members of the Jewell community, The Hilltop Monitor invites any and all interested parties to provide comments, questions and concerns responding to the RRC’s Town Hall meeting and the unfolding narrative on the history of slavery in relation to the College. We especially encourage students to contribute their perspectives. Comments will be compiled and presented in a future article, though we also invite members of the Jewell community to write independent, long-form letters to our editors. To contribute, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images of RRC PowerPoint slides courtesy of Rodney Smith, who provided a copy of his presentation to the Hilltop Monitor. Image of incoming freshman year demographics provided by Eric Blair.