Update on anti-racism work

Letter to the Exeter community from Principal Rawson.

February 24, 2021
Academy Building

Dear Exeter community:

Last summer, the Trustees and I sent a letter outlining initiatives that we were undertaking to act on our commitments to oppose racism in all its forms and become an anti-racist school. I addressed this commitment during Opening Assembly in September and reaffirmed that we would pursue our diversity, equity and inclusion work this year with unwavering dedication and a greater sense of urgency. I stated that this work would touch on all aspects of life at the Academy and it is work that we must all do together.

When the Trustees and I wrote to the community last June, we focused on anti-Black violence. As I write today, we must also acknowledge the alarming rise in anti-Asian violence since the onset of the pandemic. Disturbing images on television and social media of violent attacks on Asian people — attacks that have resulted in injury and death – remind us that anti-Asian violence is not new, even if it is not always covered adequately in the news. We oppose racism and anti-race violence in all its forms, and are committed to preparing our students for the work they must do throughout their lives to that end.

This letter reports on the work we are doing this year and our progress against the specific initiatives outlined last summer. I am grateful for the commitment adults and students have brought to our anti-racism work during this challenging year, and, in particular, for the leadership of Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, Director of Equity and Inclusion. Moving forward, we will post periodic updates to www.exeter.edu, and will continue to share stories on the website related to our DEI work. We also will provide links to this content in the monthly alumni and parent e-newsletters.

During Opening Assembly this year, I announced an updated statement of our school’s mission: unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives. I also announced updated expressions of five core Exeter values: knowledge and goodness, academic excellence, youth from every quarter, youth is the important period, and non sibi. The work described in this letter is inseparable from our school’s mission and values, and is critical to sustaining our tradition of excellence.

Trustee DEI Task Force

The new trustee Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force adopted its charter last October and is now actively engaged under the leadership of Trustee Jackie Hayes ’85. The group was formed with the broad purpose “to assist and guide the Academy in becoming a fully inclusive, just and equitable learning community,” in line with the school’s DEI Vision Statement announced by the Trustees in January 2018. The task force’s initial priority this year is to “support and provide oversight of the Academy’s efforts to address racial bias, injustice and inequity in our community.” The group also will facilitate coordination to ensure that consideration of DEI priorities is infused in the work of all trustee committees. These alumni volunteers met with faculty of color last summer, and Jackie Hayes has met with Dr. Bramlett and me on a regular basis this academic year to discuss our ongoing work and priorities. The group also provides updates to the larger body of trustees. The support of the task force has been critical to our work this year and will be critical going forward.

General Alumni Association

The General Alumni Association board of directors has formed an Affinity Engagement Committee to help extend the school’s DEI-focused initiatives beyond campus. Through outreach to the alumni community and in partnership with the DEI Task Force, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Office of Institutional Advancement, the committee aims to develop alumni affinity programming and explore ways in which our diverse alumni community can support the experience of our students. We are grateful for the engagement of our alumni and their commitment to building an inclusive community for all Exonians.

Hiring, Retention and Diversity in School Leadership

We have made a commitment to increase the number of faculty of color by at least 50 percent over five years. To that end, we have appointed Dr. Gayatri Ramesh of our Mathematics Department as Assistant Dean of Faculty, effective at the start of spring term. Her responsibilities will include oversight of our hiring and retention initiative. She will work closely with Dean of Faculty Ellen Wolff, Dr. Bramlett, and all department chairs. We have appointed Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez as our new Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion, also effective at the start of spring term. Currently working in residential life at the University of Michigan, Mr. Pajaro-Mariñez’s duties will focus on faculty retention strategies, community engagement and student support. These appointments are critical roles in our efforts to improve recruitment, support and retention of faculty of color.

We are now in the process of hiring for academic departments for the coming year. Our current diversity in teaching and administrative faculty positions is reflected in the table below.





Hispanic or Latinx

Black or African American

Two or More Races

Not Specified

(teaching and administrative)








We continue to seek diversity across all departments and at every level. We know that diverse voices enable us to make better decisions to meet the needs of our students.

Through the John and Elizabeth Phillips Dissertation Year Fellowship program, we have also appointed three scholars whose dissertations focus on topics relevant to our anti-racism work: Sherard Harrington (English Literature, University of New Hampshire), Joud Alkorani (Religion, University of Toronto), and Katherine Morales (Psychology, University of Maryland). Each scholar is asked to provide two online seminars per term. All three have made extensive efforts to engage students and become active members of our school community.

Campus Community and Culture

We have created a Campus Climate Response Team to help the school address and respond to local, national and global events that may adversely impact the mental health and well-being of our campus community. This large and diverse group includes 23 individuals appointed because of their administrative or student-facing responsibilities, and five at-large faculty members. Their input was enormously helpful when we considered how to support our students and adults in response to the January 6 violence on Capitol Hill, and also as we planned for the presidential election and inauguration.

