I write this very difficult letter with sincere love, confusion, anger and hurt. My heart is heavy, but it is not heavy with despair.
My intent was to send you a note of encouragement, and to thank you for your continued trust and support of my effort to lead and serve USI as we negotiate COVID-19—preparing our campus for a safe return for fall classes.
Instead I, like you, along with my family, and our faculty and staff, have been glued to the national response to the killing of Mr. George Floyd, an unarmed African American man in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I will be perfectly honest with you, seeing him die under the knee of that police officer paralyzed me. My only thought at that very moment was simply: NO. Not Again!
I remember the sadness, exhaustion and anger I felt as I watched a fellow human being beg for relief from the officers just to consume oxygen, simply to survive. I remember my eyes welling up as I screamed at the television, Get off his neck! He can't breathe! I remember calling across our home to my wife to phone our 22-year-old son. We needed to hear his voice at that very moment. I remember our 20-year-old daughter looking me in the eyes and asking, "Baba, are we safe?" as she sobbed in my arms. I remember wondering to myself, what do I tell her... this time?
I am not writing this today to make bold or blanket statements against institutionalized racism. I have none in me at the moment. I'm writing because I decided to stop pretending as if I'm "okay." To stop pretending as if I can shoulder this pain, hurt and confusion alone as I manage and lead our University.
I feel the need to express to you how tired I am, really tired, of seeing targeted violence against Black people within our nation. I am tired of the divisive lines drawn between race, privilege, identity and education. I am tired of learning of young Black people being pulled from cars by officers sworn to serve and protect, and hearing the media decry their treatment because they were "college students." As if certain class categories justify or vilify societal wrongs.
I am tired of pretending, even with my wife, that I do not fear for our own son each time he leaves our home. I am tired of telling my children that We will get through this. I am tired of worrying about losing friendships or hurting the feelings of others who have not shared my experiences or the history of my race as I speak my truth.
Your peers and friends, many international, who have remained at USI during this pandemic tell me they feel safe on our campus but are unsure if they will be when they step off of it. I see the innocence and hope in their faces as they seek assurances I cannot give.
Being a university president, I have learned that some expect me to have all of the answers and be the face of calm under such violent circumstances. But how can I, or any of USI's faculty and staff be anything other than sickened and outraged by blatant wrongs?
My children, each of you and all the young people of every race and ethnicity within our community and beyond are the reason for my hope and optimism. You are the reason I serve our campus and our community with passion and purpose each and every day, and the reason our campus serves you*. You are also the reason I sleep restlessly each night, praying for YOUR safety-that you make decisions that lead to positive outcomes and remain safe. You are the reason I continue to smile during one of the most difficult and horrific weeks of my life, and why I will not surrender to despair. Students, you are the lifeline of our campus. It is your dreams, your presence, your innocence, even your naivety that motivates me to do more—motivates me to be better. It is my honor to be among you, and most importantly, to serve you. Thank you for being a significant part of my life!
I will never give up on you, our students. I am asking you to keep negativity away from your space. It only turns into bitterness and mistrust of "the other." Staying positive and creating solutions takes incredible effort. I challenge and encourage you to pursue your goals with the intentional effort to transform your community, the state, nation and our globe into a more compassionate, equitable and understanding place. Be the answer to difficulty through collaboration and through the building of relationships. There is nothing passive through this approach; this will be the hardest work you will ever encounter!
As I pen this letter, I ache—as do many of you—for Mr. Floyd's family and his community. We ache for our country. What we are facing within the United States and across the globe is complex and difficult. We are dealing with our most delicate resources—human emotion, history, future and human life. The most complex and imperfect gift we have all been given is to learn to live and breathe together.
Peace and continued blessings,
Ronald S. Rochon, PhD
*If you need support, contact:
- Dean of Students Office (DOSO): firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-464-1862
- Public Safety: 812-464-1845 or 812-492-7777 (open 24 hrs.)
- USI Counseling Center: 812-464-1867 or online services
- Vanderburgh County Southwestern Behavioral Care (24-hr crisis/suicide prevention): 812-422-1100
- National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255)