By Arielle Robinson
A group of Kennesaw State University faculty, students, and community members want answers from university officials after the only Black department chair within the Radow College of Humanities and Social Sciences at the time resigned last month, citing structural racism.
Dr. Cécile Accilien, chair of the RCHSS’ Interdisciplinary Studies Department, on April 12 sent her letter of resignation to RCHSS Dean Dr. Catherine Kaukinen and copied Interim Provost Dr. Ivan Pulinkala and Interim Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Sonia Toson on it.
The resignation is effective June 30. Accilien said she would return to the ISD as a regular full-time professor for the Fall 2022 semester, but said she cannot remain as ISD chair, as she said she has been “set up to fail.”
A group of KSU faculty issued a press release May 17. They said they decided to go public after requests for KSU officials to address Accilien’s letter and what they say is institutionalized racism has gone ignored.
Faculty, staff, students, and community members sent a petition on May 2 to Kaukinen, Pulinkala, and Toson that garnered over 100 signatures.
Part of it said, “…we would like for Dr. Toson and Dr. Pulinkala together to address the issues of broader systemic and university-side concerns regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, acknowledge Dr. Accilien’s experiences, and commit to specific steps to rectify the issues she cites.
“…We would like to know the university’s specific plans to support and protect its faculty and students regarding the teaching of critical race theory, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
The petition requested leadership and Kaukinen in particular send a written response to Accilien’s resignation letter by May 6.
Petitioners also asked that Kaukinen, Pulinkala, and Toson have a follow-up meeting with them during the week of May 9 to discuss the letter and further concerns over who the new ISD chair would be.
The university officials have not responded to the petition, supporters of it say.
The RCHSS is the largest college at KSU.
The ISD is a newer program and home to eight programs centered around studies of marginalized populations, like African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS), Latin America and Latino Studies, and Gender and Women’s Studies, among others.
In a message written on the ISD’s website, this is how the department is described:
“Social justice minded in our pedagogy, mission, and vision, we challenge our students to think critically about history, race, gender, religion, ability, and class. We are deeply engaged in teaching about and researching the ways in which diversity, equity, and inclusion are connected to systemic injustices, and do work that can inform changes in policies to create a more socially just society.”
The resignation letter
Accilien told the Courier that KSU is not adhering to its promises of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
At the time she resigned, Accilien was the only Black department chair in the RCHSS.
On May 25, the RCHSS’ Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice announced Dr. Barbara Combs, a Black woman, as the new department chair. Combs will begin July 1.
In a phone conversation the Courier had with Accilien, she said she resigned in protest of racist practices and undermining of the ISD by university officials.
She said the issue goes beyond her as an individual and speaks to a larger culture of institutionalized racism at KSU, where women of color in leadership roles are undervalued by their higher-ups and end up quitting out of frustration.
“My hope in sharing this information is to help the institution move toward being a more welcoming and equitable workplace for women of color and other minoritized faculty, staff and students,” Accilien wrote in her resignation.
Accilien first came to KSU when she was hired by the late Dean Dr. Shawn Long in 2020 and started that year in July.
Long died in January 2021 and interim Dean Dr. Pam Cole was appointed after.
The newest dean, Kaukinen, started in January 2022.
Accilien is not new to administrative work, as she served as chair of the African and African American Studies Department at the University of Kansas, and had other leadership roles throughout her academic career.
Accilien said she came into her role as chair at KSU with the goal of growing ISD’s AADS and Asian Studies (AS) programs. She said she was promised the support and resources needed to expand them when she was hired.
Instead, throughout her time as chair, Accilien said those promises never came to fruition and that she and her department faced an endless array of obstacles from higher-level administrators within the college and at KSU.
One of the key issues Accilien points to in her letter is when KSU’s University College was dissolved near the start of the pandemic, before she was hired.
