Wake Forest University’s dean of admissions, who is poised to take on a more influential role in administration as the university expands into downtown Winston-Salem, apologized for appearing in a photo with a Confederate flag as a student at the university 37 years ago.
Scrutiny of yearbook photos from the 1980s in February revealed that Dean of Admissions Martha Allman posed for a group photo with the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity alongside a large Confederate flag as a student in 1982. Kevin Pittard, who is now an associate dean of admissions, also posed with the flag as a member of the fraternity in the 1980s.
Allman’s apology took place in a small auditorium on campus on Wednesday evening before a group of about 35 administrators, faculty and students. Pittard joined her in making a public apology. The two had previously apologized in brief, formal statements in February when their association with the flag first came to light. Their initial response was met with frustration by antiracist students, and in March undergraduate faculty members passed a resolution condemning the administration’s handling of the matter.
The student group Wake Forest University Anti-Racism Coalition boycotted Allman and Pittard’s public apologies on Wednesday, instead asking community members to attend a speak-out planned for April 22. An allied faculty group, identified as Ad Hoc Wake Forward Faculty Members, issued a statement supporting the student boycott and adding their support for the April 22 event.
Allman’s statement on Wednesday provided a fuller explanation of the circumstances of the yearbook photo. She said she appeared in the photo as the “sweetheart” of the fraternity, adding “I was in love with one of its members.”
“While I honestly have no memory of that photograph being taken and no memory of its place in that yearbook, I deeply regret the hurt and the confusion and the distrust that it has caused,” Allman said.
Allman said the Confederate flag was more visible across the South, on television and on campus when she attended Wake Forest in the early 1980s, adding that she didn’t give it much thought. While preparing to graduate, Allman said she was “engaged to be married to my KA” and writing her honors history thesis.
“I was not politically active,” Allman said. “I was not engaged in discussions about diversity, nor involved in issues of social justice. In retrospect, I’m ashamed of that lack of awareness, but it’s true. I read applications and I meet new students, and I’m aware that there are a lot of students who become aware in their youth, and for others it just takes longer.”
Her voice breaking with emotion at times, Allman insisted that she has grown into a different person through experience and relationships.
“Eighteen years ago my husband and I joined one of the few multiracial churches in Winston-Salem that was known for being a leader in social justice, because that’s where we wanted to worship God and that’s where we wanted to raise our children,” she said. “In the past two months I’ve spent hours with the anti-racism team at my church discussing Confederate flags, white privilege, white fragility, forgiveness. My husband and I also intentionally chose to send our children to diverse, majority-minority Title I public schools. For many years, I’ve been actively involved in progressive politics and community service to benefit marginalized members of our community. I stand here tonight as a woman who has grown dramatically from that girl that you saw in the photo.”
Pittard, the associate dean of admissions, said he joined the Kappa Alpha Order, which venerates Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee, not because of “any belief in white supremacy,” but said he chose it “for the ridiculous reason” that it was right next door to his freshman dormitory. Pittard distanced himself from the fraternity and rebuked neo-Confederate ideology in his comments on Wednesday.
“I should have known that standing by that flag was wrong,” Pittard said. “Deeply wrong, because that flag stands for and always has stood for so many repellant and awful ideas that there is no excuse for standing beside it.
“Since I graduated in 1985, I’ve never denied being in the KA, but I’ve certainly never bragged about it,” Pittard continued. “In fact, I don’t talk about it because I’m ashamed of it. I’ve had nothing whatsoever to do with KA in the last 34 years. When I came back to Wake Forest, I was asked to be their alumni advisor, and I turned it down. When asked to defend them when they were kicked off campus, I refused. When invited to attend their homecoming or alum functions, I say no every single time, and I don’t give them a penny.”
Prior joining the admissions office at Wake Forest, Pittard said he taught his students as a teacher in public schools in Georgia and Winston-Salem about “how the original sin of racism permeates and corrodes every fiber of US history.”
“I had no patience then and I have no patience now for Confederate sympathizers who try to argue that the Civil War was caused by anything other than slavery, or those who supported the Confederacy were anything other than traitors to the United States,” Pittard.
Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch took the opportunity to condemn “extremism” and “white supremacy” at the gathering. Hatch said the university needs “to try to build an inclusive and pluralistic environment in a world that is increasingly polarized and discordant.
“I believe that extremism has been on the rise, most noticeably in the new boldness of armed attacks by white supremacists,” Hatch said. “Those values are in stark contrast to that which we aspire, and there’s no place on this campus for messages of white supremacy. Similarly, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia contradict the spirit of hospitality that we cherish, as do aspersions passed on members of our community that are gay, lesbian and transgender. We must do a better job of embracing our Asian students, many of whom feel the cold shoulder.”
Hatch said the administration needs to do a better job of listening to students.
