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A worker removes the Murray name from what is now known as the Social Sciences and Humanities Building.

OSU adds conversation series to advance battle against racism

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Even as Oklahoma State University garners awards for sustaining and enriching the values of diversity and inclusion, it continues to step up its commitment to welcome everyone.

In June, the university launched a monthly Community Advancing Conversation Series, with campus leaders meeting virtually to discuss race and inclusion while inviting members of the OSU community to join the conversation. These topics are more relevant than ever as the nation struggles through a historic civil rights movement.

“This is an important first step,” said Dr. Jason F. Kirksey, OSU vice president and chief diversity officer. “The intent was to start laying a foundation for conversations amongst ourselves and within the OSU community to identify ways we can grow and build and deepen and broaden the strong commitment that’s been here at Oklahoma State.

“We’re fortunate that we have a president who has been here for 13 years who gets it, who understands it. Now we have an opportunity to build and grow and simply become better.”

While all of the panelists expressed love for the Stillwater community, they were most focused on looking forward and finding ways to advance the conversation and OSU’s culture of inclusivity.

Mike Boynton, OSU men’s basketball coach, said now is the time to make a plan — not the time to run away from the problem.

“We have to be OK with people not liking to hear this,” he said. “This isn’t about personal attacks, but they need to hear that this is a real pandemic that’s been going on for a long time. And we need your help. We need you to challenge your friends when you hear them saying something inappropriate. … If you are complicit and you allow racist activities in your area, how different are you?”

Kirksey noted that diversity and inclusion workshops are required for all faculty, staff and students. The university also is creating more formal structures to advance these initiatives, such as the OSU Athletics and Diversity Inclusion Council. OSU libraries are engaged in projects aimed at sharing diverse stories and historical perspectives, as well as educating students on how to think critically about bias, how they consume information and how they can help fight disinformation.

Other panel discussions focused on building on that progress.

While highlighting OSU-Tulsa’s responsibility to educate the public on the Tulsa Race Massacre, OSU-Tulsa President Dr. Pamela Fry captured the essence of the panel’s aspirations.

“Our plan doesn’t wait until students show up at our door,” she said, noting that OSU-Tulsa is making thoughtful efforts to support student access and success through targeted scholarships and community partnerships. 

OSU Medicine has had major success recruiting Native American students and bolstering care for Native and rural communities. The new OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation, the first tribally affiliated medical school in the nation, celebrated a historic white coat ceremony in July.

Diversity Excellence

The university has taken significant steps to foster a culture of inclusiveness and continues to be nationally recognized for its efforts.

As a 2020 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity recipient from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine — the oldest and largest diversity publication and website in higher education — OSU is one of just seven schools in the nation and the only institution in Oklahoma to receive this honor for nine straight years.

“I think it is fair to say that Oklahoma State has found its place as a national leader in the conversations and more importantly in the demonstrated commitment to advancing social justice and equality and really creating environments that are truly open and welcoming in respecting and valuing and accommodating all members of the community,” Kirksey said.

Having achieved an 88 percent increase in faculty members of color in OSU classrooms since 2010, the university remains committed to hiring more people of color for faculty, staff and board positions.

OSU also has reaffirmed its commitment to continuing the conversation with alumni to improve diversity and inclusion and strengthening its partnership with the OSU Black Alumni Association.

Un-naming Murray Hall

The OSU Student Government Association — which has long sought the change — submitted a resolution last spring supporting the removal of former Oklahoma Gov. William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray’s name from two buildings on campus. 

The resolution was unanimously approved by a committee comprised of representatives from the SGA, Faculty Council, Staff Council, Alumni Association and the OSU Foundation. The OSU Facilities Planning and Space Utilization Committee then approved it before President Burns Hargis sent a letter supporting the name removal to the OSU A&M Board of Regents, who approved removing “Murray” from Murray Hall and North Murray Hall.

The university hasn’t announced if and when the buildings will be renamed after an individual or individuals. Currently, the former Murray Hall is being called the Social Sciences and Humanities Building while North Murray is now the Psychology Building.

“OSU is committed to diversity and inclusion, and to respecting all peoples and backgrounds,” Hargis said. “We understand the pain that the namesake of Murray Hall creates for many members of our campus community and respect the efforts of the petition to remove Governor Murray’s name from the building.”

In his letter to the board, Hargis wrote, “My request is based on the history cited by many on our campus that the building’s namesake, Oklahoma’s ninth governor, William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, had a record of advocacy for racist policies including segregation and the promotion of Jim Crow laws, which in effect stripped many Black Oklahomans of their constitutional right to vote.

“For many on our campus, the building’s name has invoked reminders of this painful history. Oklahoma State is committed to eliminating systemic racism and embracing our responsibility as a university to support solutions to the inequality and injustice our country and community faces. “I appreciate the leadership demonstrated by the many on our campus who have come forward in support of the name removal, including students, faculty, staff and alumni groups and the more than 5,000 individuals who have signed a petition regarding the building’s name.”

More than 100 people from throughout the community protested in front of Murray Hall ahead of the OSU A&M Board of Regents vote to make their voices heard that the name needed to go.

Dr. Laura Arata, assistant professor and public historian in the Department of History, was one of several people to address the crowd.

“Just because something is history doesn’t mean we should celebrate it,” she said. “We should learn from it, learn how to do better and move forward. It is time to put to rest that renaming the building would rewrite history or that removing Murray’s name would remove a chance to learn from the past. It will not unmake Murray’s successes, it will not undo his governorship, and it will not undo the traumas of the past. But it will make a difference for the future. Let’s write a new chapter that we are proud to stand for.”

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