“Most notably, prior to my hire and without full consultation of faculty, the Interdisciplinary Studies Department doubled in size with the addition of colleagues from the University College,” according to Accilien’s letter. “These changes were initiated as I was interviewing to become chair of the department, yet I was never informed nor consulted until after the process was executed. My contract did not include or mention these planned changes.”
Accilien said she did not receive any adequate resources like extra staff to deal with the department doubling in size and consequently was worn thin.
She also said she was met with “unreasonable demands” to grow the ISD from higher-ups while simultaneously being denied the resources to do so.
Accilien, a Haitian immigrant, also said she faced racial microaggressions from leaders in the college.
Among the examples she gave was when she noticed that colleagues would repeatedly spell her name wrong.
Accilien said that even though she eventually went to an administrator to correct the spelling of her name nothing changed.
She also said that she was told by higher administrators that there were complaints about her availability but when Accilien asked about the context of the complaints, she was given no response.
Accilien also said that when she asked some of her white colleagues if they had been questioned about their availability they had not.
Accilien’s letter also pointed to what she said was inadequate help in trying to expand the AADS and AS programs.
Growing AADS and AS would mean hiring faculty that eventually could allow for students to graduate in a timely manner, offering more courses in the subject area, restructuring programs, and better student advising for courses in the program.
Accilien said that when she and colleagues would approach higher-ups at KSU and in RCHSS about expanding the programs, they were given excuses as to why they cannot.
“[Higher-ups would] say ‘we don’t have enough [ISD] students, so therefore because we don’t have enough students, we are not going to give you X, Y, and Z,’” Accilien said. ‘When you have enough students we’ll give you more resources.’ But we need resources in order to have enough students.”
Accilien said the current dean and other administrators are not prioritizing hiring more ISD faculty. Accilien said the current dean recently told AS professors that they would get more faculty when the program grows, despite not being provided with financial resources or staff to make growth happen.
Another point Accilien made in her resignation letter is that professors from marginalized backgrounds are expected to do unpaid labor in servicing and mentoring students from marginalized backgrounds without support from upper-level administrators.
“Students come to us to ask us to do more,” Accilien said. “As a result, we’re doing more labor, but there’s that invisible labor because people don’t see when you’re mentoring students.
“As a first-generation immigrant Black woman, if a student comes to me and they need help, I will help them. But this is not something the university counts [as extra labor]. Many times for different reasons some students will not go to certain white professors because they don’t feel like they understand them. So faculty of color do all this work of mentoring, all this labor that’s invisible — but that doesn’t matter [to KSU].”
Accilien also wished that KSU would offer a response to right-wing attacks on teaching things like race, gender, and sexuality — topics featured within ISD studies.
“How are you supporting faculty from marginalized identities…and then you’re pretending that this isn’t happening?” Accilien said.
After the 2021 spa shootings in which a white man killed six Asian women in Cherokee County, Accilien said that she worked with colleagues on a supportive letter to send to Asian faculty, students, and staff but was not given permission to send it out.
In her resignation letter, Accilien also said that KSU gives preferential treatment “for the prospects of externally funded centers and stakeholders while neglecting existing programs within the Interdisciplinary Studies Department that have consistently contributed to the university’s strategic goals and diversity objectives.”
Accilien said that despite the ISD’s small size in comparison to other departments, the ISD still has value in that it supports students and should be important to the university.
After she sent her letter in, Accilien said the three recipients of the letter offered unhelpful responses that did not address her concerns about structural racism or the lack of support she received during her time as chair.
Accilien said the Office of Institutional Equity, which handles Title IX and discrimination complaints, reached out to her a couple of times.
Accilien also said Toson told her she has the option of going to the OIE to report the problems she listed, but Accilien said she already knew that and did not go there for a reason.
“The reality is OIE is only interested in protecting the university,” Accilien said. “And frankly, I don’t trust the university as a woman of color. I have dealt with enough microaggressions, I don’t feel safe…I know the things that I can do, I’m choosing not to do them because it’s a waste of my time and emotional energy.”