“When there was a call for Martha to be dismissed I did not think we should do that,” he said. “I probably made a mistake in saying that I accepted her apology. It probably wasn’t mine to accept. I probably should have done it in a different way, and for that I apologize.”
Allman and Pittard both trumpeted the office of admissions’ record on increasing diversity. Allman said non-white enrollment at Wake Forest stood at 6 percent when she graduated as a student in 1982 and had doubled to 12 percent by the time she took the position of dean of admissions in 2001. Today, she said, non-white enrollment at Wake Forest exceeds 30 percent. Allman said she is proud of her leadership in developing a policy to make college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT optional for admissions to reduce barriers for students of color and low-income students. Wake Forest became the first top 30 university in the nation to adopt the policy in 2008.
“I heard hateful, racist rhetoric firsthand because it was directed at me: ‘You are taking away my Wake Forest,’ ‘You are ruining my school,’ ‘You are making my diploma worthless,’” Allman recounted. “But I was proud of Wake Forest and our bold move, and I was glad to stand up to those critics.”
José A. Villalba, the university’s vice president for diversity and inclusion, framed the hourlong event on Wednesday around reflecting on Allman and Pittard’s past choices, “re-centering” the experiences of students of color on campus, and recommitting to action steps to address institutional shortcomings. Villalba asked Elontae Bateman, an African-American senior who is a communications major and football player, to share his experiences.
Bateman, one of the few students at the event, said as a high school student from Memphis visiting Wake Forest in 2014, he was called a “n***er” while walking across the Lower Quad near Benson University Center. Bateman said the racial slur came a shock, adding, “I thought, Okay, so this is how it really is, even though I’m coming up and not going down.”
Later, as a student, Bateman said he was turned away from parties at white fraternities and called a “liability.” When one of his friends wanted to go out instead of staying home with the other black students, Bateman said his friend was spat on at a white fraternity house.
“You would think that that kind of thing wouldn’t happen with the demographic of student that goes here,” Bateman said. “It’s not people from Mississippi or Alabama or the country parts of Tennessee. We actually get a lot of people from the West Coast and from up north: Philly and New York.”
The Anti-Racist Coalition released a statement asserting that their pleas to administration have been ignored.
“We asked repeatedly for a public forum that was open to the community, well-publicized, at an opportune time, and in a venue large enough to hold all interested members of the community,” the statement said. “We asked for this forum to include not only apologies from Allman and Pittard, but also a broader conversation about white supremacy at Wake Forest centering the voices of students.”
The coalition said that Allman and Pittard’s public apologies on Wednesday were not close to adequate.
“It seems that the administrators have been given the opportunity to avoid the spotlight due to a fear of their lives becoming a spectacle,” the students said. “To those people, we pose the following question: ‘At what point will they place the suffering of the students over the security of themselves?’ Not only have the lives of staff, faculty and students of color been spectacularized over the past few months but our calls for accountability have been ignored. Rather than pay attention to what we’ve been saying, university administrators have selectively asked various groups to come and hear administrators speak on our current campus climate and need for change.”
As part of the “recommitting” portion of Wednesday’s program, Villalba announced the formation of a President’s Commission on Inclusion, but the event also provided a platform for administration to highlight Allman’s new job as senior assistant provost and dean of university integration, beginning on July 1.
Although the charge of the 30-member commission has not been determined, Villalba indicated administrators want to respond to the students’ demand for zero tolerance for white supremacy. He said administration acknowledges that the Bias Incident Reporting System “needs to be revisited.” One of the subcommittees, he said, “will work to improve the bias system” while also working “to understand where issues of conduct, issues of freedom of expression, and issues around bias rub up.”
Other subcommittees will explore the history of the university and curriculum; plan a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the university admitting African-American women, beginning in the 1969-1970 school year; and resurrect dialogues around inclusion for the first time in five years.
Provost Rogan Kersh said one reason he tapped Allman for her new role as senior assistant provost was because of her strengths in community engagement. He said the university wants to make “a much more coherent and focused effort to be a responsible partner with our community colleagues,” adding that Wake Forest has a “burgeoning set of opportunities in Boston-Thurmond.”
The neighborhood on the north side of downtown has become a focal point for anxiety about gentrification. In early 2018, Winston-Salem City Council put the brakes on an initiative to replace housing and invest educational resources in the neighborhood after residents complained that they had not been consulted. The Winston-Salem Journal reported that Hatch was chairing the board of directors for the Boston-Thurmond Innovation Network, with other members including Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Executive Director Mo Green and businessman Don Flow.
Allman’s apology on Wednesday pointed forward to her new role, in which she said she will help the university develop residential colleges, strengthen community partnerships in Winston-Salem, and work to find solutions to challenges like affordability.
“Tonight, I offer my apologies for the thoughtlessness of my youth, and of the 1980s,” she said, “and I sincerely ask for your partnership with me in moving ahead to make Wake Forest a more inclusive place, a more welcoming and hospitable place, and a real embodiment of pro humanitate.”