‘We Stand Together’: James Danko, Butler University president

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — College and university campuses are often smaller-scale versions of the world we live in. So while conversations about race are happening around the world, they are also in collegiate communities.​ News 8’s Katiera Winfrey spoke with Butler University’s president, James Danko, for WISH-TV’s “We Stand Together” series.

WINFREY: You have COVID-19; you have protesting around the country. What’s your take on everything that’s happening?

DANKO: I think the concept of all the knowns and unknowns really talks to the complaints we’re dealing with. Certainly the overlay of the pandemic and the intersection with issues of racism, social injustice and people out in the streets. Rightfully so. Confronting exactly that particular issue, so it is very interesting times.

WINFREY: And we’ve seen agencies across our city taking a stand, giving voice to the talk about racism in America. We don’t see a lot of universities taking that step to say, ‘Hey, this is something we need to address.’ Why was taking that step so important for you guys here?

DANKO: Because it’s living our history. Some institutions have to live down their history. We actually have to live up to ours. But Ovid Butler founded Butler as a place for higher education to be accessible to people regardless of their race, their gender, their religion. And while we an have imperfect history going back to 1855, as many institutions do, we have a history to live up to. We have a founding mission and principle. And so in particular, I put out a couple statements to remind our community the importance of that going back to late May and Juneteenth as well. To both acknowledge our history, but also acknowledge that we have a lot more to live up to in our own history.

WINFREY: I read in one of your statements that some of the injustices that we constantly hear about — that’s not your story. You didn’t experience some of these things but now that it’s kind of been put in your face with the George Floyd situation and other events that unfolded, How has that open your eyes to, ‘OK this is a problem that we as Americans need to look into?’

DANKO: I would say that our students during my time, when I arrived in 2011, they’ve been fairly attuned to some of these issues. And they are very mindful to alerting us of our collective responsibility. So I don’t want to say that we’ve lived up, away from this, or distanced from it. But we are reminded of it every day. Because we are like a small city. We have diversity on our campus. I’m like a mayor of a city where we’ve got people living on our campus, we’ve got food service, we’ve got sports. And so when you think about, it we are microcosm of society. So, therefore, we are not immune to a lot of the things that we are seeing in the larger region and in larger society. But what’s been important for us, I think, this has been a call to action around what is essential to Butler. Our founding mission and our education mission. And so what we can do, we can take the leadership when it comes to making sure that people were educated. And I really think the lack of education underpins racism and social injustice. And not recognizing that all people are equal and that people have different backgrounds. And in the collective background, in diversity, is really what makes us better as a society. However, we really haven’t really recognized that and we have a lot of work to do. And I think Butler can come to the table and understand that we are educating, not just our students, but a greater community.

WINFREY: Is the George Floyd incident one of those pivotal moments that really forced you to hone in even more on the conversation with your students and staff?

DANKO: Well it certainly was a big flashpoint. I mean we really just have to watch the news in the last few weeks to realize what a flashpoint it is. But as we’ve also been reminded, this goes back to 20 years ago with Rodney King. And there’s a lot in our recent and long-distant past that gives us plenty of examples. So you wonder why it’s taken us so long maybe to get more alert. But you know, it happened. We are very much in the spotlight now, so if a lot of us collectively as institutions and individuals are called to action and finally do something to turn this around, you know, even better. So it was an important moment in time, and it’s kind of grabbed your attention, and to me, that’s a good thing.

WINFREY: And talk about this call to action. I was reading through one of your statements and you talk about the diversity commission. Is that something that’s student-led, faculty-led or is it a combination of both?

DANKO: You know what I feel, not only have I been here at Butler, but I’ve been at the University of Michigan, Dartmouth, and UNC Chapel Hill. So I have experience now in my 30 years in education. And what tends to happen — we are really good in higher education at forming task forces and commissions to kind of — this is how we’re going to solve the problem. And indeed, Butler has had one in my time, too, about four or five years ago. My concern right now is I don’t want to think about this for a year and a half or two and then come up with an action plan. And you’ve kind of got to take advantage of the moment in time. For example, we’ve already been kicking around just in the short period of time, is to do an annual public awards. We’ve had this diversity lecture series on campus for many years. But why not recognize an individual, locally and nationally, who does something to advance racial harmony towards social injustice? I’ve already charged our vice president, our deans, our colleges and divisions to come up with an action plan and to provide it to me by the end of the summer so we have things that are tangible. I can take action before our students return to campus.

WINFREY: And you mentioned how vocal your students have been. Will that be used in helping form this action?

DANKO: Absolutely. In fact, already I’ve had XX for townhall meetings. Although they’ve been via Zoom with our students to get their collective input, to hear about their experience so we are addressing what’s important to them. I’ve also done the same with the Black alumni association group. So we’re getting input from those who have experienced Butler in the past to those that are experiencing it in the present. To make sure whatever steps we take, whatever action makes us better as a result. It can’t just be one group’s ideas. It’s got to be the input of many, many different groups across our campus.