CLASH OF PERCEPTIONS & MORE! – Guest Author Prof. Satish Bhatnagar, Ph.D.
The writing of this reflection has been on my mind for a week since the Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) appointed Dr Keith Whitfield* as the first Black/Afro-American** president of the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) – founded in 1957. This news made national headlines especially due to the Afro-American protests for social justice that have been raging across the country for the last four months. As a member of the UNLV Faculty Senate, I was involved in a very exhaustive selection process – spread over a year. The selection process of a university president/chancellor (equivalent to a vice-chancellor of a state university in India) alone is one of the reasons that lately, the US universities have become models for universities throughout the world.
Coming to the core of this reflection, literally everyone, including a Black faculty member that I spoke to said that in the prevailing environment, Whitfield was selected only because he was Black. They would not believe it even when I told them that Whitfield was a notch or two above in a slate of four finalists. This is Number One Clash of Perceptions. A stereotype image of the Blacks/Afro-Americans is that they are undisputedly strong in athletic fields/courts, but not in other walks of life, and much less in academics. Exceptions are there, but exceptions do not change perceptions that are formed over a long period of time and are based on biases as well as on ‘statistics’. At the same time, a fact in human psychology is that a person at the top in any one field won’t perform even at an average level, if he/she chooses to compete in another field.
The Board voted unanimously on Whitfield’s appointment. In the state of Nevada, the Board of Regents consists of thirteen members – all duly elected for a six-year term. From the Regents’ pictures posted on the NSHE’s website, it appears that only two Regents are Blacks/Afro-American. The Board took into consideration the unanimous recommendations of the Ad Hoc Board of Regents Search Committee. This Committee had five members including only one Black member. The Regents committee was assisted by a large Advisory Committee that included fifteen members from the wider Las Vegas community and fourteen from UNLV. But I do not know the vote of this committee, if any. Nevertheless, if Whitfield were not offered this position, then the charges of systemic racism would have been hurled upon the Regents from every nook and corner. This is Number Two Clash of Perceptions.
At this point, I can’t help recalling a personal experience with Whitfield during a live and live-streaming of the Senate meeting (with all four finalists). Because of the Covid protocol, all had masks and were sitting at least six feet apart in a big ballroom. There were 4-5 minutes left for the meeting to start, and I was sitting right across from Whitfield. As our eyes met, I impulsively got up and walked up to him and said, “I want to shake hands with you.” The Senate Chair kind of introduced us. Whitfield shook my hands. Saying, “Welcome to UNLV”, I came back to my seat. After more than 24 hours, I realized that I had violated the Covid protocol, and so did Whitfield for me – perhaps, out of courtesy or spontaneity! However, his opening remarks and answers to 6-7 prepared common questions were excellent. Above all, he was so relaxed that he had hearty laughs while answering some questions despite wearing a mask.
I had supported Whitfield at the Faculty Senate and through the Regent of my District. The US is burning in racial fire and the Whites are being charged with systemic racism, which I find it difficult to believe. I came to the US from India nearly 52 years ago, and I know the prevalence of wholesale discrimination in India based on gender, caste, region and religion etc. Unless one has come from one of a dozen of west European countries and Japan, the US is as good a utopia in the world as any country could be.
Last evening, I asked my 28-year old grandson, (who attended the American University), “Have you heard of the College of Santa Fe in the state of New Mexico?” No one knows about it as this small Catholic college has been closed down for a few years now. But Whitfield graduated from it! In comparing achievements of individuals in a particular scenario, it is important to understand their starting points too, not just how they finish. On that scale, Whitfield soared very high in my esteem both as a scholar and as an administrator.
UNLV is going to be in good hands. It has already made history and I am optimistic about witnessing more of it during his presidency.
* In the present air of White racism, my conjecture is that at one point in his life or his father’s life, the last letter ‘e’ of White was dropped for the last name to spell as Whitfield – my linguist guess!
** Every black person is not an Afro-American. Furthermore, an immigrant from an African country is not Afro-American in the sense the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the like think and define Blacks/Afro-Americans. There are other finer divisions too. Technically, Afro-Americans in the US are the descendants of the slaves who were brought from Africa to North America only. It started in 1619 with the first ship bringing about 20 slaves from Africa. In particular, the former President Barack Obama is not an Afro-American since his mother was White and father came from Kenya to do PhD in a US university, but he returned to Kenya without finishing it.
Guest author Satish C. Bhatnagar is a mathematics professor at UNLV that he joined in 1974. He is the author of ten non-fiction books in six different genres.
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