CU’s Native American center calls out Mark Kennedy for “flippantly” using phrase “trail of tears”

The University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies is taking CU President Mark Kennedy to task for using the phrase “trail of tears” colloquially in a faculty meeting last week.

The university on Thursday published a write-up of the Faculty Council’s meeting, which quoted Kennedy talking about the difficulty and importance of making online learning a success.

“On-campus is declining and online is growing. If we don’t get online right… we have a trail of tears in front of us,” Kennedy said.

The Trail of Tears refers to when approximately 60,000 Native American people were forced by state and federal policy to relocate from their land between 1830 and 1850. Thousands of Native people died from exposure, malnutrition, disease and gunshot wounds, the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies said.

“For anyone to use the phrase ‘trail of tears’ flippantly represents ignorance of these atrocities at best, and willful verbal harm at worst,” the center’s statement read. “Although we acknowledge that President Kennedy issued an apology in response to initial criticisms, for our highest-ranking university leader to do so calls attention to the need for systemic efforts at the University of Colorado to counter such damaging conceptions of Indigenous history and present issues.”

Kennedy’s apology read: “Thank you for calling this to my attention. I apologize for my poor choice of words. I have asked that the phrase be deleted from the electronic version of CU Connections and that we add an editor’s note with my apology. I’m committed to fostering an inclusive environment at CU, where everyone feels that they belong. I recognize that words matter in doing that.”

The original quote has been deleted from the university’s account of the meeting.

This incident is not the first time Kennedy has been criticized for racially insensitive remarks.

In April 2019, Kennedy asked Colorado Public Radio host Ryan Warner if he could pass on a question inquiring Kennedy’s thoughts on affirmative action in Colorado.

Days later, The Denver Post reported Kennedy used an anecdote describing his “full-fledged Afro” as a teenager as part of his message on racial understanding during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech at the University of North Dakota, where he previously served as president.

Since becoming president last year, Kennedy said diversity is one of his most important goals. He hired CU’s first systemwide chief diversity officer, Theodosia Cook, and said he understands there is important work to be done to increase diversity at the four universities.

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