Graduate students voice concerns about professor’s comments on Black Lives Matter movement

Tim Hyon/Staff

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Graduate students at the School of Social Welfare held a teach-in Tuesday to voice concerns about comments made by a professor in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.

About 60 graduate students gathered in Haviland Hall to share their concerns with the professor, Steven Segal, and the dean of the School of Social Welfare, Jeffrey Edleson. Students expressed concern over comments they said Segal made during a Feb. 9 Black Lives Matter event, introducing the topic of black-on-black crime into a small group discussion.

The event was intended to be a community dialogue to help participants express their feelings about police force and share ideas on how social work could be accountable to the movement. Students at the School of Social Welfare have been organizing with the Black Lives Matter movement since late November, according to a student press release.

Several students said Segal brought up the subject the day after the event in his mental health and social policy class, reading aloud a rap with lyrics suggesting that the movement needed to stop scapegoating the police. The 26 students in the class, which is mandatory for students in the community mental health concentration, were mostly first-year graduate students.

“My first reaction was straight-up shock,” said Emily Myer, a white first-year student in the class and one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter event. “That was followed by an acute awareness of rising anxiety and a desperate need for him to stop.”

Segal, a tenured professor, has taught at Berkeley for more than 40 years and is world-renowned for his research on mental illness, according to Edleson.

“Working with the students was very productive and I apologize for any misunderstanding,” Segal said in an email. “I completely respect the students and want to continue to be in dialogue with them. I know by working together we can strengthen our commitment to building the best School of Social Welfare we can.”

Students in Segal’s class were offered an alternate section Fridays with a different professor.

Edleson addressed Segal’s remarks in a school-wide email on the day of the incident and spoke with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, who filed a complaint

“We understand that a faculty-student exchange in one of our classrooms today caused offense and great distress to some of our students and made the classroom environment feel unsafe,” Edleson wrote in the email. “We deeply regret the reported incident. We appreciate the time students took to talk to faculty about the incident today.”

Segal also apologized to the class two days after the incident, students said.

During Tuesday’s two-hour discussion, students said they were offended by the content and delivery of Segal’s comments on a sensitive issue. Students also reported trying several times to secure mediation with the dean and being denied, with many students at the meeting accusing the administration of lacking accountability.

Edleson said he was proud and moved by the meeting with the students and agreed to codevelop plans with student organizers.

“I hope that you don’t see all faculty as adversaries, but that you see us as potential partners and champions in change,” Edleson said at the meeting.

During the latter portion of the meeting, which was dedicated to brainstorming solutions, many urged Segal to take time to self-reflect and issue a public apology. Others saw the need for school-wide changes, including faculty training and changing the curriculum to better incorporate issues of social justice.

“We’re required to study the history of social work – it’s a whitewashed history of social work,” said Melissa Beckles, a first-year graduate student and one of the organizers of the Black Lives Movement event. “I know there’s an impact on the field by minorities and I want to hear about that in the education that I’m paying for.”

Social Welfare faculty members had the chance to process the incident and discuss ways to handle difficult conversations at a faculty meeting Wednesday morning.

Contact Amy Jiang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ajiang_dc.

A previous version of this article stated that the dean filed a complaint with the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. In fact, he spoke with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, who filed a complaint.

A previous version of this article also misidentified the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity as the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.