Q&A with Butler University President James Danko

MEGHAN STRATTON | EDITOR-IN-CHIEF | mrstratt@butler.edu

This is the first installment in a series of interviews with Butler University President James Danko. Each month a new interview will be published in an effort to promote transparency and accountability between students and administration. 

Collegian Editor-in-Chief Meghan Stratton sat down on Zoom with Butler President James Danko to discuss the details of Butler’s return to campus plan, along with what the university is doing to support international students and anti-racism efforts. Below is the full transcript of their interview; it has been lightly edited for clarity. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Summer Collegian staffing has created delays for editing and publishing this Q&A, which was conducted on July 14. New information regarding the health and safety plan has since been released. During the academic year, interviews with the president will be published the week they are conducted. The next interview is scheduled for Aug. 20. 

The Butler Collegian: So my first question for you is what is on your mind as we prepare for this upcoming school year, and what are you most worried about? What are you thinking about? 

James Danko: Well, over the weekend I was writing a cover letter that went with the student message we sent out yesterday. First off, when I realized — I mean once you see it completed, which is like 25 pages — the amount of planning and different scenarios that you have to think through is just, it doesn’t stop. And so that’s always on your mind. So you’ve got different age groups with people who have different attitudes towards this thing. I walk on campus a couple times a day and I come across clusters of students. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a student wear a mask. So besides worrying about the greater safety and health of the community, I’m worried about student adaptability, right. So we might think out all of these great safety precautions, and then you also have to worry about how they are going to be received and complied with. So certainly COVID-19 is the dominant form of attention right now. 

You probably read, since we last talked, my messages about Juneteenth. And there’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes attention to that, including — I think you were on one of the Zoom calls — so we did three or four of those with students and alumni. I’ve been doing a number of one-on-ones especially; I find that to be a productive way to get the opinion of people that are on our faculty and staff. And so, those two issues I would say since we last spoke have been dominant. And then I have my full-time job, which, like tonight, I’m doing the second of a series of about three or four just general advancement Zoom calls where we try to stay in touch with our donors and our alumni. We’re in the middle of a major fundraising campaign that can’t stop. So I’ll stop there and let you probe on any of that. 

TBC: Right. So I know you plan to instruct the colleges to create their own anti-racism plan going forward. Can you tell me how that plan was developed? And when you’ll be seeing results from that, and what you hope to get from it? 

JD: You’re talking more about issues of social justice, diversity and inclusivity? 

TBC: Yes, correct. 

JD: I have to say right from the minute that message went out, there were a lot of one-off ideas. I was really pleased by how positively that message was received and it cut across the board, really regardless of your own personal background or experience on that. So it wasn’t just minority staff or our Black staff, it was both sharing experiences and some good ideas. And so in fact, just in the last two weeks, I’ve had a couple of proposals from individuals where they would like to, you know, where they’re kind of raising their hands and saying they would like to have a role in this. So it was well-received and well-embraced. 

Now, my job, you know we have a weekly cabinet call, and I’ve been adding that as a topic of discussion and in each of our meetings to just make sure that progress is being made and energized, as I said in the message. And I tell people that I want to see some very concrete things by the end of the summer. At the same time, I’m looking at things that I will probably want to proceed with and working in collaboration with the provost on the academic side, to probably identify some people in particular to run with some of these ideas, because ideas are one thing. 

The harder part is to, you know, yes, the vice presidents and the deans and that will work through sorting some of this, but I also need a few people to really track down some of these things and make some progress on that. So you know the thinking on this, it has to evolve. I mean I’ll always tell you that from a leadership position, you do your best to kind of get some of these things rolling and, you know, sometimes they take off, sometimes you need to push a little bit harder. Sometimes you might make a mistake in terms of the direction you’re going. But I am pleased with the energy towards that. And it’s certainly intensified the conversation across campus. 

TBC: Yeah, I think that’s important. So going back to the health and safety guidelines sent out yesterday. So what specifics can you tell me about the face mask requirement? How is it going to be enforced, is the big question people are asking. And how will community members be reprimanded if they’re not wearing a mask? 

JD: I have, I have no idea. 

TBC: Okay. 

