There exists a certain bucket of words that people reach into when they feel threatened by women, particularly women of color — aggressive, angry, assertive, bossy, and loud, among others.
On Friday, March 19, 2021, Dionna Anderson, a Black woman, found herself on the end of such words when she was threatened with removal from her position on the Staff Advisory Council (SAC) and a ban from holding future positions on the council. The memo led with the subject line “Notice of Election Ineligibility,” topped with the Illinois Institute of Technology’s official letter heading. The memo, authored by the SAC chair, later cited her for “Aggressively asserting [her] opinions” and “Challenging meeting agendas.” Anderson was told to respond to the memo or be removed from her position immediately, according to the chair. She did not respond in the desired banner, resulting in her removal. The memo was published in TechNews in issue eight of the spring 2021 semester inside of a piece titled “Letter from Dionna Anderson on the Staff Advisory Council.” The chair has since resigned. Further, the decisions of the letter have been repealed and revoked. Anderson asked for the chair’s name not to be published as to not make this about them, but rather about leadership problems and the ways institutionalized racism and misogyny can manifest themselves in settings like this. The former chair’s name is publicly available elsewhere and in the previously mentioned piece “Letter from Dionna Anderson on the Staff Advisory Council.”
Prior to this, Anderson was the head of the Engagement Committee for SAC. Sometimes denoted as StaffAC in official releases, SAC was intended to be a resource for all staff — not the same thing as faculty — to share their opinions and voices on how the university ought to be run. It can be compared to the Student Government Association (SGA) or University Faculty Council (UFC), but for staff. It was created in response to little to no staff representation in the university’s decision making process. When asked how much it actually does, Anderson responded that “It’s recognized by the president,” but not much else.
Anderson became active on the staff advisory council in the fall of 2019 and is currently finishing her term as Engagement Committee chair. Anderson grew up in Seattle, Washington, and graduated with a degree in political science from Seattle Pacific University in 2002. She currently works as the department coordinator for the psychology department at Illinois Tech.
Anderson was an active member and regularly voiced concerns about the SAC — and its chair — leading up to her now redacted removal. Anderson recalled that she frequently “Questioned [the chair’s] leadership and university policy,” and the university certainly has a great deal of policies and aspects that need to be critiqued and improved, including Title IX policy, diversity and inclusion efforts, financial aid, administrative communication, and transparency across all of these and other aspects. Many of these problems are not unique to the Illinois Institute of Technology nor necessarily the fault of its individual administrators, but still need addressed.
Anderson elaborated further on her criticisms of the chair, citing problematic leadership behaviors. The chair would frequently micromanage and otherwise be unnecessarily authoritative on a number of unimportant matters. They would ask for full reports and give arbitrary deadlines without precedent. “My supervisor doesn’t speak to me like that,” she recalled of the chair’s hyper controlling attitude. Under the leadership of the chair, the idea of the SAC, and what it was meant for, was not present at all.
The chair would also frequently use the SAC bylaws to silence topics or kill them in committee — the membership, engagement, communication, and executive committees of SAC. For an arm of the university meant to give staff members voices, this just felt like another hierarchy to Anderson. The goal of the SAC, to include staff in the university’s decision making process, was not being fulfilled.
Much of Anderson’s criticism was a direct response to the stifling of any real SAC function or discussion by the chair, leading to Anderson directly questioning the chair’s leadership and direction. She would ask why the council was covering what it was covering, and she often raised her opinions when things didn’t seem right. In response to this, Anderson recalled that the chair’s leadership and authority may have felt threatened.
Calling a woman of color who challenges leadership “Aggressively asserting [their] opinions” and citing them for “Disruption of council meetings … with ongoing challenges” was not an accident, according to Anderson. She elaborated that these words would absolutely not have been used against a white male who said the same things she had said, due to the negative stereotyping that women of color face in the United States.
