UPDATE: MSU says Wharton Center gift shop employees to be restructured after controversial display

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EAST LANSING, MI (WILX) -- Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley is responding after a controversial display was set up in the Wharton Center gift shop.

MSU Spokesperson Emily Gerkin Guerrant told News 10 that the display at the Wharton Center Gift shop was inappropriate and people were hurt and offended. (Source WILX)

"Last week, a display at the Wharton Center gift shop depicted current and historical African American figures hanging from trees. This was a disturbing reminder of our country’s history of terror and unrelenting brutality that targeted individuals based on their race," said President Stanely in a letter emailed out to the university.

Dan Olson, deputy spokesperson for MSU, told News 10 via email Friday that the Wharton Center is "reevaluating the roles and responsibilities of all its gift shop employees and volunteers."

Olson said a final determination on those roles and responsibilities will be made after the center's staff and volunteers have concluded a mandatory racial-bias education and development.

Olson said the training will address the important factors and topics that assist individuals in perceiving issues that can lead to racial offense or trauma, as well as reinforce strategies and skills that help appropriately address it when a crucial event or a potential event is presented.

The deputy spokesperson said the learning objectives of the training include:
• Increasing understanding of implicit and explicit bias.
• Increasing appreciation of the role of personal histories and experiences on racial understanding and implicit bias.
• Increasing understanding of “racial terror” in the context of American history.
• Increasing understanding of the impact of symbolic representation of “racial terror” and its impact on individuals and communities.
• Increasing the understanding of intention vs. impact.
• Providing strategies for decreasing racial implicit bias.

In addition to that, in his statement, President Stanley said plans are underway to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

"The committee will be made up of students, faculty, staff, community members and volunteers," Olsen said.

Olsen said the Wharton Center leadership will report to Stanley regarding the committee's progress "as frequently as needed to ensure the president remains up to date on the progress of the racial-bias education and development and all other efforts to increase inclusivity at the Wharton Center."

Last week, university spokeswoman Emily Gerkin Guerrant apologized in a statement adding that “people were hurt and offended” regardless of the intent of the display at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts.

MSU student Krystal Davis-Dunn spoke to News 10 last Friday about the display and said it made her upset.

"I don't want to constantly be confronted with images, displays, you know, these messages like all the time like it's a painful response. It's a painful reminder," Davis-Dunn said."The lack of culture and humility is very evident on campus that things like this continue to happen."

This was the full statement that was emailed out to the university:

Dear Spartans:
I write to you about another incident that has left many members of our community horribly offended, outraged and frustrated. It has prompted many to question the safety of our campus and our commitment to inclusivity.
Last week, a display at the Wharton Center gift shop depicted current and historical African American figures hanging from trees. This was a disturbing reminder of our country’s history of terror and unrelenting brutality that targeted individuals based on their race. Members of our community were hurt. Though this display was created to honor prominent African Americans during Black History Month, we cannot ignore the historical context that made it exceedingly painful and traumatic to our community members.
This display was unacceptable and should never have been put up. I’m sorry that this happened. It has been taken down. We can, and must, do better as Spartans. We need to do the necessary work that better informs our thinking and deepens our understanding of how our actions affect others. As I communicated to you last fall after other insensitive and bias incidents on campus, regardless of intent, actions can create painful consequences for many.
In light of this, I want you all to know we are taking the situation at Wharton Gifts very seriously. The center is undergoing a full restructuring of staff, including management, and will make diversity within its workforce and volunteers a priority. In addition, mandatory racial-bias education and development for all staff and volunteers will begin Feb. 12, coordinated by the MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. It will be conducted by Dr. Benjamin D. Reese Jr. Dr. Reese is a clinical psychologist and the former vice president for institutional equity at Duke University, who consults nationally and globally in the fields of implicit bias, race relations and diversity and inclusion strategy.
Racial bias education efforts will be a continued part of ongoing employee development at the Wharton Center. Plans are underway to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion committee that will include students, faculty, staff, community members and volunteers who will bring a diverse range of identities and perspectives to the Wharton Center. Wharton leadership will participate in all of these efforts and will be responsible for reporting their progress to me.
I want those who have felt the visceral impact of this incident to know that they are heard — by me and every leader of this university. More than listening and sincerely apologizing, we are making changes to ensure we have a safe and supportive campus. This is why I launched a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic planning effort in December, and more recently, announced that we are moving with urgency to recruit a new chief diversity officer with the pending departure of Paulette Granberry Russell, Senior Advisor to the President for Diversity and Director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives.
There is no denying this happened on our campus, at a location that was meant to recognize the contributions of MSU’s past president, Clifton R. Wharton Jr., a great American and MSU leader and his wife, Dolores Wharton, who both came to campus with a deep appreciation for the arts. We have work to do.
Spartans need to come together as a community and unite in a common belief that all people are welcome on our campus. We have differences. However, these differences should not divide us, but become our strength as we continue to impact the world through our collective talents. The responsibility of creating a truly inclusive campus should not fall on one person but should be a shared priority for all. All of us must confront the personal attitudes that conveniently blind us to our past and, as a result, make it difficult for us to move forward.
The Wharton Center recognizes the need for greater diversity among its staff and volunteers and for creating an environment that reflects our best efforts. However, they are not alone in that need. Our entire campus must view this as an opportunity to learn and reflect on what we can and should do to create a safe and inclusive culture, and we must hold ourselves accountable for achieving these goals.
There is more to be done, but I am confident that together we will succeed in creating an inclusive community of which we all can be proud.

Sincerely,
Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D.
President

To read News 10's previous stories on the display, click on the links to the right of the screen.

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