JD: I gotta be honest, I haven’t looked at what the details are. And I don’t know that a lot of thought right now has gone into, what it sounds like, you know the punishment or whatever. I mean, and you hope that in a community like Butler that people get it and that you’re not enforcing things out of some compliance mandate as much as you are that people respect the greater good. I would say, and I would suspect, the way you’re going to react depends on what situation you’re in. I mean, just like a retail store right? If you don’t have your mask on, you can’t come in. Well, that’s gonna be true in a classroom and any number of events such as that, but I don’t know how much the working groups, or whatever area that that might fall under, whether it’s academic affairs or student affairs, whether or not they’ve given thought to enforcement policies, quite frankly. 

TBC: Okay, sounds good. And I’ll do more research on that and read up.

JD: Yeah you know, maybe it’s buried somewhere in those 30 pages. 

TBC: Maybe it is. 

JD: Really though, I think the focus has more been on what are the themes that we need to put in place to protect, you know, the greater good. And I do hope that responsibility and the Community of Care rule the day, right. 

TBC: Right. So one of the safety guidelines included the daily wellness checks. Do you know anything about them? What would those entail? Is that kind of just a personal thing for students, or…

JD: I believe again, and Meghan I gotta be honest, I don’t have all the details. 

TBC: That’s okay. 

JD: What I do know is that that’s one area where there’s been, you know, a number of questions in terms of the issue if somebody does have the virus, that they would have to return home to make sure they get appropriate care just from the lack of resources that we would have, dependent on how it would play out. But what we’re doing right now with faculty and staff is that every day, anybody that reports to me has to go through a series of self-evaluations. Just like, I don’t know if you’ve been to a doctor or dentist’s office lately, I know I have, and you get your temperature checked at the door, you answer a series of six or seven questions, and that’s pretty much what’s happening on our campus as well. And I think that’s consistent with what we expect our students to be doing too. We’ve got 4,000 so you’ve got to do self-reporting. 

TBC: Okay, got it. That makes sense. Let’s see, so the entrance and exit procedures for buildings and classrooms. Is it just a one way in, one way out type of thing? Do you know anything about those? 

JD: I think you’re interviewing the wrong person. 

TBC: Oh maybe, these might be too specific. 

JD: Yeah maybe that’s something we need to talk about, in terms of what a president does. And I think that’s actually a misunderstanding of a lot of students, frankly. They think that, for example, the assumption is that I’m sitting around, you know, thinking all day about Greek life and what they can and cannot do. And frankly, it’s not, it’s something other people are responsible for. So I don’t know exactly how things are mapped on doors and exits and all of that. 

TBC: That’s fine, I understand. Um okay, you may know the answer to this, will students be able to get tested for COVID-19 on campus? 

JD: I don’t know if we’re doing that on campus or not. And I think part of this whole thing on testing is still being resolved. I would suggest, the person you really should talk to is Brent Rockwood, our Chief of Staff. Around a lot of this planning stuff, we’ve got eight planning groups and they’ve all taken a different slice of this, and Brent’s job has been to oversee this and to be in regular touch with the latest procedures on those, whether it has to do with testing, how that’s being done, where it’s being done and what tests are reliable.

TBC: Okay, thank you. I can reach out to him for sure. So one thing I think you can answer, so I know you released the statement about the international students and what’s going on with the U.S. administration lately. And so the question is, how does the university plan to support international students should Butler shift to fully-online classes? 

JD: Well, we’re starting with trying to get this thing turned around. I mean, we’ve signed on with the amicus brief, and there are two or three paths we’re going down right now to turn this around. There’s also a lot of discussion behind the scenes around if there are ways to kind of work around whatever policies are in place. So that’s been the first line of defense, the other is we have extraordinary people in our international center and Jill McKinney in particular has been reaching out to students. And so we have to see where this thing is going to land, but our hope is that we’re going to find some resolution to it. 

I mean, you do everything you can, short of committing a crime, to support our students on this thing. So we’re hoping that the courts recognize the ridiculousness of this attempt, and you just wonder sometimes how these kinds of things go down the paths that they do. And so for us, we quickly got on top of trying to figure out ways to support our fellow universities to work together collaboratively to get this done. So my focus has been more at the national level working with other presidents, and Jill and Kate [Morris] are more focused on what we need to do to support our current students. 

