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Native American professor joins BYU committee examining race, inequality

Move comes in response to concerns that original committee lacked representation

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20130906 Aerial 0167 BYU Campus Aerials September 6, 2013 Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU © BYU PHOTO 2013 All Rights Reserved photo@byu.edu (801)422-7322 Photo by Mark A. Philbrick/BYU © BYU PHOTO 2013 All Rights Reserved photo@byu.edu (801)422-7322 Jaren Wilkey/BYU Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

PROVO — Brigham Young University administrators have added a Native American professor to a new committee formed to examine race and inequality at the university.

The move comes in response to letters and a petition raising the concerns of students, faculty, staff and alumni that said the original committee lacked representation.  

Michalyn Steele, a professor at the J. Reuben Clark Law School and a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians of New York, will be the ninth member of the committee. Her appointment was confirmed by university administration June 25, a week after the original June 17 announcement of the new committee’s appointment

“I am so happy that university administrators and the community are listening,” said BYU almuna Farina King, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and professor of history at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. The petition she launched on Change.org after learning of concerns raised by fellow alumni and friends at BYU at the lack of Native American representation was 130 signatures short of its 1,000 signatures goal when King received word of Steele’s appointment. 

Of the eight members originally appointed to the committee, six are people of color. Academic Vice President Shane Reese made the appointments and also serves as a member of the committee himself. 

Charged with providing recommendations for specific actions the university can take to address inequality on campus, the committee is currently meeting twice weekly to develop a mission statement and establish processes for addressing inequality. 

“The committee will first prioritize opportunities to better listen to, and better understand the experiences of Black students, faculty and staff on campus to help inform adjustments and changes that can assist BYU in being a more safe and welcoming place for BYU’s community members of color,” BYU announced in a press release when the committee was formed.

Commenting on the lack of recognition given to Native Americans in the creation of the committee, Deborah Alexis, the president of BYU’s Black Student Union, noted many people fail to recognize how Native Americans are often removed from the dialogue. “But we have a duty to do better, especially given our ties to those communities through the church,” she said.

BYU’s student population is 81% white, less than 1% Black and, according to a Forbes report from 2017, less than 0.3% Native American.

Robert Borden, a graduate and former president of the BYU Student Service Association, said he is glad to see the university taking steps to address inequality on campus.

“These are issues we’ve been dealing with for quite some time,” he said, noting the fact that the administration is willing to bring more voices to the table is a positive move forward.

Within the university there are many “micro-communities,” Borden said. “Those communities are getting richer and deeper because they are inviting greater perspective to the conversations that they are having and, as a result, the university as a whole is getting better at addressing these questions as well.” 

No students have been appointed to the new committee.