Heated exchange brings future of discuss listserv into question

Following a heated discussion surrounding racial terms, which took place on SIUE’s discuss listserv, the Office of the Chancellor shut the listserv down. Now, the office is creating a committee to reevaluate the purpose of the forum.

The shutdown resulted after an employee brought up terms like ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white fragility,’ stating there was a discussion to be had about the validity of some terms such as these, but not at that moment. Others responded to this comment by questioning why the employee presented this topic if they didn’t want to discuss it. The same employee had previously made comments about COVID-19 data, which was also brought up during this debate.

After being alerted to this passionate exchange, Chancellor Randy Pembrook sent out an email on Friday, July 17, announcing the listserv's suspension. According to Pembrook, this was done because the listserv had veered from its original purpose of academic exchange and discussion.

“The discuss listserv addresses many different kinds of topics over time, but there was a conversation that began, I think, as a conversation about the CDC and data and it took off from there. There were different opinions and the way that it got on my radar was that, I think some people felt like it moved from what we kind of hope is the reason for the discuss listserv — scholarly engagement and exchange,” Pembrook said. “It kind of moved from being that …  discussion of ideas to [being] somewhat confrontational.”

Pembrook’s office announced in an email that it is working to create a committee made up of a diverse group of people from the Faculty and Staff Senates, as well as other similar constituency groups at SIUE. Pembrook hopes this group can come together and steer the listserv back to its roots.

“I'm guessing that they'll probably go back and examine some things over the 11 or 12 year period [since the listserv was created] and say ‘most of the time it's functioning just exactly the way we want’ or ‘most of the time it's not,’” Pembrook said. “I'm not sure what they will conclude … The important thing to me is that if we conclude that it's not functioning in the way that it was originally conceived, then why is that occurring and what do we need to do to make it what we want it to be?”

Pembrook said he has received volunteers and suggestions for committee participants, but has yet to decide who will end up on the new committee.

“We've had some people volunteer. We have had some nominations, and we're going to try to get that committee together,” Pembrook said. “[Associate General Counsel] Phyleccia Reed Cole has agreed to be a part of the discussions representing the legal perspective for the university. So, she's the only name at this moment that is a definite to be part of the discussions.”

Josie DeGroot, SIUE Faculty Senate president, was contacted the day the email was sent announcing the shutdown to inform her on the matter, and to ask for a list of people she thought would be appropriate to join Pembrook’s proposed committee.

DeGroot said while she was a subscriber to the listserv, she had never consistently kept up with the conversations being held on it. She said she was only aware of the problems after being contacted by Pembrook.

“To be honest, I subscribe to the discuss list but I don't really read everything, and I think that's pretty true [that] most people would kind of skim through it, and so I wasn't really aware of what was going on,” DeGroot said. “Then the chancellor called me … the afternoon that he sent the email out shutting it down ... basically [to] just let me know, so then I [could] contact ... our Faculty Senate Executive Committee, just so they had a heads up in case anybody had questions.”  

DeGroot emailed other Faculty Senate members after talking to Pembrook to coordinate with the Office of the Chancellor. A number of the members volunteered to join the committee, and she passed on a list of three of them to Pembrook’s office.

“I sent the email to the Faculty Senate listserv and asked for volunteers, and then I sent a list of three to [Pembrook],” DeGroot said. “I don't know if all three will be on the committee or if he'll select from those three.”

According to Pembrook, he hasn’t received any negative feedback since suspending the listserv, but has gotten support for his decision.  

“I did not receive any negative reactions. Negative as in, ‘You shouldn't have done that.’ I received some reactions which were along the lines of ‘I hope that we can restore it and that it will be what we wanted [it] to be,’” Pembrook said. “I had several comments along that line.”

Courtney Boddie, director of Counseling Services, is one who voiced support for Pembrook’s decision. Boddie matched the chancellor’s desire for a more respectful discussion between colleagues.

“I agree with the message that the chancellor and the vice chancellors sent out about ‘If we're going to have a discuss list, it needs to be respectful,’” Boddie said. “I think the fact that somebody had to issue a statement about it and suspend it is an indication that that wasn't happening.”

Pembrook said he expects to have more news on the committee in the next three to four weeks. The Alestle will provide updates as new information arises.

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