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Ramsey Tries To Move Forward From 'Mexican' Incident

James Ramsey has been thinking a lot lately about stepping down from his role as president of the University of Louisville.

He told reporters gathered in Strickler Hall on the university's main campus Friday morning that during the past few weeks, it's something he's thought about "every day."

But, he clarified, he has no plans to — not yet, at least.

Nearly 200 people gathered to hear the U of L president, faculty and a student address the issues that have arisen in the past several weeks, since Ramsey and his staff posed for a photo wearing stereotypical Mexican garb.

In the photo, Ramsey is seen smiling and wearing a poncho and sombrero. He's with a group of staff members — including Kathleen Smith, his chief of staff — who don fake bushy, black mustaches and hold maracas. Some of the men in the photo wear mantillas over their heads.

The photo brought about criticism across social and traditional media. Faculty members reacted by sending a scathing letter to Ramsey, suggesting he was undermining their work to promote diversity. Students occupied Grawemeyer Hall just outside his office, protesting for hours. They chanted, called Ramsey a racist and called for him to resign.

On Friday, Ramsey apologized for the incident for the third time. And he acknowledged some on campus don't trust him.

“I’m human, I make mistakes, but I try to learn from those mistakes and move forward," Ramsey said.

Jesus Ibanez is a student at the university's Brandeis School of Law. He was the lone student to speak at the organized address Friday evening. He said he was outraged by the photo at first.

"My first thought was resignation," he said.

But as days passed into weeks, his mood shifted. "We've all made mistakes, a lot of us have made culturally insensitive remarks because of a lack of knowledge," he said.

Now, Ibanez and other students, faculty and staff are giving Ramsey a second chance. "His second chance to make things right," Ibanez said.

All of this comes as universities across the country are grappling with issues surrounding race.

Protests have sparked at Vanderbilt University, Yale University, Princeton University and Georgetown University, among others. Earlier this month, amid calls from student protesters, the president of the University of Missouri resigned.

Ibanez stressed that there is a stark difference between what happened at the University of Missouri and what is happening at the University of Louisville.

"The difference between Louisville and Missouri is that President Ramsey is working, he's working to make this wrong a right, he's working closer with faculty, with staff and with students," he said.

Ramsey has pledged to continue the conversation with students and staff about what can be done to ensure the university is a champion of diversity and inclusion. He's said he'll work to recruit more Hispanic and Latino faculty, make more scholarship opportunities available to Hispanic and Latino students, and participate in diversity training along with other administrators.

Ibanez said these promises are nice, but students must remain a part of the conversation.

"And we're absolutely going to hold him accountable for everything," he said.

But as Ricky Jones pointed out, the student body is fluid, they come and go.

Jones, who chairs the university's Pan-African Studies Department, said it's crucial that faculty, staff and administrators are also on board with Ramsey's pledge to recommit to diversity and inclusion on campus.

"They have to be committed to that, even more so than the students, and I think it's unfair to put undue pressure on our students to lead these types of initiatives," he said.

Ibanez, who received a standing ovation from students, faculty and staff gathered for the address, said it's time to move forward. He also issued a challenge.

"Get to know a culture that you did not know before," he said. "If you are Christian, talk to a Muslim person; if you identify as straight, talk to an LGBTQ person, get to know that person; if you are a citizen, talk to an immigrant or talk to a refugee. Find out about their life. You will find out that you have a lot of similarities, and you will find out all the stuff you've been missing."


Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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