UofL removes the racist term “Overseers” from its Honors House and governing board; and implements social equity audit of Criminal Justice curriculum

The Thinker
The Thinker

The following is a message, in its entirety, from UofL President Neeli Benadpudi to Maliya Homer, president of UofL’s Black Student Union. 

Dear Maliya: 

Thank you, again, for reaching out to me and for spending your time and energy advocating for change in a moment when it is desperately needed. I know we do not know each other well, but I hope to earn your trust as an ally in this work in the weeks, months and years to come. I have pledged since I arrived at UofL to do my best always to celebrate diversity, foster equity, and strive for inclusion. I appreciated very much spending time with you and the BSU officer team yesterday.

I, too, am outraged by the murder of Breonna Taylor in our own backyard. I am heartbroken. Breonna was a meaningful part of our city and of our UofL Health family. There is no excuse for the behavior of the individual officers involved. Police brutality in any form at any time is a violation of a contract between individuals and our criminal justice system. This, compounded by the recent killing of David “Yaya” McAtee has left our community hurting, grieving and suffering once again.

You raised two key issues in your letter to me: 1) the UofL Police Department’s (ULPD) relationship to the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD), and 2) the name of the Honors House. I want to address each of these issues and explain how I intend to move forward.


One of the central duties of any leader in any organization is to maintain the safety of her constituents. I take this responsibility very seriously in my role as president. Since your email, I have engaged a significant number of individuals in conversation about this issue including our Chief Diversity Officer Faye Jones, Chief of Police Gary Lewis and Criminal Justice Department Chair Cherie Dawson-Edwards, all leaders with important perspective on this issue.

Your request for us to immediately terminate our relationship with LMPD would not make our campus or its constituents safer, and it would be an insufficient answer to a very complex problem. The harder work in a necessary partnership is to change, mold and evolve the partnership and the partner to best facilitate the university’s need without compromising our values. We have already begun to do this and will take additional intentional steps to ensure we are doing everything we can to make this so.

It is important to understand several things about ULPD’s ties to LMPD and the police force in the city and the commonwealth:

  • The two police forces have concurrent and, in some cases, overlapping jurisdiction in various geographies throughout the city and based on the nature of an incident. Because of this fact, there has been a long-standing relationship between the two police forces to ensure adequate resources exist to support the community, but there is not a formal document or agreement between the two agencies that stipulates the parameters of this relationship.
  • In February 2019, Chief Lewis requested assistance from LMPD in increasing a law enforcement presence following a number of significant crimes. This collaboration resulted in the successful apprehension of a rape suspect.
  • In late 2019, ULPD initiated steps to reduce the number of LMPD officers working special athletic events on our campus and were successful at making this change.
  • Under previous leadership, LMPD provided a large percentage of services, however, under the leadership of Chief Lewis, ULPD – a state certified law enforcement agency – takes the lead role in protecting our campus community.
  • Regularly, we engage with LMPD for real-time investigative support that ensures the safety of our campus community. ULPD does not have the infrastructure or the funding to support these real-time investigations independently.
  • UofL is home to the Southern Police Institute (SPI), a 60-year old police leadership training institute right in the heart of the Belknap campus. SPI provides training and courses, many led by UofL Criminal Justice faculty members, to a significant number of officers each year.
  • The Department of Criminal Justice has important relationships with LMPD that fuel the department’s scholarship and community impact, and many faculty at the University have contracts with LMPD for community engaged research projects that inform best practices in related areas of study.
  • ULPD Chief Lewis has led numerous campus sessions over the last year to engage students, faculty and staff on how he could best lead ULPD and what additional safety measures the campus was looking for. Hundreds of individuals have participated in these sessions in the last year and changes have been made in our policing approach based on the feedback. These sessions will continue this year as well.

The items I have shared here are merely to show that we have an intricate relationship with LMPD that touches many parts of our campus and virtually all of our faculty, staff and students. This is not to say there are not significant issues within the police force that must be addressed. This is true and they must, but our relationship with LMPD is necessary to the University for these reasons and more.

Again, I believe the harder approach and the one we will commit to is evolving and molding our partnership with LMPD so it clearly reflects our commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, our Cardinal Principle, and other guiding values of our institution. There is no way to build a comprehensive plan for that evolution in a few short days, but some immediate steps we will commit to take include:

  1. Ensure ULPD as Lead Law Enforcement Agency
    ULPD will serve as the lead agency in any investigation dealing primarily with a member of the campus community. Joint investigations including LMPD will still occur as dictated by jurisdictional overlap and nature of an incident. This change has already begun, but will be formalized and enforced.
  2. Perform Equity Audit in All Criminal Justice Academic Programs
    Cherie Dawson-Edwards, in her capacity as department chair and with support from the Office of the Provost, will lead an equity audit of all academic programs. The Department of Criminal Justice offers multiple programs that educate current and future LMPD officers, including police leaders. These courses will be audited for the inclusion of social justice-focused principles in the coursework. The equity audit will include the Police Executive Leadership Development Certificate, BSCJ, MSCJ and Ph.D. programs.
  3. Reduce Need for External Law Enforcement Support at Athletics Events
    Chief Lewis and Vince Tyra will find additional and alternative ways to continue to reduce the need to have direct support by outside law enforcement agencies. With a venue the size of Cardinal Stadium, relying upon partnering agencies is a national model, but we will look closely at this partnership while not compromising safety and security for our students, faculty, staff and visitors to our campus venues.
  4. Provide Training for All Partnering Officers

Chief Lewis, in partnership with Dr. Dawson-Edwards, students leaders and other UofL constituents, will develop a de-escalation and cultural sensitivity training that will be required for any police officer working a university-sponsored event or hired by ULPD. This training will be developed and deployed no later than the beginning of the fall semester.

