Twice during her “State of the University” speech Wednesday to faculty and staff on the Statesboro campus, interim Georgia Southern University President Shelley C. Nickel declared that bigotry and racism have no place here.
The first time, about two minutes into her less-than-20-minute speech, Nickel gave no specific context for her declaration. But it was provoked by a July exchange of text messages among students, as confirmed by her second statement nearer the end of her speech. That text exchange brought the university some unwelcome attention, especially online.
“This is an amazing time in Georgia Southern’s history. I believe the timing is perfect for us to make a remarkable impact on this region, and I believe that we can meet the challenges that we must face to be a world-class institution,” Nickel was saying, the first time.
“But before I say anything else, let me be clear,” she said. “There is no place for bigotry or racism at Georgia Southern University.”
Interrupted by applause from the crowd of mostly university employees in the Performing Arts Center, she then went on with a review of historical milestones at Georgia Southern and the former Armstrong State University. On Wednesday, Nickel spoke first on the Statesboro campus and later at the Armstrong campus in Savannah during convocation ceremonies launching the first full academic year for the newly consolidated university.
History in pictures
“So first let’s remember who we are and where we came from,” she said. “What would our university look like if we’d consolidated 50 years ago?”
Nickel said not another word about racism through the mini-history. She instead focused on “pivotal moments.” These included the 1906 meeting in Savannah that resulted in the First District A&M School, which evolved into Georgia Southern, being located in Statesboro, the founding of Armstrong in 1935, the growth of both institutions, the return of football to Georgia Southern in the 1980s and the arrival of university status for Georgia Southern in 1990 and for Armstrong in 1996.
But a 1968 casual photograph from the Georgia Southern campus that appeared on the big screen behind her showed only white students, together. So did a picture of students framing the Armstrong State College monument sign after Armstrong became a four-year college in 1964.
More recent images, such as of the Reserve Officer Training Corps program that has operated jointly on the Georgia Southern and Armstrong campuses since the 1980s, showed racially integrated groups of students.
The July 2018 incident started as a text message, reportedly between two new Georgia Southern roommates, in which one used an adjective form of the racist ‘n’ word in referring to another student’s social media activity. The student who sent the original text then apologized, apparently to the student who had been referred to, and said that a different, but similar-sounding, word had been intended.
Nickel did not describe this incident but referred to it obliquely when she returned to the topic during her remarks about the university’s future.
... As a campus community we don’t walk away or turn our backs when something happens that is ugly. Just such an incident happened a few weeks ago.Interim Georgia Southern University President Shelley C. Nickel
“We all play a role in building a safe, diverse and inclusive environment where every Eagle is able to learn and thrive,” she said. “There is no question, as a public institution of higher education that we believe in the First Amendment. Students, faculty and staff express themselves, their ideas and their opinions. There is also no question that as a public institution we will follow all required laws and policies that both protect free expression as well as campus wellbeing and safety.
“But as a campus community we don’t walk away or turn our backs when something happens that is ugly,” Nickel continued. “Just such an incident happened a few weeks ago.”
‘Time for action’
Before excusing the phrase “teachable moment” with a comment that teaching is what the GSU faculty and staff do best, she told them that they and students will be hearing more about inclusiveness this year.
“It’s time for action,” Nickel said. “I’m calling on you, as leaders, to not only model inclusive behavior but to join in what I have directed as a campus-wide discussion. You’ll hear more about this in the coming weeks, but at its foundation, we must acknowledge that no matter where we’re from, what we look like, how we talk or move, we’re all here together for a common purpose, to learn and to succeed, all of us, together.”
Websites that reported the July texting incident included those of Newsweek and Inside Higher Ed.
Nickel, previously the University System of Georgia’s executive vice chancellor for strategy and fiscal affairs, took the helm as Georgia Southern’s interim president July 1.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.