The following provides additional clarity and information into the background and process for both inviting Dr. Melina Abdullah as a Diversity Symposium keynote speaker, as well as continuing forward with the decision to host her as a speaker.
Vetting process and background for the 2020 Diversity Symposium
The Office of the Vice President for Diversity and the Diversity Symposium Planning Committee vet all invited speakers for the Symposium as thoroughly as possible. In addition to researching Dr. Abdullah’s scholarship and work as an educator, she is represented by SpeakOut, an agency with a long history of representing inclusive speakers across a variety of identities. Dr. Abdullah has also spoken at a number of universities, institutions, and conferences, such as the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) this past summer. Dr. Abdullah was selected as a keynote speaker specifically for her leadership and insight into the Black Lives Matter movement.
Selection process for educational sessions
We do not invite participants to speak at the Diversity Symposium, outside of our keynote selection and our CSU Inspire speakers. For educational sessions, anyone can submit proposals, which are received and reviewed through an extensive program review process in the late spring and early summer. At times, we encourage the submission of proposals or invite panelists to address specific topics based on the volume of requests by our community.
For example, there have been sessions from the perspective of Jewish experiences and/or inclusion for at least the past three years (2018, 2019, 2020), with the 2019 session being listed as a featured presentation.
Timeline information related to Dr. Abdullah’s keynote
Dr. Melina Abdullah was selected as the keynote speaker in early summer. Information about her keynote was added to the VPD website on August 28 and included in the Diversity Newsletter emailed later that day. A university-wide email to all students, faculty, and staff announcing her selection as the keynote speaker was sent on September 2, 2020.
The first email calling for the cancellation of Dr. Melina Abdullah’s keynote was received by VPD staff on Thursday, October 15, 2020. Additional emails citing a wide variety of sources were received later Thursday evening through the start of the keynote on Monday morning, October 19.
Concerns cited in calls for cancelling the keynote
Objections to Dr. Melina Abdullah’s keynote cited a wide variety of concerns and sources. These ranged from a letter to the editor from a California residential community news website, with claims that have since been debunked by the Anti-Defamation League, her Wikipedia page listing, tweets credited to Dr. Abdullah (some that were valid and some included as screenshots on websites which appeared to be manipulated), articles on the Nation of Islam website, and more.
While there were a wide range of concerns cited, calls for the cancellation ultimately centered on her prior attendance at a Nation of Islam event in 2015 and tweets regarding NOI leader Louis Farrakhan. The event Dr. Abdullah was photographed attending was called #JusticeorElse and marked the anniversary of the Million Man March. Two tweets that were confirmed as valid were also cited, one in defense of Farrakhan’s free speech and one referencing speaking alongside him at the 2015 event.
Considerations made during the decision-making process
VPD staff met with a variety of CSU community members beginning Thursday, October 15 through Sunday, October 18, including several meetings with members of the President’s Task Force for Jewish Inclusion and the Prevention of Anti-Semitism, a meeting with campus leaders representing a broad range of identities, and several meetings with representatives from the President’s Office, University Communications, and the Office of General Counsel. These conversations provided critical context from a variety of perspectives as the VPD weighed the decision.
VPD staff were in communication with Dr. Abdullah and her managing firm multiple times from Thursday, October 15 through Sunday, October 18, over both email and Zoom calls. Throughout these exchanges, Dr. Abdullah continually asserted her support of the LGBTQ+ and Jewish communities and her rejection of anti-Semitic or homophobic viewpoints. Both Dr. Abdullah and her managing agency provided statements reiterating these assertions. Dr. Abdullah also gave us justified, critical feedback about the problematic nature of our requests to her, especially as a Black, Muslim woman.
Independent research was also conducted, resulting in a variety of findings that further complicated the situation. Revealed through this extensive research was evidence of a global smear campaign directed toward Dr. Abdullah and additional Black Lives Matter activists. Evidence supporting this included a large amount of edits to Dr. Abdullah’s Wikipedia page in early October, doctored tweets, the swatting incident which targeted Dr. Abdullah’s home, and more. This campaign is being generated by forces located around the country and world who seem focused on spreading misinformation to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement.
We understood clearly that calls for her cancellation that specifically cited the 2015 Nation of Islam event and her tweets referencing Louis Farrakhan were a separate issue from the evidence of the global campaign against Dr. Abdullah.
Louis Farrakhan has a history of sharing anti-Semitic and homophobic viewpoints and VPD does not stand in defense of him in any way, nor was he invited to speak at the Diversity Symposium. In weighing the decision, it was a priority of the VPD to separate the calls for Dr. Abdullah’s keynote cancellation from outrage and anger directed toward Farrakhan. We also considered the complicated history surrounding the Nation of Islam and some Black, Indigenous, and People of Color activists and leaders who have spoken at NOI events or shared space with Farrakhan. Extensive research across a variety of scholarship-based sources was completed and included the history of NOI, its relation to Black freedom struggle, the historical relationship between NOI and the Jewish community, and more. To be clear, we do not support or defend Louis Farrakhan or his views.
There is nuance to this situation, including various intersecting, marginalized identities, and it was imperative that VPD understands these nuances and consider the wide variety of perspectives in the decision.
Complicated and difficult situation
This was an extremely difficult and painful situation for so many individuals involved, including CSU community members coming from all perspectives of this issue.
While we stand by our decision to continue with the keynote, we do regret the pain, confusion, and frustration the situation has caused for some individuals, including members of our Jewish, Black, and LGTBQ+ communities, community members at the intersection of these identities, Dr. Melina Abdullah, and our Diversity Symposium staff, committee members, presenters, and attendees. The confusion surrounding the situation and campus messaging also resulted in several VPD supporters and allies feeling uncertain in what exactly happened.
We made this decision with deep consideration and care, and it was not made lightly nor without countless hours of research, conversation, and intention.
The 20th Annual Diversity Symposium, which concluded on Friday, October 23rd, was the result of immense planning, energy, and effort. Our small, but dedicated team, as well as the committee members, presenters, and moderators, worked around the clock in the weeks leading up to the event to adapt to a rapidly growing registration list in order to provide the most accessibility possible. By the time registration closed on Thursday, October 15th, 3,091 people had indicated they would be attending the 2020 Diversity Symposium – the largest attendance in our 20-year history by far.
We are proud of the Diversity Symposium Planning Committee, and of our team, for the way in which they stepped up to meet these ever-expanding needs. We will continue to root our actions in the purpose of the Symposium: to create a platform for discussions which make us think more deeply, consider new perspectives, center marginalized voices, and advance equity, inclusion, and diversity for the betterment of our university community.