What's going on?
Who is Dr. Covington?
To The University of Iowa President’s Office and Administration, Division of DEI, and Graduate College:
To be radical, “It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.” - Ella Baker
We, the National Steering Committee of the Black Lives Matter at School, stand in solidarity with Dr. Lisa Covington and demand that the university rescind their decision to bar her from participating in the Spring 2023 commencement. In alignment with our ongoing collective support of all Black students, faculty, and staff, we issue this statement knowing that when part of our community is not protected, the whole Black campus community may be harmed.
Dr. Covington defended her dissertation on July 8, 2022, and was informed by her advisor that she could participate in Spring 2023 commencement ceremonies. Months later, she was then informed by the Graduate College Dean Amanda Thein that she would not be permitted to walk in the Spring graduation, even though she was not able to participate due to being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. After communicating with Dean Thein, the commencement requirements were posted on the university’s website. Due to the unilateral decision-making by university administrators, Dr. Covington sought to file a grievance but was informed by Associate Provost Lois Geist that there was no process. As a result, The University of Iowa is denying the opportunity for Dr. Covington to celebrate attaining a PhD, a distinction held by only three percent of Black women faculty members!
The University of Iowa is ignoring the diverse needs of the students, in particular, the lives of Black students who have been impacted by both the health and racial pandemics. Overall, there has been a lack of communication, both to students and faculty, on the policy that restricts graduation participation eligibility. Dr. Covington was led to believe she could participate in the spring commencement. Despite this policy not being previously outlined, when she asked to appeal the decision she was not given steps nor directions, but was simply told no and admonished by Provost Geist for prioritizing her health. We find this approach to contradict University of Iowa’s attempts to correct and heal their historical systemic racist practices as outlined in their new DEI commitment.
Dr. Lisa Covington is the Director of the Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy in Iowa City. For this work, she was featured on Iowa Public Radio multiple times and received the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award from the Iowa Department of Human Rights in 2020. Serving as editor for Ms. Magazine’s Primer on Critical Race Theory is one of many examples Dr. Covington has raised the national and international profile of Iowa while she has been a student at The University of Iowa. Yet, the school hasn't supported her ongoing achievements. Her commitment to the values of educational equity have always been prominent in her teaching and scholarship. The university must take actions that align with the values stated publicly. How does refusing to allow an appeal to a blanket policy demonstrate that you “understand the emerging needs and priorities of stakeholders, or seek to “improve equitable access to educational opportunities”, or that you are “honest, fair, respectful, and ethical and are accountable for [y]our decisions and actions”? It appears as though Dr. Covington is being penalized by The University of Iowa due to her tremendous efforts in challenging state restrictions on curriculum and establishing an Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy for Black youth and actively advocating for the principles of critical race theory to be understood in Iowa and beyond.
The current actions of The University of Iowa is consistent with the historical mistreatment of Black faculty, staff, and students on campus. The university has a legacy of anti-Blackness, from racist housing practices during the 1940s to the racial discrimination lawsuit from Black student-athletes that occurred in the past weeks. In addition, the concerning number of Black administrators and faculty that have left over the last few years and over half the current faculty and staff indicating they’ve considered leaving because of the university’s culture, points to an institution with a culture that fails to support or nurture Black intellectuals. The university profits off of anti-Blackness while reducing the Black body and mind to what can benefit the university and conspires with the state in the silencing of Black education and Black students. The university leadership has a responsibility to take every chance to correct previous injustices and work towards healing this ongoing pervasive anti-Black culture. This may seem like an isolated event, but it can be seen in the racism experienced when students in the English department submitted papers with the n-word used freely despite being asked by Black faculty to not do that sparking #BlackatIowaWriters social media testimonials, Black students expressing isolation and the ongoing discrimination Black football players experience, which resulted in a lawsuit.
In light of Dr. Covington being denied any right to appeal the decision, we demand you to reconsider this injustice against Dr. Lisa Covington and allow her family and friends the opportunity to witness her remarkable achievement at the Spring 2023 commencement. We hope you take this opportunity to have an actual discussion regarding your shameful actions that are a type of retaliation against Dr. Covington for her ongoing support of Black lives in the face of the legislative attempts to ensure that Black lives in Iowa don’t matter. There is no justification for ignoring the reality of a Black woman impacted by the pandemic. The University of Iowa only has 3 percent of African American students and should be supportive of Black students going to school in a sundown state. Despite the ongoing challenges Black students, faculty and staff face at The University of Iowa–as documented on your climate survey and the frequent occurrence of folks leaving the institution–you have the opportunity to support a talented recent alumna while stand up for what is right and pivot from historical wrongs by making a commitment to do better and reaffirm your promise to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
"What we do is more important than what we say, or what we say we think." - bell hooks
-The National Black Lives Matter at School Steering Committee