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“This ‘is potentially going to blow up.’” That was the warning of an anonymous faculty member who registered a series of complaints concerning Ibram X. Kendi and his Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University in 2021.
Now it has blown up, and the damage to BU’s reputation might match the real damage the university did to itself by committing so completely to Kendi and his brand of anti-racism without regard for academic freedom or excellence.
The anonymous complaints about Kendi, summarized in a report produced by the university’s associate vice president for compliance services, include allegations of grant mismanagement and a toxic work environment leading to high “employee turnover” and “productivity and morale issues at the Center.” The document reports “a general fear at the Center which leads to a pattern of silence and secrecy” and a workplace culture in which employees are “afraid of going against Dr. Kendi,” who is accused of “off-putting leadership tactics.”
Kendi is portrayed in the document as a poor manager who treats employees unfairly and is concerned primarily with promoting himself and his own work.
The complaint alleged, for example, that he used “tenure as a ‘pressure point’ to get Junior faculty to work for him and do work for him personally” even though “he does not have any control over their tenure cases.” The whistleblower also claimed that faculty contracts at the center were vague and that Kendi altered expectations after the fact. The person reported that when people questioned Kendi, he responded, “You don’t believe in the mission of the center?”
In terms of turnover, the reporter alleged, as of October 15, 2021, seven people had resigned who “were competent and did not leave amicably.” One of these people might have been Jemar Tisby, who has been called the “Christian version” of Kendi. He joined the center in March 2021 but had left by October. He recently said on Instagram, “I chose to resign what seemed like a dream job (on paper),” adding that something felt “off.”
The anonymous reporter observed that “3 if not 4 women of color” had resigned or were close to resigning at the time. “It’s getting really bad,” the person said.
These allegations were made almost two years ago. Now, after the announcement that Kendi laid off half the center’s staff, similar complaints are out in the open.
Professor Saida Grundy, who worked at the center and reportedly spoke to BU’s provost about these concerns in 2021, wrote to her, saying that “the pattern of amassing grants without any commitment to producing the research obligated to them continues to be standard operating procedure at CAR.”
Professor Phillipe Copeland recalled “hearing rumbles of discontent from colleagues” when he joined the center in 2021. These later became “an earthquake and people kept leaving.” He eventually did the same because “the dysfunction at the center became intolerable.”
Yanique Redwood, who was the center’s executive director for nine months in 2022, reports receiving an “email from a disgruntled professor after I interviewed for the job warning me about an unsafe work environment.” She claims that “Kendi and the center were failing” when she arrived and says she sensed “anxiety, stress, anger, and fear” in the staff. Regarding Kendi’s recent statement defending the layoffs, she sees “a familiar resistance to accepting and learning from the harm that he causes.”
There are rumblings on social media that the “mismanagement of this center was one of the worst kept secrets at BU.”
University officials cannot say they were not warned. Professor David Decosimo wrote an impressive letter outlining his concerns about Kendi and the anti-racist fervor consuming much of the institution in 2020. He called on the president to “ensure that BU’s embrace of antiracism does not compromise our ideals of academic freedom and our research and educational mission.”
BU went ahead anyway. It gave Kendi a center — and, even more embarrassingly, the Andrew W. Mellon Professorship in the Humanities, which had previously been held only by Elie Wiesel and had gone unfilled since his retirement in 2013. Among other reasons, the provost cited in the announcement Kendi’s “forthcoming engagement in all aspects of University life.”
A common complaint about Kendi is that he held up projects because he insisted on remaining in control of everything but was often inaccessible.
Now the university is in damage control mode. It has announced it will conduct an “inquiry” into the Center for Antiracist Research that will expand on a prior “examination” of the center, which amounts to an acknowledgement that concerns were previously raised.
As Decosimo said, the news about Kendi is not just about Kendi: “The real story is institutional, cultural, & still unfolding.” What is happening with Kendi’s center is due in large part to the university leadership’s failure to consider what it was doing or monitor the activities of a high-profile center.
Of course, BU was not the only institution to become obsessed with purging itself of perceived racism in 2020 — almost every college and university did, too. It might, however, become the symbol of a time when America’s institutions of higher education allowed themselves to be carried away by a moral panic and, in this case, the allure of celebrity, violating their core principles and leaving themselves degraded and attempting to hide their shame.
Editor's note: This article has been corrected so that the initial quotation reads "potentially," not "possibly."
Steven McGuire is the Paul & Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Follow him on X at @sfmcguire79.
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