U-Md. students protest firing of diversity officer

Hundreds of students marched at the University of Maryland to protest the firing of Cordell Black, associate provost for equity and diversity.
Hundreds of students marched at the University of Maryland to protest the firing of Cordell Black, associate provost for equity and diversity. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

Several hundred students marched Thursday to the administration building at the University of Maryland to protest the firing of a popular diversity officer in one of the largest demonstrations at the College Park campus since the Vietnam War era.

Protesters rallied in support of Cordell Black, associate provost for equity and diversity at Maryland's flagship state university. Black will lose his job at the end of the academic year to help the university cut costs in a difficult budget year, university officials said.

Black oversees the university's Office of Equity and Diversity. He is to be replaced by a part-time administrator. As a tenured professor, he can stay on the faculty.

The mood during the demonstration suggested that many students fear that the school is quietly retreating from its commitment to racial and cultural diversity in a desperate re-sorting of priorities brought on by a funding crisis. State support to U-Md. has eroded by at least 10 percent in the recession.

People on the grassy expanse that serves as the university's front lawn erupted in chants of "Bring back Black" and "No justice, no peace," although they stopped short of occupying the administration building. Instead, protesters filled the front steps, applauded speakers on bullhorns and taped handwritten appeals to walls and columns.

"We gather here today in response to the alleged budget crisis that the administration uses to buttress the removal of Dr. Black from his position," said Amber J. Simmons, president of the university's Black Student Union. "The same budget crisis that allowed for a quarter of a million dollars to be spent on rebranding the school," Simmons said, referring to a recent public relations campaign.

U-Md. spokesman Milree Williams said that university officials had no plans to retreat from their diversity goals, which are "in the fabric of the university." He said that diversity is "not just some numeric goal that we're trying to reach; it's who we are."

The school is known as one of the nation's more racially diverse flagship universities, a university official said, with a student population about 11 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic, although it was segregated until 1954. The school has had its share of racial incidents, including a spate of hate letters in fall 1999. In 2007, a noose was found hanging from a tree outside the Nyumburu Cultural Center.

Seldom have so many U-Md. students gathered in such numbers for a protest. The event evoked a day in February 1975 when 500 black students marched to the same administration building, carrying red, black and green flags of the black liberation movement, to demonstrate against cuts to faculty and facilities in an era of downsizing.

Since then, the number of black students at U-Md. has grown from 2,160 to 4,082. But some students have said they are alarmed by a 28 percent decline in black enrollment in the freshman class.

The number of black freshmen has dwindled steadily in the past few years. Administrators attribute the slide to the economy, which has pushed higher education out of reach for low-income families of all races.

"If you don't enroll as many minorities, then there's not as many minority voices," said Cheris Wynn, 19, a sophomore who attended the rally.

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