March 10, 2021
Subject: Research Survey Controversy – An Update from President Clark and Provost Ismaili
Dear BSU community,
As we promised in our communication last week, the university has been actively and thoughtfully engaged in an extensive review of the Institutional Review Board (IRB)-approved and faculty-guided student research survey that has caused so much pain for so many people in our campus community. On behalf of the entire university, we again apologize to each student, faculty member, librarian, staff and community member for the harm and trauma that the use of the survey vignette has created.
With jury selection underway in the trial of the police officer accused of murdering George Floyd, and as the nation continues to work to eliminate systemic racial injustice, this is a time to join together to make this university an antiracist example for others to follow. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that creating a more just world requires everyone’s effort, energy and contributions: “Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
We have important and urgent work to do, but we are not afraid or hesitant to do that work.
In that spirit, and as part of our review over the past week, the university has:
- Met with the two student researchers.
- Thoroughly reviewed the process by which the Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved the survey vignette as well as all relevant filings and other documentation connected to the research and survey.
- Convened two meetings of the IRB.
- Analyzed national practices, policies and training modules designed to intentionally infuse racial justice strategies into university research protocols.
- Held meetings with the Chairperson of the Department of Psychology, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Dean of Students.
- Conducted small group meetings with students of color to process the anguish caused by this situation and to outline areas for immediate action.
- Attended a meeting of the Special Presidential Task Force on Racial Justice to provide an update of the review underway.
- Met with the Afro-American Alumni Association to listen, learn and to provide an update of our activities.
Our review has already identified actions that will prevent such a situation from occurring again. For example, the Office of the Provost will work with the IRB to infuse racial justice and equity more deliberately in its work. Opportunities for additional members for the IRB are upcoming as the terms of two IRB members expire at the end of July and two more expire at the end of December 2021. We will make certain that the membership includes “a balanced representation of ethnicity and gender” in keeping with the membership guidelines of the IRB.
Further, we have asked the Special Presidential Task Force on Racial Justice to advise us on additional approaches to this matter. This current situation is a reminder of why we formed the Racial Justice Task Force, and we look forward to receiving its report and recommendations next month.
Finally, we wish to acknowledge the many student meetings that have taken place, along with the work of our Department of Psychology, and other academic departments and schools, for responding to students and addressing the various issues this situation highlights. The communication presented below – an action we wholeheartedly endorse - was sent from the Department of Psychology to majors this past weekend.
We will continue to update the campus on the progress and outcomes of our review.
Frederick W. Clark Jr., Esq.
President, Bridgewater State University
Karim Ismaili, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Dear Psychology Majors,
This is a very difficult e-mail for me to write. As the Chair of the Psychology Department, I try my best to support all students in our major and in our courses. I am sorry it has taken myself and the Department so long to respond to the incident that occurred earlier this week, but we wanted to meet first as a department to collectively discuss how we would like to move forward to better support our students of color.
The events that unfolded this past week left many of you feeling hurt, abandoned, and angry and for that I am deeply sorry. A vignette that was used as an experimental condition in a Psychology research study was posted on a variety of social media outlets without explanation or context. Many did not realize that the vignette was one of many conditions in a psychological experiment aimed at investigating social justice issues. The intent of the vignette was not to cause harm, yet it unintentionally did just that.
As a department, we are committed to creating a safe space for ALL our students. It has been difficult to hear that despite our best intentions that some of you do not feel safe, heard, respected, or supported. Although we wish that we could have avoided the confusion and discomfort the current incident has caused so many - to the students participating in or seeing posts about the research, and to the students and faculty who designed and conducted the research in earnest and sincere support of Social Justice - we have been granted an opportunity that members of the Psychology faculty are determined to embrace.
No one involved in this incident intended to do harm, and yet harm is done every day by well-meaning people. We live in a diverse community—that is an amazing thing—one of the few moments in human history where that can be openly said and celebrated. Yet, that very fact creates the conditions for many members of that community to feel overlooked, slighted, hurt, misunderstood, and/or outright victimized by intolerance, misunderstanding, and ignorance of what it means and feels like to be a minority in any given cultural context.
We also need to take this as a learning experience with open conversation. Open communication with many voices is how long-term meaningful change is made. We don’t always know there is an issue until it is brought to our attention. As a department, we need to be more mindful of how research questions are used in studies, but also have conversations regarding the most appropriate and productive way to communicate if something is offensive or hurtful. This way change can be made rather than escalate and add to the hurt it has caused.
As a result of this incident, the Psychology Department is renewing its commitment to continuing a meaningful and constructive conversation that moves change forward. We need your help to do this. We realize we need increased interaction/communication with students from diverse backgrounds. We want to hear about your issues and experiences. We want to hear about the obstacles you face. We want to hear about the roadblocks and hurt you may encounter in our classrooms. We can make plans, but we would like your ideas, input, and feedback if we are to avoid the same mistakes in the future. We are currently working on plans to convene a student forum where these discussions can occur.
We will be sending out more information on these forums very soon.
Dr. Sandy Neargarder and the Faculty of the Psychology Department