Accilien said Kaukinen did not address her letter until a department meeting about two weeks after sending it and only then after Accilien’s colleagues asked Kaukinen about it at the meeting.
“[Kaukinen] basically said ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I wasn’t dean then’…she said she didn’t come to the meeting to deal with the content of my letter,” Accilien said.
Accilien said that even though Kaukinen has not been dean during her entire duration as chair, she has now been made aware of an issue that she has the power to help solve.
Pulinkala did send a response almost immediately to Accilien acknowledging her letter, Accilien said.
She said the interim provost said he was sorry to learn about her decision to resign, that he is available to discuss her concerns, and that he wishes her the best as she returns to a faculty position.
Asked why Accilien did not choose to discuss things with Pulinkala, she said his response was “perfunctory” and she did not sense that he truly cared.
The Courier also asked why Accilien decided to resign rather than take another route to try and call attention to the issues she has stated.
“Because for me…as someone who cares about social justice, social equity — I’m a post-colonial scholar as I say in my letter — I will not allow them to act as if this is on me,” Accilien said. “The buck stops here, I will not under my leadership allow myself to be used.
“My stepping down is my protest, is my way of saying no. For me it’s about integrity, I’m taking a 30 percent pay cut, and I know what stepping down means for me.”
Accilien said that dealing with racism has taken a toll on her health, another reason she is leaving her position.
“Microaggression is real,” Accilien said. “It affects your emotional, physical, psychological, social wellbeing…I know this means I will not have other leadership opportunities at KSU, of course if I were to say that they would say that’s not true, but I know it’s true. And it’s okay. It’s about my integrity.
“…I’m doing this for the others who maybe do not have the privilege, the strength, or the courage to do this.”
Accilien, like in her letter, referred to the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. on the Kennesaw campus, which displays one of his famous quotes, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Accilien said it is important not to remain silent on systemic issues such as the ones at KSU. She said that her expertise in post-colonialism, racism, and social justice must extend outside of the classroom and into real life.
“The words diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice, etc. have become buzzwords,” she said. “Myself and so many others, we’ve been studying these — it’s part of our lives…so how will I look if I’m studying this stuff and now I’m acting as if this is not real?
“I agonized over this, a part of me was like ‘you know what, let me just remain silent.’ But when you are silent, you are complicit, you’re saying it’s okay. Maybe the next person of color — [KSU] will see them differently, maybe they will think twice. Or maybe they won’t, but I did what I could with what I had. That’s why I’m choosing to not remain silent.”
When asked what she specifically wants KSU to do, Accilien said that university officials should be honest about whether they want programs like AADS and AS to exist.
“They need to stop the rhetoric, ‘oh, we support students of color, this that,’” Accilien said. “They need to not hide behind this…if you don’t want to create a space to have real diversity, then don’t pretend — don’t waste people’s time.”
What others had to say
Accilien expressed gratitude for her colleagues in the ISD and others outside of ISD, who have been supportive of her resignation and the reasons why she did so.
“Many of my colleagues in the department, they do this work, they care about social justice,” Accilien said. “They care about diversity, equity, and inclusion, so my colleagues in my department have been amazing.”
Sara Giordano, a KSU professor who was in University College before it dissolved and is subsequently in the ISD, said that the petition was not only created to support Accilien, but to more importantly emphasize her points about structural racism at KSU and in the RCHSS.
Giordano described Accilien as an “amazing leader” who met with and tried to understand the concerns of professors in the ISD.
Giordano expressed disappointment at university officials’ lack of response to the petition.
“To be met with that silence, in some ways, it just further proved the points of her letter,” Giordano said. “I’m really disappointed and angered by the lack of response by the administration.
“I’m really grateful for Dr. Accilien sharing so much and taking that ethical stance to say that she won’t be set up to fail. That is true leadership — to be able to say when you’re being set up in that way.”
