April 4th, 2018 marks 50 years since the assasination of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King inspired change in America through impassioned speeches and nonviolent protests. Two years prior to his assassination, MLK visited the University of Rhode Island campus . In 1968, his assassination inspired change to the campus that would continue for years to come.
In response to King's death, the university established a special admissions program, now called the Talent Development Program, for Rhode Island students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students of color.
"Upon Dr. King’s assassination, programs like Talent Development were started to give students an opportunity to attend their 4-year institution," said Gerald Williams, Director of the Talent Development Program at URI.
Williams said these students typically come from inner city schools in Rhode Island, and usually hit the federal requirements for poverty. The program began with only 13 students and has grown to over a thousand.
He said the Talent Development has played a significant part in all the changes on campus. For example, it inspired the protests and dialogue of students, along with the free standing multicultural student services center, and free standing gender and sexuality center that was requested by students.
"And for the university to have acknowledged that says a great deal about the university as it relates to students and student needs and I think the other big thing that occurred is the chief diversity officer," said Williams.
Naomi Thompson is the Associate Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity at URI. She says the university is also making efforts to diversify its faculty. In the last three years, Thompson says the university has hired more than 40 faculty members of color into tenure-track positions.
"We are moving the needle, but there’s still more work to be done. And just because we can add the numbers, doesn’t necessarily mean we are where we want to be with climate. And, so that’s constant work that we have to be engaged in," said Thompson.
Both Thompson and Williams agree that the university has made diversity a high priority and is working to make the campus more welcoming to more people. Williams points to the two new student service centers as an example of how the university has listened to calls from students who said they needed spaces dedicated to diversity and gender and sexuality.
"And I think that in itself allows the students to realize the importance of protest and the importance of doing it in a peaceful way and that speaks to Martin Luther King," Williams said.
For the next 50 years to come, Williams said he hopes for more students to enroll in the Talent Development Program. He’d like to give each one more financial assistance because students in the program still have to take out loans. As for Thompson, she said she hopes diversity will remain a top priority for everyone at the university.