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Racial Equality

LSU’s racial climate survey opens door for dialogue in athletic department

The hope is that respondents’ candid results are the first steps in real change

The survey on race arrived in Ashleigh Clare-Kearney Thigpen’s inbox last September as the nation was in the midst of a racial awakening following the death of George Floyd. But shortly after opening the survey sent out by the LSU athletic department, the civil rights attorney and LSU volunteer assistant gymnastics coach closed the email.

“I questioned why they were doing it,” said Thigpen, a five-time All-American gymnast by the time she earned her undergraduate degree at LSU in 2008. “Why now, when these are issues that have been going on for years? I said, ‘Why waste my time doing this, taking my time to fill out a survey, when nothing’s going to happen?’ ”

Thigpen would eventually change her mind and join 232 full-time LSU athletic department employees (out of a total of 312, a 74% response rate that the school says is “significantly higher” than recent LSU campus climate surveys) in taking the survey, which, following the dialogue after the murder of Floyd, was launched to gauge the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. The survey has provided the athletic department insight on where it is in terms of race, and where it wants to be.

Ashleigh Clare-Kearney Thigpen was a two-time national champion as a gymnast for LSU. A civil rights attorney, she also is a volunteer assistant coach for the Tigers.

LSU Gymnastics

“We are proud of the report,” said Stephanie Rempe, the LSU executive deputy director of athletics/chief operating officer who serves as the chair of the school’s leadership council on diversity and inclusion. “When I first got the results, I was pretty rattled. There’s some stuff in there that’s hard to hear when you realize your staff is hurting and feeling a certain type of way.”

The 78-page report, which was accompanied by a 17-page summary, in many ways replicates the country’s racial divide on issues. Some of the conclusions that are highlighted in the summary provide indications about how race affects views on different issues:

  • “While 94% of white full-time employees reported rarely experiencing discomfort associated with colleague or co-worker comments based on their race/ethnicity, only 63% of Black full-time employees and 70% of URM [underrepresented minority] full-time employees reported the same.”
  • “Over half of Black full-time employees [53%] reported witnessing racial or ethnic discrimination in their workplace and 27% reported experiencing it, compared to only 12% and 4% of white full-time employees.”
  • “A majority [68%] of white full-time employees agreed the athletics administration is committed to diversity and inclusion in the department, compared to only 35% of Black full-time employees and 40% of URM full-time employees.”
  • “A large majority [74%] of Black full-time employees reported being dissatisfied with LSU athletics’ commitment to hiring racial or ethnic minorities and 68% reported dissatisfaction with the department’s commitment to supporting them once hired. The same was true for just 20% and 11% of white full-time employees.”

Employees took the survey anonymously, allowing them to share views they may have otherwise remained silent about. Here’s a sampling of responses to the query on whether employees were satisfied with the LSU athletic department (50% of all survey respondents answered they were satisfied or completely satisfied, and 16% of Black/African American employees said they were satisfied/extremely satisfied):

  • “There has always been a culture of hiring, promotion/raises and unequal pay for white males over females in similar positions. However, I have personally experienced a major shift with the new administration, which is very encouraging.”
  • “The lack of diversity in our department is an issue. It will continue to be an issue until each department decides they are willing to address the issue and open their eyes to qualified minorities.”
  • “From my position, we seem to be doing a reasonable job but there is always room for improvement.”
  • “There is a very visible absence of diversity from the top down in our athletic department.”
    The LSU athletic department, after compiling the results of the survey, invited respondents to a departmentwide meeting in which ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, a former LSU cornerback who played 13 years in NFL, spoke about race in America.

“At the meeting we shared all of the initiatives that are in place, which includes management training and diversity education,” Rempe said. “I got an email from a guy on our staff after the meeting who said that after hearing Ryan on race, it connected with him in a way that he never thought of before.”

Domonique Davis, a guard the last two seasons on the LSU women’s basketball team, said that she’s noticed a change in the approach to race and diversity on campus since Floyd’s murder while in police custody in Minneapolis. Davis, who announced last week she’s entering the transfer portal, founded LSU’s Black Student-Athlete Association last year.

“I am happy because now they are showing that they’re taking some kind of steps to address issues,” Davis said. “We have Black people in administration, but not a lot. Nikki [Fargas] was our head women’s basketball coach and now she’s gone, so there’s no more Black head coaches. People just need to keep having uncomfortable talks, and have to keep pushing for change here.”

LSU’s survey said that three main areas need to be addressed:

Hiring and promotion — ”Less than half of respondents across racial/ethnic categories reported satisfaction with current levels of diversity among LSU athletics’ staff, coaches and administration.”

Inclusion and retention — “Black [and, to a lesser degree, all URM] full-time employees reported different workplace experiences than white full-time employees. Over one quarter [27%] of Black full-time employees had personally experienced racial or ethnic discrimination in their work environment, compared to just 4% of white.”

Education and initiatives — ”Survey findings indicate racial/ethnic differences in respondents’ experiences with and perspectives on police brutality, #BlackLivesMatter [#BLM], and activism in the world of sports. … Comments from many white respondents, in particular, emphasized their own need and/or desire for more education on race, ethnicity and racism.”

“As much as I would love to implement all these programs and initiatives and hope that we can change the hearts and minds of people quickly, we can’t,” Rempe said. “The goal now is to weave change into the culture and the fabric of the department so that we no longer have to talk about it, it’s just who we are.”

Thigpen is a product of LSU’s commitment to change. The LSU alum earned her master’s degree from the school in 2010, and her law degree from Southern University in 2013. She was a volunteer assistant gymnastics coach who also worked full time as an attorney. The conversations that began after Floyd’s death validated LSU’s need for Thigpen’s current position, associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion, which creation was being discussed in January 2020, months before Floyd’s death.

When Thigpen initially opened — and closed — the survey she received last September, it took her five days to reopen the email.

“After I got off the emotional aspect of it, and whether it would be taken seriously, I began to think logically and said, ‘OK, let me share my voice,’ ” Thigpen said. “My mother always taught me, ‘Don’t get angry, use your voice to educate.’ This was my opportunity to educate.”

Thigpen realized the report isn’t perfect. Less than half of the Black full-time athletic department employees (48 %) responded to the survey. But she appreciates the survey’s attempt to take the pulse of what was going on in the athletic department.

“The questions were thought-provoking, and that showed me they were genuine and truly wanted to know where people were,” Thigpen said. “The death of George Floyd unlocked the conversation about race in America.

“This report makes you sit down and think about race and how it impacts you on a daily basis,” she added. “Reading parts of it will make you uncomfortable, and that’s where we have to be if we want to make progress.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.