Reparations for a historic African American neighborhood displaced by Western Kentucky University’s expansion in the 1960s and dropping several campus names linked to slavery are the two main points of divergence between WKU President Timothy Caboni and the Naming and Symbols Task Force he formed nearly a year ago.
On Wednesday, Caboni announced in a campuswide message that he will not support removing the names of the Potter College of Arts and Letters, the Ogden College of Science and Engineering and Van Meter Hall, as the task force of campus stakeholders recommended in its report, which reviewed those college and building namesakes’ historical connections to slavery.
In his message, Caboni said the university would “immediately implement” nearly a dozen other recommendations developed by the task force – including the creation of a “Jonesville Reconciliation Working Group.”
Notably, however, Caboni left out any mention of “reparations” to be made to former Jonesville residents, despite that being an explicit ask from the Naming and Symbols Task Force. Caboni only wrote that this working group would be tasked to “appropriately address the issues that remain from the dismantling of the Jonesville neighborhood.” It’s unclear what that exactly means, and campus representatives aren’t saying.
“I support the president’s decisions regarding the Task Force recommendations. I look forward to working with him, WKU departments and other constituents as we move forward to a more inclusive campus environment,” associate political science professor Saundra Curry Ardrey told the Daily News on Thursday in a brief emailed statement.
Ardrey, as co-chair of the Naming and Symbols Task Force, did not respond to several follow-up questions the Daily News sent via email asking for more information about the rationale behind some of the group’s recommendations, nor did Ardrey return a phone call placed with her office.
Margaret Gripshover, a geography professor and the task force’s other co-chair, also did not respond to an email or return a phone call placed with her office seeking an interview.
The task force members at the helm of a months-long process to grapple with WKU’s historical connections to racism and slavery have been barred from discussing the group’s work in detail because of nondisclosure agreements they were required to sign, internal records show.
Redacted copies of the task force’s meeting agendas – obtained by the Daily News through an Open Records Act request – show that the group began its work by emphasizing confidentiality, the legal implications of the group’s work and “task force limitations.”
These records are available to review online at bgdailynews.com with this article.
Task force members discussed an open records request related to their work, and agenda records also show that the group was sensitive to coverage in the local news media.
For example, in March – when photos surfaced online of Lost River Pizza Co. owner Keith Coffman wearing blackface, a revelation that came just days after the university announced Coffman’s business as a key partner for its high-end WKU Commons dining venue – task force members discussed a “vending vetting process.”
Ultimately, the task force recommended adding more minority-owned eateries on campus to serve more culturally diverse cuisine.
It also recommended the university “Recruit African-American owned businesses to develop feeder programs,” a suggestion Caboni later endorsed in his campus email Wednesday.
“This year we will create a program to increase minority owned business participation in university (request for proposal) processes,” Caboni wrote. “We will continue this work and enhance our efforts to target local businesses who would benefit from doing business with WKU and educate them about the processes of being considered.”
Going forward, Caboni said Wednesday that he would establish other spin-off groups to build on the work of the Naming and Symbols Task Force.
“Despite the difficulty of the conversations and discomfort caused by the processes, we have an obligation as an institution of higher education to engage in challenging conversations,” Caboni wrote.
Whether those conversations will be held in full view of the public, however, remains uncertain.