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Faculty of color: UNLV must do more to protect diversity and equity in wake of shooting

Vincent Pérez
Vincent Pérez
Tessa Winkelmann
Tessa Winkelmann
Mark Padoongpatt
Mark Padoongpatt

The UNLV community is still feeling shock and sorrow over the loss of three members of our faculty and the wounding of a fourth, shot by a gunman on Wednesday, Dec. 6. Several of us were on campus during the shooting, heard the gunfire and were locked down for hours as we sheltered in our classrooms and offices wondering if, or when, a gunman would enter our building.

Two of us were in Beam Hall during or moments before the shooting began. We lost a close friend and colleague, Dr. Naoko Takemaru, a beloved member of the Department of World Languages and Cultures. As faculty of color, we recognize that every victim was a fellow faculty of color colleague. We are not only shaken by the shooting, we now also feel profoundly fearful. 

We appreciate and thank the UNLV campus police and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for their hard work and dedication during the shooting. We know that they faced a real risk to their lives on that day, as they often do, and that their actions probably saved many lives. We also deeply appreciate the efforts of our administration, especially President Keith Whitfield, as they have responded to this unforeseen tragedy and provided support to the university and city communities.  

We now have other concerns. Of the three dead victims, two are Asian or Asian American and the third Latinx/Puerto Rican, and they were shot by a disgruntled white man seeking revenge. A fourth victim remains hospitalized. We send our sympathy and support to that victim and their family, and dread the possibility that person may also be a person of color, as has been reported by one news organization. We know that UNLV students, where 70 percent are people of color, share our sympathy, concern and fear.   

How should we think about race and ethnicity in relation to the shooting? Even those who are not experts in race and ethnicity studies, as all of us are, cannot ignore that the three dead victims, assistant professor Patricia Navarro Velez, professor Cha-Jan "Jerry" Chang and associate professor Naoko Takemaru, are all people of color. What most don’t know is that they taught at a university where a majority of the students are people of color, and whose biggest constituencies are Latinx and Asian American students. Even if the shooter expressed no obvious racial animus, the fact is that he chose to kill three people of color. 

The lack of racial and ethnic diversity among faculty has been an ongoing issue for many years at UNLV, especially as the university has, over the last decade, become one of the most racially and ethnically diverse in the nation. UNLV’s students of color have few faculty who look like them.

While UNLV faculty diversity varies depending on the department, given this campuswide paucity we find it highly unlikely that it was a coincidence that at least three people of color faculty were shot in this crime. That faculty of color are underrepresented at one of the most diverse universities in the country speaks to failures over many UNLV administrations to address the educational and cultural needs of our students.

An unintended consequence of this failure is that it makes faculty of color, such as those shot, stand out as scapegoats for criticism from those who claim that universities have become centers of race-based indoctrination. Even as faculty and students sheltered in place, UNLV scholars in African American and Ethnic Studies received a hate-filled racist email blaming them for the crime.  

The LVMPD points out that the killer, previously an associate professor in the department of marketing at East Carolina University, sought revenge for having been turned down for a job, and that he went to Beam Hall, home to the Lee Business School that had rejected his application, to murder faculty.

Two of those killed, Dr. Chang and Dr. Takemaru, were members of departments outside of the gunman’s primary target, an office on the fourth floor. In fact their offices are on a different floor altogether, though in the same building, and Dr. Takemaru was not even a member of the business school.

We don’t know how many people the shooter may have passed while entering or leaving his initial targeted office, but we do know that three of his victims were people of color. The LVMPD says the gunman had a list of targets, but that none of the people listed became victims. The LVMPD has yet to make the list public, nor the other lists the shooter kept of potential victims. We would like to know whether the lists include names of Asians, Asian Americans and people of color. 

We call on President Whitfield to empanel a group of faculty, administrators, staff and students to examine the shooting, its circumstances, context and ramifications. We want to see a detailed timeline of what occurred and who exactly the gunman encountered during the 11-minute shooting.

We also call on the president to create a new position, adviser to the president for diversity, equity and inclusion, one separate from that of chief diversity officer, to address the issues this shooting has brought to the fore. Finally, we demand that UNLV invest in new security technology for every department and classroom building.

What happened at UNLV is a part of a larger issue plaguing contemporary U.S. society: the concerted effort to politicize universities. Once universities become spaces onto which groups project their resentments, the mission of the university as a place for learning, reflection and ethical action is undermined.

All UNLV faculty, students and staff have been deeply affected by this tragedy and we continue to grieve as we also worry about what the shooting will mean for the university, the community and the city of Las Vegas.  

Vincent Pérez is an associate professor of English; Tessa Winkelmann is an associate professor of history; and Mark Padoongpatt is an associate professor of Interdisciplinary, Gender and Ethnic Studies. They all teach at UNLV.

The Nevada Independent welcomes informed, cogent rebuttals to opinion pieces such as this. Send them to [email protected].


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