TBC: Yeah, that sounds good. So my last and final question; the university was given, I’m sure you’re aware, the list of demands by the organization Bu4BlackLives. And the university was given two or three weeks to respond to those requests. So what does the university plan to do about that request? Do you have a personal response to that list of demands? 

JD: Well first off, you know, on the list, you know, there’s clearly some legitimate concerns, and they’re consistent that the majority of it focused on policing, right. And consistent with the questions that are being raised, you know, nationally, or even locally, right here in our own backyard. I believe strongly that it’s prompting the need to evaluate the role of police, both in our communities and also on our college and university campus. You know, you’re working to find the right balance between supporting our community and providing safety and security as well. So the questions raised are legitimate. And as such, in fact, we’re already you know, we’ve already got a group right now, I mean, that happened early on, to take a look at BUPD’s role on our campus and I’ve asked a group to get together of students, faculty, staff and external members to evaluate where we’re at, primarily to make sure that you do have the right balance. 

On a campus like Butler, the needs on our campus run the gamut. And it’s been interesting, even on calls with students and alumni, some want to make sure that they, you know, feel safe. I mean, you have to worry about things like active shooter training and what happens if there’s an emergency. Heck, I’ve seen two major car crashes right on this corner since the first of the year. And so you have those kinds of things that happen. And, I’ve been pretty clear with John Conley — our police chief — who, by the way, has also himself I think, done a number of things to get in front of the students and do office hours and meet with the SGA. But talking to him about, you know, we don’t need more police walking the street on a Friday night when, you know, like, you’re trying to find students that might be drinking. No, I’d rather have somebody out of Student Affairs be there to support our students. 

So I think I would say that again, there’s a lot of good issues raised, and we have to kind of, really again, do like you want to do. You want to sit down as a community and resolve these things. Now those demands are posted but they’ve been posted anonymously, so we don’t necessarily have any point of contact with somebody to sit down and have this dialogue. And we did, you know, send a response out to the people, some of them, many of which were affiliated with Butler, but a number of them had more of an anonymous email or Gmail accounts. But nonetheless, you know, we responded, I think we had about, you know, 30 or 40 emails, and I would say probably the majority came from somebody that we could identify as a college student or alum. There were quite a number of emails that came to me where they didn’t remove the word “template” and “fill in your name here.” So, there seemed to be some active engagement of getting people to write in. But I think the larger point here is the importance of dialogue and trying to come up with the right approach for our community policing that fits Butler and meets the wide spectrum of needs that we have on our campus. So we get it, and I’d love again to have a group of students that we sit down and engage with on that. So I think the Butler Way is to be open-minded to, you know, work on dialogue, consider the greater good and go from there.

TBC: You mentioned an evaluation of BUPD. What do you expect that to be like?

JD: We’re in the preliminary stages. I’ve asked Brent, Bruce Arick, Michael Kaltenmark and others to help us think, ‘okay, how would we evaluate? How do we engage students, faculty, staff, external members, to evaluate where we’re at?’ And again, there’s been open-mindedness across that group and with John Conley to do something like that. 

TBC: Absolutely.

JD: Well, you know we’ve been down this path three or four years ago, and we did change some of the leadership of BUPD. And I’d say John — especially with having a daughter that just recently graduated — he understands that policing on a campus is different than policing in the city streets. And I’ve been pretty clear about that too. And it’s not like we are without our faults. I would say though, I’ve seen a much different attitude in the last couple of years. And in terms of our police force understanding that, I talk with them when I’m walking on campus at night too. 

And I think we’ve got a good group of people and just like anything, whether it’s administrators, students, faculty, there’s mostly good, but there are occasional things that don’t go right. And you need to step in and do something about it. So I take the demand seriously from the standpoint of what the issues are. You know, again, I wish that they identified themselves. I also know, talking to some of these students as I have on these calls, that not every minority student relates or affiliates themselves with groups that might claim they’re representing students. You know what I mean? Maybe you see that in your own role, and some may think SGA represents me and some don’t. So we’re getting some mixed messages sometimes.

TBC: Right, I understand. Anything else that you wanted to talk about that you didn’t previously get a chance to?

JD: Yeah, I can’t think of anything. We’re just taking it as we go here. And we’ve got to maintain flexibility for the fall and see what happens, and go from there. 

TBC: Alright. Thanks so much again. 

JD: Take care. Goodbye.

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