President Kelly and other panelists reflect on their identity, experiences and sense of belonging in Black at UP discussion

By Kimberly Cortez | March 20, 2024 10:51pm
The panelists for Black at UP sit in a circle facing the crowd at the Diversity Center.
Media Credit: Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

Personal stories were at the center of the Black at UP panel discussion held Feb. 28 at the Diversity Center. UP community members gathered to hear from eight panelists as they reflected on their experiences, identity and more. 

The panel discussion was organized by the director and professor of the ethnic studies Amy Ongiri, who was also a part of the panel. 

The other panelists included President Robert Kelly, Dean of the Pamplin School of Business Michael DeVaughn, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tshombé Brown, Professor of Sociology & Social Work Anita Gooding and three UP students — AJ Jatta, Olivia Outley and Xavier Hayward. 

These are key takeaways from discussion. 

Kelly opens up about what it’s like to be a Black layperson as president.

Kelly answers a question posed by Tshombé.
by Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

The discussion started off with a question directed towards Kelly by Brown: How do you manage the optics of being a Black president on a predominately white campus? 

“It has been absolutely wonderful to be the President of the University of Portland,” Kelly said. “There is a great community, great students, faculty, staff, administrators, welcoming Holy Cross community, that sort of thing. But in any kind of situation, there's how you're interacting with the community that you're part of, and then they have all this other stuff going on. There's a whole world out there.”

Kelly spoke to the pressure he and other university presidents — who also have marginalized identities — face in the landscape of higher education. 

“I was able to go to the inauguration of the first Black president of Harvard University,” Kelly said. “You saw what happened. Three women and it can't be underestimated or understated that it was three women who were summoned to go before Congress with the intent of playing the gotcha game. I'm really aware that people often want to play the gotcha game, even with me, both internally and externally. We're living in a time right now where people don't necessarily believe that someone who looks like me should be in this position. You carry all of that day in and day out.”

Students express frustrations and grievances about the progress of the University on the issue of diversity. 

Xavier Hayward discusses the struggles students face alongside other student panalists Olivia Outley and AJ Jatta.
by Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

A main point of contention throughout the night came from the student perspective.

Outley, who is also the vice president of Black Student Union, expressed frustration over the lack of progress she has seen during her time at UP. 

“What's gonna come after this?” Outley said. “I feel like we do this a lot. We talk about it. We tell you guys how we feel. And then nothing happened. It just gets recorded. It gets published, and it makes the school look good that they did, which is great it’s happening. You guys are listening and it's getting out there, but what is [this] actually going to do for the students and staff on campus?”

Hayward spoke to a different kind of struggle student leaders face. With the limited time students have at UP, it is hard to see the change they advocate for, he says. 

“I'd have to say being here right now, it’s bittersweet,” Hayward said. “It's almost the end of Black History Month, but there aren’t many Black people out here. I'm thinking we have this Black president [Kelly] here. It's kinda like ‘Damn, I am not going to be able to see what he's able to do.’ Hearing him speak right now, it does sound like he is different or something that the school needs.”

DeVaughn, Gooding and Ongiri share personal stories and reflections — both positive and negative — about their time at UP. 

DeVaughn answers a question by alumni Alyssa Rollins.
by Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

While the students held a more critical view of the University, DeVaughn, Gooding and Ongiri shared a bit more optimism towards the future of the University while still acknowledging the work that needs to be done in order to ensure the student experience is more inclusive and welcoming. 

For Ongiri, they say it's the students that uplifts them during times where it may feel isolating to be a Black professor at UP. 

“The thing that uplifts me here every day is the amazing students,” Ongiri said. “Maybe it's because you go through so much, but like when I had to select students [for the event], I got all the Black students here because you're all amazing. You're all leaders. Everybody is leading in their own way. To me, that's what uplifts me — is to know that I'm in an atmosphere with you all and you're amazing.” 

Gooding echoed the same sentiment, pointing out the work students do to create things like the “Liberated Archives” to connect students to the broader Portland community.

“The social worker in me appreciates having opportunities to bring community on campus,” Gooding said. “It's a great sort of display [the “Liberated Archives”] talking about what Black life looked like on campus. Some of the original Black Student Union pictures related to some of the current events that were happening around campus are just a really great space. That really is energizing to me.”

All three spoke to the struggles students face feeling included on campus.

For DeVaughn, he feels like there's a disconnect between the feelings administrators and students have toward inclusion at the University.  

“If you're an administrator, you're feeling great,” DeVaughn said. “I look at my students and I see all these different faces and it's awesome, right? That's one way I guess we're getting Black faces in front of students, but I only teach one course a year. I understand, I've had students come to me. It doesn't feel that way here on campus despite what the numbers say. And I think that's what the disconnect is. That's how we have to work on the experience on campus.”

New regents will be appointed to the Board of Regents, according to President Kelly.

Kelly discusses the meaning of having new regents being appointed.
by Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

Amidst the many frustrations and grievances expressed by panelists, Kelly is hopeful the University will take more action on their commitment to diversity with new appointments to the Board of Regents. 

“There's just been [these] vestiges of inclusion and exclusion and stuff takes time,  but at the exact same moment, a number of us are committed to being here to make positive change for the institution,” Kelly said. “Not just for us personally, but also moving the institution so that we can live up to what we say on paper so it truly does make a difference.

One of the biggest things coming up soon is the appointment of a number of new regents to the institution. We haven't done that, you know, at least in the last 18 months or so. And so it's a new day. We're bringing on some new people and have some new ideas to continue to contribute to a legacy that's really positive and moving in the right direction.”

“This didn’t exist when I went to UP:” Two UP alumni show support for students panelists 

Alumni Pooh Jeter and Alyssa Rollins speaking to the panel and crowd about their experiences at UP. Photo illustration by Kimberly Cortez.
by Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

Near the end of discussion, UP BIPOC Alumni Chapter President Alyssa Rollins and alumni Pooh Jeter encouraged students to keep advocating for the change they want to see. 

Rollins, who graduated in 2010, spoke to progress she’s seen now compared to her time at UP. 

“Change happens really slow here,” Rollins said. “2010 may seem like a long time ago, but I did not have one Black faculty member when I was here. I definitely never thought I would see a Black [university] president here or a lay president. 

“All the work and all the things you guys are doing and talking about, it really does make a difference.You just got to keep doing it. Find your allies and just keep getting your voices out there.”

Jeter, who graduated in 2006, sympathized with the students’ experiences but also felt like his experience at UP, despite it being isolating at times, prepared him for life after college. 

“Being the only Black in the classroom here [at UP] was a culture shock, but it was a wake-up call,” Jeter said. “I ended up playing pro basketball for like 17 years in Ukraine citizenship and I was the only Black on the team. So I felt this was the preparation for my journey. [I am here] because I was you guys, I was y’all.” 

Kimberly Cortez is the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Editor for The Beacon. They can be reached at