Amid Mass Layoffs, BU Center for Antiracist Research Accused of Mismanagement of Funds, Disorganization
Molly Farrar and Lydia Evans, Daily Free Press, September 21, 2023
Boston University hired Ibram X. Kendi to lead its new Center for Antiracist Research in 2020, a year marked by a global pandemic and nationwide racial tension.
Three years later, after at least $43 million in grants and gifts and what sources say has been an underwhelming output of research, the Center for Antiracist Research laid off almost all of its staff last week.
Multiple former staff members allege that a mismanagement of funds, high turnover rate and general disorganization have plagued the Center since its inception.
The $43 million, according to 2021 budget records obtained by The Daily Free Press, includes general support, such as the $10 million from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, as well as donations for specific projects.
The document, which is not an all-inclusive list of donors, also lists TJ Maxx’s foundation, Stop & Shop and Peloton as donating over a million dollars.
Kendi, National Book Award-winning author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and a history professor at BU, founded the Center three years after he founded the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.
Kendi talked to BU Today when BU’s Center first launched in 2020.
“My hope is that it becomes a premier research center for researchers and for practitioners to really solve these intractable racial problems of our time,” Kendi said to BU Today. “Not only will the center seek to make that level of impact, but also work to transform how racial research is done.”
A week after the layoffs, BU announced Wednesday that they received complaints “focused on the center’s culture and its grant management practices.”
“We are expanding our inquiry to include the Center’s management culture and the faculty and staff’s experience with it,” BU spokesperson Colin Riley said. “Boston University and Dr. Kendi believe strongly in the Center’s mission, and … he takes strong exception to the allegations made in recent complaints and media reports.”
The Compliance Services Office received an anonymous complaint in 2021 about the Center from Saida Grundy, an associate professor of sociology at BU and former CAR employee.
The complaint detailed multiple high-level employees leaving suddenly and allegations of a workplace culture that included fear of retaliation and discrimination.
After submitting the complaint, Grundy then personally went to then-Provost Jean Morrison in 2021 to discuss the alleged toxic work culture and grant mismanagement, among other significant concerns. Grundy said she sent a follow-up email after the meeting, and Morrison did not reply.
As Provost, Morrison was instrumental in Kendi’s hiring, according to Grundy and BU Today.
“The pattern of amassing grants without any commitment to producing the research obligated to them continues to be standard operating procedure at CAR,” Grundy wrote to Morrison. “This is not a matter of slow launch. To the best of my knowledge, there is no good faith commitment to fulfilling funded research projects at CAR.”
Grundy said the Center ceased communication when her year-long contract came to an end in June 2021, which she said was retaliation for speaking up about the Center’s underwhelming work and impact on campus.
BU notes an 8% increase in Black enrollment over the past five years as of 2020-2021. The Boston Globe reported in 2021 that out of BU’s 3,030 faculty members, there were 71 Black female instructors, including seven tenured instructors in 2019.
The University reported the Black undergraduate student population as about 4.8% in the 2021-2022 academic year. Kendi’s hiring and the founding of the Center were BU’s way to address their “race problem,” Grundy said.
“They don’t want to address Black enrollment because they don’t want to be seen as a school that’s getting Blacker, because they want to raise their prestige,” Grundy said. “That’s the real racism.”
Phillipe Copeland, a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work and former assistant director of the Narrative office at CAR, spent two years developing educational programming for the Center. He left his role in June.
“The narrative that seems to be coming from CAR and from BU is that this is some innovative, organizational pivot or redesign rather than an institutional failure, for which people need to be accountable,” he said before the inquiry was launched. “There needs to actually be an explanation to people who invested time and energy in the Center.”
Copeland said, to his knowledge, these massive layoffs are unheard of at BU.
“It does damage to this area of work because there are already people out there that are trying to discredit antiracism,” Copeland said. “To have such a high-profile person be associated with leading an organization that fails so spectacularly, that has a ripple effect.”
Former staff members said the Center appeared to prioritize fundraising and revenue over research.
“If something was not sufficiently revenue-producing, then it wasn’t for CAR’s time,” Copeland said.
BU is not commenting on the reason for the layoffs, but according to multiple people familiar with the matter, Kendi told staff that the model of the Center is not currently financially sustainable.
Spencer Piston, an associate professor of political science, who works as the faculty lead in the Policy office at the Center, said the layoffs are surprising given that the new fellowship model “will involve hiring new people.” He said he is unsure if his job is secure at the Center.
“It’s pretty hard for me to imagine they blew through $30 million in two years,” Piston said. “There’s been a lack of transparency about how much money comes in and how it’s spent from the beginning, which comports with a larger culture of secrecy.”
Multiple CAR staff members said the Center was disorganized, and Kendi was ill-equipped to lead. The Center hired an executive director to run operations in Jan. 2022, who left after 14 months.
A former CAR employee involved in research leadership at the Center in 2020 said many investors were interested in quantitative research about racial disparities. Specific grant funding ranged from funding the COVID Racial Data Tracker to health and food disparity research, summing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
With tens of millions of dollars total, the Center was well-funded to meet those goals, the anonymous source said.
“There’s a mismatch between the amount of money that CAR has received from these grants and what they’ve actually produced,” they said. “You can juxtapose that with other research centers either at BU or other universities that have received a tiny fraction of what CAR has received and has produced a lot more.”
The COVID Racial Data Tracker, a collaboration with The Atlantic that started during Kendi’s time at AU, is the Racial Data Lab’s sole project, according to CAR’s website. The tracker stopped collecting data a year later in March of 2021.
The Racial Data Lab only includes the now-defunct tracker.
“The Center has very, very much failed to deliver on its promise. It’s been a colossal waste of millions of dollars,” said Piston, noting that individual staff members did make progress on specific projects while facing high turnover and lack of support from management.
The final category in research, which has been missing an associate director since 2021, is the Antiracist Tech Initiative. The tech initiative lists three priorities, based on the materials listed on CAR’s website: to co-create research agendas, conduct antiracist research and engage with communities. No other details or deliverables were listed.
A former CAR employee involved in research leadership, who also asked to remain anonymous, said the Center was not able to hire a qualified senior social scientist, and it seemed like Kendi was not “interested in bringing [one] on, or seemingly couldn’t,” they said.
The CAR budget included a $170,000 grant from the Raikes Foundation to appoint an assistant director of Advocacy. The Donor Impact Report stated that the assistant director of Advocacy would be appointed specifically to develop the American Antiracist Society.
Though the society was planned to launch publicly in early 2022 and appointed an assistant director of Advocacy in November 2021, no mention of the American Antiracist Society currently appears on CAR’s website.