5. Leverage Southern Police Institute (SPI) as Catalyst for Change
The Department of Criminal Justice (CJ) and the Southern Police Institute are uniquely positioned to have a positive impact on the current social unrest, in relation to the criminal justice system. Leadership in the department and institute will work together on the following items:

  • Curricula has historically been developed to provide training and technical assistance as a result of mandates from the federal government. SPI, in partnership with CJ, has the ability to be “ahead of the curve” and develop a more robust procedural/social justice component which can be used to create new stand-alone classes as well as integrated into our current Police Executive Leadership Development Certificate and Continuing Education curricula.
  • Since 1951, the SPI mission has aligned it with the early civil rights movement and traces its actual founding to healing the divide between the police and the minority community. SPI and the Department of CJ are uniquely positioned to sponsor seminars/panels to discuss social or procedural justice issues with our students (including law enforcement students) and featuring police and social justice leaders as speakers to address those “difficult conversations” with our campus community.
  • SPI has long standing and large scope access to police leadership all over the United States, through our network of graduates of our education and training programs. This access allows for a direct conduit to the decision/policy makers and today’s American law enforcement community. The respected SPI brand could be used to connect academic and progressive change models with the law enforcement community.

To reiterate, this is neither the beginning nor the end of the work we will do. We are actively assessing our partnerships and working to ensure they reflect the values of our institution and support the success of our students, faculty and staff.

Honors House

The term “overseers” is a racialized term. It hearkens back to American slavery and reminds us of the brutality of the conditions and treatment of black people during this time. The term is also one widely used in higher education. This is true because this institution like so many others has evolved within the same racist system that led to the murder of Breonna Taylor. If we are committed to an equitable anti-racist environment, the term should not be used at UofL. I take responsibility for this issue not being addressed earlier.

As you may or may not be aware, more than a year ago and after consultation and conversation with many justice seeking stakeholders in this campus community, I led the conversation to change the name of our Board of Overseers to the President’s Council. This decision was made intentionally and in recognition of the racist implications of the term I mentioned before. Had I been more intimately familiar with the campus and the names of the buildings, I would have made the same change at the Honors House that I made with my main external advisory board.

On Monday, my team implemented an interim solution to remove this problematic term from the sign outside the Honors House. We will be purchasing a new sign as a permanent step and will have that in place as soon as we can get it delivered (certainly before the start of the Fall Semester). As a further step, I have asked my team to comb our websites to make sure that we remove digital references to this term on sites that we control and maintain. Importantly, this change requires final approval by the Board of Trustees given our institutional naming policy requirements. The chair of our trustees has given provisional approval to have the name removed and the board will vote to formalize this change at its June meeting.

This sign has likely caused incalculable and unnecessary pain to many of our students, faculty and staff over the years. I am sorry that it was not addressed sooner, but it is done now.

Moving Forward

After meeting with you, it became abundantly clear that we have not centered the voices and experiences of students in our efforts for change in the ways we must to effectively move forward. To that end and at your suggestion, we will commit to:

  • Require Student Representation on All Change Initiatives

Whether it is on the criminal justice academic programs equity audits, the development of officer training programs, or other measures that arise from our ongoing conversations, I will require our leaders to include student representation, particularly the Black Student Union, to ensure the approaches we take are informed by the lived experience of our most fundamental constituency.

  • Elevate Students’ Lived Experiences as Catalysts for Change

Dr. Dawson-Edwards, Chief Lewis and I commit to bolster the number of opportunities that exist for students to directly engage and inform the learning of law enforcement officers, including those in SPI. Truly understanding the lived experiences of our students and your expectations for police conduct will serve as a meaningful catalyst for mutual understanding and change.

I know this answer is probably still insufficient in meeting your calls for revolution, but it is incredibly important to remember that we are a city within a city. We do not exist on the outskirts or the far edge of our metropolitan area, we are right in the center of the Greater Louisville area, our Health Sciences Campus is in the heart of downtown Louisville and our ShelbyHurst campus is in the relatively more suburban east end. These concurrent, and in some cases overlapping, jurisdictions between our three campuses and the larger city require a good working relationship between ULPD and LMPD to ensure the safety of our Cardinal Family as best we can as we move seamlessly and regularly between the campus and city. Indeed, without this strong relationship we would not be able to keep our campuses safe.

During our conversations, I was encouraged by your thoughtfulness and commitment to demanding justice and nothing less. I imagine I will fall short of that call in some of our institutional responses, but I commit to meaningfully moving the needle and changing our trajectory. The time is now. My chief of staff and external affairs, Michael Wade Smith, is developing a plan that evolved from our conversations that will acknowledge the great social justice achievements of our past, highlight the ongoing social justice actions of the present, and, most importantly, lay a path for the important and necessary anti-racism work we must do to move forward as a campus community. I hope to share more on this initiative in the coming week.

As we committed to yesterday, I look forward to staying in regular contact as we work through these issues. I also hope you will engage with Chief Lewis and Dr. Dawson-Edwards as they take the steps listed above to improve our approach to campus and community safety. You have my cell phone number. If you need ANYTHING during this time, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.


Neeli Bendapudi, President”

Source: President Neeli Bendapudi’s message to UofL’s Black Student Union (UofL News, June 3, 2020)