Announcement marred by claims of secrecy and lack of communication
Posted online: March 4, 2017 10:30p; Last updated 3/5/17 12:10a
By Patrice K. Muhammad
Dr. Sonja Feist-Price was announced the preferred candidate for the Vice President of Institutional Diversity at the University of Kentucky (UK).
Price co-chaired the search committee that was charged with finding a permanent internal candidate to fill the VP slot before quietly resigning and applying for the job herself.
“Dr. Feist-Price was approached by a number of people – both on the committee and throughout the campus – about being a candidate for this critically important position,” said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. “She reconsidered; withdrew from the committee and applied for the position.’’
Fiest-Price has been the only candidate announced by the University and the only one to publicly present a plan to the campus community for the Office of Institutional Diversity (OID).
The announcement of a lone preferred candidate was unexpected, says one student.
“We never knew who the finalists were or even that Dr. Feist-Price went from being co-chair [of the search committee] to being the preferred candidate,’’ said graduate student Della Mosley.
Mosley is among a group of student leaders from the UK Black Graduate and Professional Student Association, Social Justice Advocacy Group, and @ForBlackUK who say they have repeatedly asked for updates and transparency in the process for filling the Diversity position.
In an open letter, updated after the news of Feist-Price’s status, Mosley and fellow student Eseosa Ighodaro state that open letters (2/9/16), town-hall meetings (2/29/16), and email correspondences (11/30/16) were used to convey concerns about the selection process and the OID in general.
“The forum should have taken place, not after Dr. Capilouto selected a preferred candidate. We wanted to meet with 2,3,4,5 finalists,” said Ighodaro.
In her 25 years at the University, Feist-Price has earned tenure and is a Professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation. She served as Assistant Provost for Faculty Affairs, and Director of African American Studies and Research Institute.
Blanton called Feist-Price, “an accomplished scholar and teacher; someone who fought for students as academic ombudsman and someone who now works directly on behalf of faculty and their development. She has the skills, the knowledge of UK, and the breadth of experiences to take on this critically important leadership position.”
The student’s most recent open letter says, “Dr. Sonja Feist-Price is highly qualified with a proven track record of effectiveness in promoting faculty diversity and inclusion at UK. However, this does not relieve UK senior administrators of their promise to provide transparency with the search.’’
“[The] process – deliberation by a broad-based committee, consensus, a recommendation, announcement of a preferred candidate and forums – is very typical for searches at UK,” said Blanton.
Fiest-Price is staged to take helm of the OID when the racial climate across the nation is very tense. The police shootings of unarmed Blacks, threats by the current President to tighten immigration policies, reports of racial slurs and harassment on college campuses across the nation including at the University of Kentucky all present challenges to anyone charged with recruiting, retaining and graduating students.
A Feb. 2016 student-called town hall meeting opened with a chilling recording, reportedly of white male UK students in a conversation where racial slurs and insults were used freely. Concerns affecting Black students on campus were detailed during the two-hour presentation. Chiefly, “inclusion and institutional support’’, “oppressive images and symbols,” and “lack of representation” were addressed. Also expressed was a belief that the Office for Institutional Diversity (OID) was not effectively structured or empowered.
Even from those who have criticized the process, there has been much praise for the selection of Feist-Price, who has been honored as a ‘’Teacher Who Made a Difference’’.
Della Mosby said, “I think she’s a phenomenal woman, and she would do a great job in this role if she is allowed to do so.”
Nearing graduation, Mosby is a Counseling Psychology doctoral candidate, who is concerned for the students who remain and those who come in the future.
“Is this precedent that the next [search] will happen the same way,” Mosby asks. “There’s not a lot of Dr. Feist-Price’s out there. Should we be happy with the one candidate we are given?”
There was also disappointment with the way Feist-Price was presented.
“We really want to know why she was preferred,’’ said Ighodaro. “The individual who made that choice, should have appeared. That was disappointing.”
Mosby and Ighodaro attended the forum scheduled for the preferred candidate to address students. It was scarcely attended by fewer than twenty students and had a start time just two hours before doors opened to a sold-out conversation with television and movie actress Viola Davis which attracted a large number of Blacks. The forum was announced just two days in advance.
Blanton acknowledged the small turnout of students and did not express the scheduling of the forum as a conflict with the Davis event, which he said was nearby and in plenty of time for students to attend both. The Feist-Price presentations were live streamed on YouTube and available for viewing. Combined views are less than 20 at the time this article went to press.
During her student presentation Feist-Price, in response to a student question, said she did not want the OID to focus on certain groups to the exclusion of others. A diversity graphic used for the presentation showed 16 identities that would be part of her focus including gender, religion, race, age and income.
Broad responsibility was concerning to Mosby who said, “My main concern is the way the university waters down diversity and inclusion. It doesn’t deal with power, doesn’t deal with privilege. It doesn’t approach solutions in an equitable way. That doesn’t feel like something the VPID can do anything about.”
“The person needs to have the ability to triage student concerns,’’ said Ighodaro. “They must have a mechanism of prioritizing.”
The campus climate has not changed significantly enough for Ighodaro who, like Mosby is nearing graduation. She said, “I think hard about whether to return to further my education here and that shouldn’t be the case. I have a decision to make for residency.”
Eseosa Ighodaro is an MD/PhD Doctoral Candidate in Neuroscience in UK College of Medicine.
Feist-Price is still considered a candidate for the Vice President position, until a formal announcement of selection is made.