Jordan Hankins, Penny Warren and Ongoing Student Support at Northwestern

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Sometimes silence is required, sometimes it reflects negligence and sometimes it temporarily provides clarity in the midst of trying times. Many in the Northwestern community have grapple d mightily with the loss of sophomore student and athlete Jordan Hankins, and subsequently there has been an eery degree of silence, partially reflecting fears about whether others are susceptible. Jordan’s passing represents an unfathomable loss of life, but let’s be frank: on some level, it also represents a failure of support in a specific instance, and a need to assess the levels of support provided institutionally. We’ve heard questions raised about the levels of support given to student athletes and women on campus, but in an ongoing refrain, this is a foreseeable event occurring among the most at risk and most disproportionately affected group on campus: African-Americans.

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In a move of disappointing symmetry, Penny Warren, head of Student Life for The Graduate School, was unceremoniously “downsized” out of her support position after 34 years of service to Northwestern (this occurred just last week with less than one week’s notice). Penny has been known and beloved by generations of Wildcats and has been a prominent symbol of success and support for as long as most of us have been affiliated with NU. Of course, we wish her well and express our love, but we again note how the sum total of such efforts too often results in less targeted support for the African-American community, even when each individual decision seemingly has its own rationale (we again note that not only was Ms. Warren let go, but the support position was eliminated).

Regarding the issue of support for African-Americans on campus, there are actually two excellent precedents that NUBAA believes show the way forward. In one example, perhaps back to the future is the way to go. The Black House Facility Review Committee, a committee formed by Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin and Chaired by esteemed Associate Dean of Journalism (and Helen Gurley Brown Professor) Charles Whitaker, was created to offer recommendations regarding revitalization of the Black House and to provide support for African-American students. One very prominent (and to this point, not implemented) recommendation was as follows:

Reinstitute an associate dean-level position for African-American Student Affairs.
Many members of the Northwestern community will recall a time during which there was a Department of African-American Student Affairs headed by a Dean. The presence of the Black House and this level of accessible and culturally sensitive support made it very comfortable (i.e. safe) for students to present themselves when in need of support. Many of us believe this setup was the most important factor in navigating through the academic and institutional challenges presented by NU. Despite the best efforts of dedicated individuals currently serving NU, the absence of a singularity of focus on this at-risk community is a qualitatively different offering.

An additional, prominent and largely successful modern-day program comes from the Department of Athletics. In the presence of over 500 student-athletes on campus, seemingly perpetual, individualized support and attention are given. Of course, this program isn’t universally successful, but this effort is meant to reduce the risk of danger to students, and on many fronts, the success of Northwestern’s student athletes is traceable to the care offered by this structure – just as the Department of African-American Student Affairs contributed to the success (and satisfaction) of alumni a generation ago. It is within Northwestern’s ability to offer a similar structure through the Black House to African-American students.

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We respect the theory of and value in pursuing multicultural student affairs. It is neither mutually exclusive nor beyond the ability of our great University to implement this strategy while providing targeted efforts to the student populations consistently most at risk and disproportionately affected by the challenges of the university environment. The MSA strategy will likely continue to have suboptimal results until such time that all university students are closer to operating on a level field.

If there is any solace to be taken, it should be the knowledge that our great University has deployed an abundance of talent and resources to address issues developed both in partnership with the Black University community and internally. To that end, there have been an amazing array of innovations, projects and programs already signed off on by Northwestern. We will highlight many of these in the months to come, as these efforts are formally announced and implemented. We do appreciate that missteps, mistakes and unfortunate occurrences still may occur, but more than ever, NUBAA is comfortable in asserting that the University’s attention is on the full range of factors impacting community life at Northwestern.

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NUBAA offers its condolences to the family, friends and loved ones of Jordan Hankins, and we offer our most sincere thanks to Penny Warren for her years of service and profound impact on the lives of many Wildcats.

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