University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., released a statement on June 2 condemning racism and offering prayers for George Floyd, the man who a police officer killed by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes, including for more than two minutes after Floyd became unresponsive.
“We must condemn the racial prejudice and profound injustice leading to this latest shocking loss of a black person’s life in our country,” Leahy said in his statement. “Reflecting its Jesuit, Catholic heritage, Boston College insists that everyone should be treated with dignity, respect, and grace.”
Leahy’s statement called the death of George Floyd “senseless” and acknowledged the anger around the country, and he invited the BC community to join him in praying for Floyd.
“It is essential that we remain people animated by faith, hope, and love and not let frustration, anger, and violence prevail,” Leahy said. “I believe especially helpful and appropriate for us today are words in the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke: ‘Pray and not lose heart.’ And strengthened by our faith and bonds with one another, we must recommit ourselves to promoting a society where all have the possibility of life, liberty, and justice.”
The June 2 letter was a departure from Leahy’s usual practice of not releasing statements. Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn said at a 2018 community gathering that Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Joy Moore and Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley are responsible for reaching out to students and faculty, respectively, when any incident occurs on campus that requires administrator comment.
“Their words are an extension of Father Leahy’s beliefs,” Dunn said.
Dunn said at the gathering that Leahy’s policy is to not issue statements because he believes his role is not to tell students what to think, but rather to teach them how to think for themselves. Students at the gathering pointed out that Leahy emailed students criticizing potential taxes on the University the previous year and had spoken out about recent scandals in the Catholic Church. Dunn responded that these public comments were different because they were not official statements.
Leahy did not respond to an interview request.
Students have repeatedly criticized Leahy for not issuing statements in response to instances of racism on campus and elsewhere. In December 2018, Michael Sorkin, then a sophomore at BC, was arrested for destruction of property in one residence hall and racist vandalism in another. Sorkin defaced the residence hall with racist epithets such as “n—s are the plague.” Students called on Leahy to make a statement, but Leahy made no public comments. Sorkin accepted a plea deal in Middlesex County on hate crime and vandalism charges in October, and he is awaiting trial in Suffolk County on charges of property destruction and false activation of a fire alarm.
Students staged a “Silence is Still Violence” protest in 2017 after a series of racist events on campus, including the vandalism of Black Lives Matter signs and a racist Snapchat that spread around campus. Protesters criticized the University at the time for an inadequate response, with many students demanding a public condemnation of racism by Leahy, who remained silent.
In December 2014, more than 60 faculty and students at BC staged a die-in at St. Mary’s Hall to protest police brutality, what they viewed as an inadequate response from the University, and BC’s free speech policies. After the die-in, the Black Student Forum penned a letter in The Heights to Leahy and other senior-level administrators criticizing the BC “administration’s silence” in the face of injustices throughout the country.
Dunn said in an email to The Heights that he has seen Leahy denounce racism many times but that there is no record of many of these condemnations.
“Fr. Leahy issued a letter to the BC community yesterday to offer prayers for George Floyd, his family, and all those who mourn his death, and to condemn hatred and racism in our communities, our nation, and our world,” Dunn wrote in a statement to The Heights the day after Leahy sent the letter. “His letter speaks for itself.”
“During his 23 years as president, Fr. Leahy has addressed the topic of racism in meetings with students, parents, and alumni groups, and he has consistently condemned it as being antithetical to the Gospel and our fundamental values as Christians,” Dunn said. “His call to ‘condemn the racial prejudice and profound injustice leading to this latest shocking loss of a black person’s life in our country,’ and to ‘review our lives to ensure that we act in accord with the Gospel mandate to love God and neighbor’ is a message that is supported by all members of our community.”
There is a record of Leahy addressing racism multiple times during his tenure as BC’s president. Leahy explicitly condemned racism on campus in a March 1997 letter in The Heights and acknowledged that racism exists on campus at a town meeting later that same year. In 2006, Leahy wrote an LTE to The Heights saying that acts of prejudice will not be tolerated at BC. Leahy also addressed race in a 2017 interview with Florida-based news site TCPalm.com.
“People get emotional, whether it’s around race, foreign policy, free speech, sexual orientation,” Leahy said in the interview. “Once you have a common ground, it’s easy to engage and look at the needs of the community.”
Featured Image by Leo Wang / Heights Staff