Kansas State University hired a top lawyer from a Muslim American civil rights organization to serve as its next general counsel, who will help the campus navigate racial tensions and conversations around the first amendment.
Shari Crittendon joins Kansas State after almost four years at the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America. She said her lived experiences as a Black woman and professional experience in higher education and faith-based organizations will help her guide the university “as it confronts the racial inequities” on its Manhattan, Kansas campus.
Crittendon’s appointment was announced last month, two weeks before a white Kansas State’s student posted a racist tweet about George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
Thousands of community members demanded the university expel the student for his June 25 tweet, igniting campus and nationwide conversations around free speech at a public university.
Crittendon said she’ll be at the forefront of conversations on implementing Kansas State’s new 11-step action plan to combat racism on campus, in light of the student’s “hurtful and disgusting” comments. The plan includes looking inward at the university’s policies on discrimination and harassment.
She will use a broad lens to look at any legal policy’s impact on cultivating a more “diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus,” Crittendon said. She will solicit student feedback and demonstrate, alongside other senior leadership, that “we hear them, we value them, we respect them, and we want to work collaboratively with them” to improve the university’s culture, Crittendon said.
Crittendon oversees a reduced staff of four attorneys and two paralegals due to the “financial hit” Kansas State took amid the coronavirus pandemic. She started her role remotely on June 28, and will arrive on campus in August.
She has already begun advising on free speech issues, as well as Title IX procedures in advance of new U.S. Education Department guidelines that go into effect in August. These guidelines change how universities can address sexual misconduct complaints, and have been criticized for protecting perpetrators.
Crittendon will also juggle defending the university against a lawsuit by students seeking tuition refunds for the spring semester, and figuring out how to safely bring community members back to campus “in an environment where there may be spikes,” in coronavirus, she said.
Kansas State is scheduled to resume in-person classes August 17, after sending students home early in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“At first it was a little disorienting” joining Kansas State at such a tumultuous time, but building virtual relationships with colleagues has helped her settle in, Crittendon said.
Crittendon immediately felt the constraints of working for a highly regulated public university, which are generally less flexible than private corporations. Despite the challenges, Crittendon said her “passion has always been higher education.”
She has worked in a number of education-related roles, bringing experience as assistant general counsel at Morgan State University in Maryland, and general counsel at the United Negro College Fund. The organization raises money to help Black students attend and graduate from college. UNCF established a $1.6 billion Gates Millennium Scholars Program under Crittendon’s leadership.
Crittendon credits her grandparents for instilling her passion for the field. They met at what was then known as the Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black university in Alabama. Her grandmother, who taught at the institute, taught Crittendon about “the power of education, and how it was the great equalizer — a platform for social and economic change,” she said.
Systemic racism is something Crittendon is “intimately acquainted with,” she said. “What is novel is the unique opportunity we have to address racial inequality,” Crittendon said.