Op-ed: Open Letter to Chancellor Andrew Martin and the Washington University Administration

Harvey Galler, UCollege Student and PEP Alumnus | Abaki Beck, Brown School MSW '20

As a member of the Washington University community, I receive many emails from the Chancellor’s office asserting the University’s unwavering support for its students and the community at large. However, I know this to be a drastically different narrative coming from the Chancellor’s office. While Chancellor Martin sends these nice letters decrying racism and injustice, he is severely cutting funding to a program that is meant to turn back the injustices caused by systematic racism and mass incarceration. For the past six years, the University has funded the Prison Education Project (PEP), a higher education program that provides incarcerated men housed at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo. with a college-level education that you would find on the main campus of the University itself. In May of 2019, 10 men earned their associate degree from the program, and this past May an alumnus of PEP earned a Bachelor of Science in integrated studies from the University with honors. 75 students have been served by the program since its founding. It is proven that the recidivism rate of offenders who have some secondary education lowers exponentially. Yet, despite all of this, the Chancellor’s office has drastically reduced the funding to PEP. This is an injustice that is especially disturbing considering Chancellor Martin’s 2019 inauguration speech stating “It’s time to double down on our role and impact in St. Louis. As an institution founded with the very intent to provide increased educational access at the local level, we are Washington University because of St. Louis. We’re proud to be Washington University in St. Louis. And today, I’m calling us to be Washington University for St. Louis.”

Despite the letters of reassurance from his office boasting the unwavering resolve to support the Washington University community and the St. Louis community, the Chancellor continues to denounce a program that is leveling the playing field for the marginalized. PEP students have been inducted into Alpha Sigma Lambda and Phi Beta Kappa. PEP students have had their poetry accepted into the prestigious Poetry magazine and honored in the Washington University Common Reading Program Writing Contest. The 2019 graduation brought national media attention to the University, with features on NPR, CNN, the Hill and other news outlets. PEP students are not only Wash. U. students; they are some of its best.

With the budget cuts that the Chancellor made, PEP alumni reached out to local social justice advocates in St. Louis. They were met with confusion: Why would members of Washington University be reaching out to the public for financial help to keep a program running? The University has an 8-billion-dollar endowment, yet is forcing a social justice program focused on educational access to some of our most marginalized community members to search for funds elsewhere.

Going forward, the Chancellor has internally committed to funding PEP up to fiscal year 2023, rather than 2021 as stated in the letter. This was unknown to the authors prior to writing the letter and was not a result of the letter. His office has only committed to funding PEP at a reduction of its current budget, not at its full previous budget.

The Chancellor claims to be “for” St Louis and increased educational access, but how can you tote this credo if you are not helping the people that come from the community? It is time that members of the Washington University community ask him this question. Every letter that comes from his office announcing his support for the community needs to be met with this question until he answers.

Attached is a list of 2,183 signatures from students (grad/undergrad), alumni, faculty, staff, parents and community members who support this letter and the full funding of Washington University’s Prison Education Project.

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