Seeing this damaging prejudices levied at her by somebody in a position of authority in a memo with an official university heading was mortifying for Anderson. “You can’t have that letter out … it’s such an unprofessional letter,” Anderson continued. She went on to say that the fact that these are words and stereotypes that people with Illinois Tech mastheads feel comfortable sharing speaks volumes about the underlying racism in the United States, Chicago, higher education, and Illinois Tech in particular.
After receiving the memo on March 19, Anderson shared it with a number of sources the following weekend, resulting in its publication in TechNews the following issue, printed April 1. Anderson recalled that she shared the letter because she needed to “take back some power” from the situation. According to Anderson, if she had stayed quiet about the memo and either apologized or silently quit, she would be letting those definitions of aggressive and disruptive define her.
By calling this out for what it is — racism and sexism from a leadership position who thought its contents were appropriate to put underneath an Illinois Institute of Technology masthead — and speaking up, Anderson helped draw attention to the treatment of Black women in higher education and the stereotypes they frequently face. Confronting and discussing mistreatment in this way is a key step to removing toxic work environments and creating more inclusive work environments for women of color at Illinois Tech.
On April 12, Anderson received an email from Hilary Hudson Hosek, the assistant vice president, acting in her capacity as the advisor to the Staff Advisory Council, repealing any and all decisions from the chair’s memo. According to Hosek, the chair had no right to restrict a member’s participation or eligibility for reelection, which can only be decided by the Illinois Institute of Technology President Alan Cramb. The chair did not consult Hosek or Cramb about the memo or its decisions about Anderson. As such, after the chair’s memo was brought to the attention of Hosek and Cramb. As stated earlier, that chair has since resigned for their overreach and loaded language, and Hosek has stepped in as the interim SAC chair. Anderson hypothesized that some “powers that be” asked the prior SAC chair to step down, presumably Hosek and Cramb.
Despite the memo being repealed and all its decisions nullified, Anderson has decided not to run for re-election for her position on the SAC, instead spending her remaining time tackling the issue of why a woman of color speaking out was labelled in the way that she was and also bringing more awareness to the issues that plague women and people of color.
Anderson says that although she is grateful the university reversed the decision of the letter, this situation has made it abundantly clear that certain individuals at this university feel comfortable saying whatever they like without any ramifications, which she later went on to elaborate further.
The university absolutely needs to reform its culture around leadership, though this isn’t a problem exclusive to Illinois Tech. “I don’t think the definition of being a leader has anything to do with being controlling or being a boss,” Anderson noted, though this is exactly how the former SAC chair approached their position. These approaches to leadership can go on to create toxic environments for all parties involved. If we would put less pressure on titles — just because you’re now a president or chair doesn’t change who you are — and better train people how to accept criticism, our work environments would be better, according to Anderson. Better workplace monitoring, a culture of empathetic leadership, improved transparency, or a culture of reporting could have easily prevented this situation from getting this toxic, instead it was allowed to reach the breaking point it did.
As mentioned before, Anderson hopes that she set an example for reporting situations like these at Illinois Tech. Throughout the process, she has had multiple peers and coworkers tell her about similar situations they had been in before, with toxic management or problems with misogyny and racism in the workplace, but they didn’t speak out from fear of retaliation, embarrassment, or even potentially being fired. Sharing this was not easy for Anderson, either, as she felt “sick and depressed” both after receiving the letter and after sharing it with TechNews. Anderson wants this culture of suffering in silence to change, which is why she reported the incident in the first place. Anderson is incredibly appreciative from the support she has during this time.
Anderson concluded with the following: ““I hope the university will become more proactive to prevent situations like these from happening. There needs to be a clearer message that this is not allowed. The message needs to be just as loud and as public as the offense itself. Hate speech and inclusion can never coexist.”
The whole affair brought a number of questions for Anderson, though moving forward she wants to examine how the university — and society as a whole — decides who is qualified to lead and what does it mean to be a leader? Why do we condemn those who speak out? Who are we really empowering?”
As said before, sharing these stories is a difficult but essential part at improving workplace conditions for women of color on this campus and elsewhere. TechNews greatly appreciates Anderson publishing her story with us, as well as a thank you to Barien Gad for putting us in touch and helping throughout the drafting process.