Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack has added a position to his department, bucking a trend toward athletic cuts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Salatha T. Willis was named associate athletic director for diversity, culture and climate this week. He is charged with developing and implementing new ways to create an equitable culture among the university’s student-athletes, administrators, coaches and staff in the athletic department.
“Our society is going through an incredibly challenging time,” Wildhack said. “Whether it’s Ahmaud Arbery, whether it’s George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, there are blatant acts of racism and people murdered. You combine that with 400 years of systemic oppression of Black people, if we’re going to be a change agent, then we need to recognize that we need to change and we need to do better. The time is right, we have the right individual. Let’s act.”
Wildhack said creating the position was something he had been mulling for a while. The move comes in the wake of a spate of racism on campus last fall that had local, state and federal law enforcement involved. There were more than a dozen reports in November of racist graffiti and vandalism targeting Blacks, Jews, Asians and Native Americans.
Students angry that the university hadn’t acted quickly and aggressively enough held a peaceful protest demanding change. That included a call for the resignation of Chancellor Kenton Syverud and other officials at the private school in central New York.
Protest organizers labeled the movement #NotAgainSU, and last week 124 former Syracuse football players added their collective voices in a statement released on Twitter that condemned the nation’s systemic racism. Alumni who signed came from 40 classes, including 1961, the year Orange tailback Ernie Davis became the first Black player to win the Heisman Trophy. Also among them were Dwight Freeney, Joe Morris, and Don McPherson, as well as members of the Syracuse 8, a group of Black players who spoke out against racial discrimination on the football team in 1969 and boycotted the team.
“We organized ourselves in a Zoom chat at first and really started to dig in, see what the issues were, how we can make the lives better for the athletes at the Syracuse campus while they're at Syracuse,” former linebacker Cam Lynch said, adding that he was embarrassed to see the trouble at the university last November. “We're ready to work with SU athletics to figure out what we can do to lead the way."
“The killing of George Floyd kind of showed us that we had to pay more attention to our school,” Lynch said. "We need to get ahead of these things. The most important thing is we're starting to take steps."
A tweet Wednesday featuring longtime men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim, who roomed with NBA Hall of Famer Dave Bing when they were students at Syracuse in the 1960s, added more voices to the cause.
"People have to feel supported. People have to feel that they are part of a united front,” said Willis, who has a doctorate in educational leadership and also played basketball at Western Michigan. “I think we are doing that now, but there will be struggles. Change cannot always be as easy as we want it to be.”
Today, about 8% of the university’s nearly 23,000 students are Hispanic or Latino, 7% are Black, and 6% are Asian, according to the university website. More than half of students are white.
“I have to figure out where they want to go, provide input and guidance. We want programmatic change that will not just be symbolic, that will be placed in the DNA of the athletic department,” said Willis, who has been on staff for over six years. His former position in student-athlete academic development will be filled, Wildhack said.
“This is a shared responsibility that all of us have," Wildhack said. "We’re only going to have the keys to the impact that we desire if we do embrace the fact that this is a shared responsibility.”
Associated Press Writer Carolyn Thompson contributed to this report
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