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Committee At Brigham Young University Has 26 Ideas To Tackle Race Issues On Campus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Isolated and unsafe. That is how students of color say they often feel on the mostly white campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. A new report from a faculty committee there cites challenges from daily racist comments to the lack of faculty of color to uneven enforcement of dress and grooming standards laid out in the school's honor code. The report calls for a long list of changes at BYU, which is a private university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU law professor Michalyn Steele is on that committee that produced the report, and she joins us now.

Welcome.

MICHALYN STEELE: Thank you.

KELLY: So I want to understand how this report came about, and I wonder if you could give us a sense of the situation.

STEELE: I think there was an outpouring of grief at BYU, just as there was across the nation in June 2020, in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We began to hear stories from students of color, in particular our Black students at BYU, that this racial reckoning that was happening across the nation needed to happen at BYU. And being underrepresented had left them feeling in many ways like strangers on campus. And one of our shared values in our community is the injunction from Ephesians that there be no more strangers but that we be fellow citizens in a household of God.

KELLY: So your committee makes 26 recommendations for how to make things better, how to support students there, how to also support faculty and staff of color. One recommendation is create an office of diversity and belonging. What would you imagine that office actually looking like? What would it do?

STEELE: I think that office would provide an important signal that the university is committed to addressing these issues head-on to centralize the response but also to collect the good efforts that are being made across campus. So I see that as a centralizing feature to disseminate best practices across the community and to make sure that we are holding ourselves accountable.

KELLY: The report also raises questions over whether buildings should be renamed. I gather several feature the names of slaveholders. And I did stop and think, if you're talking about renaming things, do you need to look at the name of the university itself? Church leader Brigham Young. He opposed interracial marriage. He started the church's ban, which has since been lifted, but on Black members holding the priesthood.

STEELE: Well, I think the church, like the nation, has a complicated history. President Nelson...

KELLY: Russell Nelson, the president of the church.

STEELE: Yes - issued the statement with the senior leadership of the NAACP. He said that both institutions have learned from the past. That said, I think we have many ways to sort of contextualize and to grapple with the complicated histories and legacies of those who've come before. I teach constitutional law. And I understand that the history of the founders of our nation is infected in some ways, important ways, by their attitudes on race and slavery. And just as the nation is wrestling through those questions, I think our community also needs to wrestle through those kinds of questions.

KELLY: So how optimistic are you that change will happen and happen quickly?

STEELE: I'm optimistic that change will happen. I know that it's not going to be quick. I know that it's going to take a sustained effort. The work of reconciliation, bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice takes time. And I'm optimistic because I feel a broad commitment to that sustained effort and an enthusiasm from the vast majority of our students. It's not the work of a committee. It's not the work of the university president. It's the work of every member of the BYU community to redress these issues.

KELLY: Professor Michalyn Steele from Brigham Young University talking about the new report. She was on the committee.

Thank you for talking to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEELE: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.