Renewing, Re-Imagining, and Redressing: Message from the Dean

July 1, 2020

By Stephen Esquith, Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities

A residential college in the arts and humanities for the common good—which is how RCAH defines itself—faces three unprecedented challenges. 

  • A heightened awareness among RCAH’s students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community partners that there is an urgent need to redress the wrongs done by systemic racial violence and historical injustice.
  • The challenge posed by COVID-19 for a residential program in the arts and humanities that emphasizes performance-based pedagogy, experiential learning, and community engagement.
  • The structural inequality that has been laid bare and exacerbated by COVID-19.

RCAH will not meet these challenges alone. We benefit from being a small liberal arts college within a large university. However, there are important things for us to do, if we are to renew our commitment to arts and humanities for the common good, re-imagine how we work together to achieve this under the shadow of this novel coronavirus, and redress the historical injustices that undergird these current problems.

MSU will have to provide a safe and secure environment for its students, faculty, and staff. It will have to take steps to mitigate the risks of infection from COVID-19, and also provide safe and respectful spaces in which all members of the University are welcomed and feel a sense of belonging. These are not short-term solutions. COVID-19 will be with us well into the 2020-2021 academic year, and its impact on research, teaching, learning, service, and living at MSU is arguably going to be a continuing fact of life.

Deeper historical and structural injustices have been laid bare by a pandemic whose impact has been disproportionately felt by racially minoritized and historically underserved communities. In Michigan, these disparities have been greatest in African American communities. The painful synergy between COVID-19 and systemic inequality is undeniable, and it is what is animating equally unprecedented multi-racial demands for positive change. The demands of #BlackLivesMatter and other organizations calling for an end to structural violence and systemic inequality will continue, as they should.

In RCAH we are taking several steps to re-imagine the future and redress the legacies of the past. A multi-racial task force of RCAH faculty and staff has been working during the summer to draft a plan designed to meet these three connected challenges. The goal of the plan is not just to stay safe and be well, as important as these things are. We also must find ways to ensure that RCAH remains true to its core values and mission. At the center of that mission is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). How can we remain engaged with community partners? How can we creatively learn by doing, not just soak up the teachings of others? How can we pursue our passions with curiosity and an openness to new traditions and voices? What do we imagine we will be able to do so that the arts and humanities that we study and practice will continue to advance the common good?

The RCAH Task Force has come up with some exciting ideas that do not just simulate the old methods and modes of engaged learning. There will be new ways of connecting, new ways of welcoming and belonging, new ways of meeting, and new forms of engagement online and in person. There will be new questions asked about responsibility and how we can all do our share to repair the damage that has accumulated literally over centuries. The Task Force’s recommendations are still in draft form and its membership will grow as students and all faculty return for the fall semester. As plans develop throughout the year, we will keep you informed.

Renewing, re-imagining, and redressing will be an ongoing project and students will play a major part in this process, as they have in recent marches and protests.  If this seems like too ambitious a goal, we need only remember what Nikole Hannah-Jones, director of The New York Times 1619 Project, recently wrote:

"The prosperity of this country is inextricably linked with the forced labor of the ancestors of 40 million black Americans for whom these marches are now occurring, just as it is linked to the stolen land of the country’s indigenous people."

The RCAH DEI Committee is planning the first College Academic Committee meeting—including student representatives—at the beginning of the fall semester around our plans for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in all dimensions of college life. 

The challenges we face are unprecedented and extraordinary. But so is RCAH. I look forward to working with you in order to meet them head on.


Starting in late July, watch for reopening announcements, including on social media, via email, in the RCAHtypes newsletter, and on the RCAH website.