Education News

Prairie View A&M Plans New Center For Race And Justice Following George Floyd’s Death

University President Ruth Simmons also wants to require all incoming students to study race and class throughout U.S. history.

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Prairie View A&M University.

Fears and questions about students’ future have kept Prairie View A&M University President Ruth Simmons awake during the recent tumultuous days, since longtime Houstonian George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis.

His death has brought a murder charge against the arresting police officer and aiding-and-abeting charge against three others, and prompted eight straight days of protests across the country, including a massive march with as many as 60,000 people in downtown Houston Tuesday.

At the historically black university west of Houston, Simmons said she’s asked herself how her students will be affected by these events, if students of color and gay and transgender students will be afraid to interact with police and if white students and faculty will “understand their duty and opportunity in such a time as this?”

“In keeping with our mission and our duty to our students, we must ask ourselves what we can do to advance understanding of the impact of discrimination on the health of the country?” Simmons wrote in a letter to the Prairie View community.

Her answer involves multiple, proactive steps, starting with a new requirement for all incoming students to take a history course about race and class in the United States.

“Not one-time action but action that can have an impact on our community over time,” Simmons explained in her impassioned letter. “For too long, we have been content to have others dictate the limits of our ability to act: individuals who call for a different course of action, those who are concerned about controversy, those who advocate ‘staying in our lane.'”

She said her proposals may not have the long-term desired impact, but they will affirm to students, “we are awake.”

Pending approval by the A&M University System and state higher education officials, Simmons wants to launch a new Center for Race and Justice, meant to encourage teaching and research to overturn systemic biases against minorities’ constitutional rights. It would be housed under African American studies and led by political science professor Melanye Price. Simmons said a substantial donation has already been pledged to establish the center.

Simmons also wants to create a new position called “activist in residence” to bring people to campus who’ve highlighted or made a difference in solving systemic social problems.

And she plans to establish an award for understanding criminal justice reform named after two Prairie View graduates: Sandra Bland and Robbie Tolan. Bland died in a Waller County jail after an officer arrested her in a traffic stop in 2015. Police mistook Tolan for a car thief and shot him in his driveway in 2008; he recently graduated with a degree in criminal justice.

“Fighting racism and discrimination and upholding justice must always be among our highest ceilings,” Simmons concluded.

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