Quincy Jean-Louis, the outgoing president of KSUnited, a student group that has done work around anti-racism at KSU for a number of years, said he signed the petition because of the positive impact the ISD made on him.
Jean-Louis, a Black student who just graduated, said the ISD was what drew him to KSU instead of an HBCU.
“[The ISD] was a real selling point for me, because I read about some professors, particularly in AADS, I read about some of the curriculum, and that’s also when I first heard about KSUnited,” he said.
“So I felt as though that there was a community on campus that was committed to teaching and learning and instilling positive ideas that were actually rooted in what diversity and equity are supposed to be.”
A KSU webpage mentions that the university has seen the second-largest enrollment increase out of all institutions in the University System of Georgia for the 2021-22 school year. Around 43,000 students are enrolled at KSU.
Jean-Louis said he feels that KSU is more preoccupied with growth in terms of bringing students to the school but not always helping those students once they are settled in.
“I do feel like it’s magnified for marginalized communities on campus,” Jean-Louis said. “I feel like the idea of not doing everything you can do to protect minority professors and faculty members — particularly in Interdisciplinary Studies — when you are supposed to be rooted in trying to increase diversity on campus is disgustingly shameful.”
Jean-Louis said he wants the university to actively support students and faculty within the ISD “and everything related to it — whether it’s the communities that are represented in the programs within ISD…I just want more support.”
Jean-Louis also said:
“I also don’t want the concerns that these community members — whether it’s faculty or students — to continue to be ignored, because I think that’s unacceptable. I think the bare minimum should be not only to address their concerns, but also support them with the same level of passion that [KSU has] used to continue to push their perceived idea of diversity on everybody else from the outside.”
When asked what they would like to see KSU do, Giordano said the following:
“[KSU officials] would like [Accilien’s letter] to be filed as a complaint and then evaluated as if it’s one incident. What Dr. Accilien is talking about is systemic, which really calls on administrators…to address questions of systemic racism. That’s what we need from leaders.”
Giordano said that in light of the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements, it is vital for the current dean to commit to ISD programs that address these issues.
“I really want to hear [Kaukinen, Pulinkala, and Toson] say and then see them put into action real support for our African and African Diaspora Studies program and our Asian Studies program, as well as all of ISD,” Giordano said.
“I want [Kaukinen] to say ‘I’m behind you 150 percent, I see this value, I see what you do for students, I see what you do for other faculty, for this university, the value that you add.’ That’s what I would like to see happen because one of the most immediate problems is that a lot of us are doing work that is super important in ISD and we’re being met with bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
“In this political moment, we’re one of the most important places on campus and that’s not the feeling we’re getting from our supervisors.”
When asked what those who signed the petition plan to do next, Giordano said:
“We plan to continue to shine a light on what’s happening and continue to demand justice. We have to keep doing this even if it’s an uphill battle — for ourselves, for our students, for our colleagues.”
Dr. Jesse Benjamin, Race Research Scholar within KSU’s Radow Institute for Social Equity in RCHSS, sent the following statement:
“I will always speak to being part of teams taking structural racism seriously within our institutions, and working to find substantive and meaningful solutions that benefit the entire community, particularly those who are most historically underrepresented. Having so much personal history within ISD and AADS in particular, this is only amplified. These processes are so much larger than the individuals involved in these systems, but we have historical responsibility to push hard for unrealized equity, in order not to fall into passive or even active participation of delaying urgently needed better outcomes. Solutions are also closer than most people realize, but they take acknowledgement and commitment. More and more institutions are getting proactive about redressing structural imbalances, our challenge is to be visionary.”
The Courier sent two inquiries to a KSU spokesperson, Kaukinen, Pulinkala, and Toson. None of them responded to either request for comment.
Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She is the current president of the university’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and former editor at the KSU Sentinel. She enjoys music, reading poetry and non-fiction books and collecting books and records. She enjoys all kinds of music and reading poetry and non-fiction books.