We have expanded our bias response reporting tool (Ethics Point) to be inclusive of students. The system provides a confidential, anonymous method for anyone to report incidents of bias, harassment or other harmful behavior against themselves or other members of our community. The school investigates all reported incidents and supports those who feel harmed. We provide training and education to individuals to prevent future harm, with the mindset of “calling in” persons who are the subject of a report, and we take employment actions when warranted.

The dean of faculty has met individually with every faculty member who was named in an anonymous post on Black@Exeter, Asian@Exeter and Queer@Exeter. It is difficult to demonstrate accountability when we do not make public any employment actions taken, but we are considering how the process might help restore and heal the person harmed as well. The Dean of Faculty is working with Dean of Multicultural Affairs Sherry Hernandez and other stakeholders on mechanisms to build community trust in a process that out of necessity lacks transparency. This is an ongoing concern and an ongoing challenge.

We have developed a vision for an expanded Office of Multicultural Affairs on the ground floor of Jeremiah Smith Hall, which has served us well because of its central location, easy access off the main academic quadrangle, and close proximity to the Dean of Students Offices, of which OMA is a part. This will be a significant project requiring relocation of other administrative offices, and we will not be able to execute the project earlier than the summer of 2022. We will consider ways to supplement OMA offices and meeting spaces in the interim.

We also have committed to examining the Assembly Hall and other campus gathering spaces to better reflect and celebrate our inclusive community while also preserving our history and honoring the service of past leaders who kept Exeter moving forward. We will seek input from both students and adults, and I will appoint a committee this spring to lead that effort. Part of their charge will be to visit other educational institutions to see how they have reimagined the design and use of their iconic spaces. A substantial expansion of the Assembly Hall, planned for when the Academy Building is renovated in the next few years, will give us an additional opportunity to reimagine the use and design of that central space in our school community.

We have begun a search for an institutional researcher who will be tasked with helping us collect, understand and organize our data related to diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. This work will lead to the creation of a DEI dashboard that demonstrates the school’s progress toward our goals. The institutional researcher will benefit from the good work of our partnership this year with the University of New Hampshire’s Analytics program, which has helped us begin that effort. We will also capture feedback from current and former community members to give us greater insight into how we can address the disparity in retention between faculty of color and white faculty. We look forward to continuing this work and sharing what we have learned with the broader Exeter community.

There are many other ways that we are seeking to strengthen our community this year in support of our anti-racism work — beyond the commitments made in our letter last summer and more than can be described here. Examples include:

  • Our second annual Exeter Diversity Institute, attended by 48 faculty and staff members last August, focused on race, racism and anti-racism in our school community and beyond.
  • At the start of the academic year, Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, a nationally recognized psychiatrist, offered a workshop to faculty on “Racism, Trauma and Equity in Education.” Dr. Christian-Brathwaite also addressed students at assembly and has been working directly with the Dean of Students Office, College Counseling Office, Community Conduct Committee and Academic Advising Committee throughout the year.
  • Student clubs and organizations can access a newly created “Anti-Racist Starter Pack” of resources to help understand the history of racism, intersectionality and anti-racism. Students also can consult with the Director of Equity and Inclusion or the Office of Multicultural Affairs for guidance on designing a curriculum for their group.
  • The Exonian launched a multipart series on race at the Academy. This Since 1878 project provides a decade-by-decade look into Exeter’s past through the lens of newspaper coverage of life and events at the Academy.
  • Our Office of Equity and Inclusion is offering monthly conversations about justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) as an optional professional development opportunity open to all employees.
  • A BIPOC faculty and staff affinity group is meeting monthly.
  • A white anti-racist group formed two years ago has reorganized into smaller groups to build their own cultural awareness and competency and to support various anti-racism initiatives.
  • Other informal groups on campus have formed to read and discuss books relevant to our anti-racism work.
  • Our Communications team is developing a new, centralized area on Exeter’s website, to launch this spring. It will be a “hub” for updates and stories related to our DEI work. In the meantime, you can visit our interim webpage for anti-racism topics and voices.

All of this work is essential and contributes to our collective efforts to create and sustain a community where every student and adult has a strong sense of belonging and equal opportunity to thrive.

Curriculum and Co-curricular Activities

An inclusive school must have an inclusive curriculum. Our understanding of what it means to have an inclusive curriculum evolves over time. We are celebrating 50 years of coeducation this year – changes to our curriculum that followed the advent of coeducation provide an example of how our understanding evolves. Our curriculum also evolves with our understanding of what our students will need to be prepared to lead purposeful lives in a rapidly changing world.

Important work is underway in every academic discipline supported by professional development opportunities. Academic departments are building on substantial work done in prior years to diversify course content and structure the curriculum to be more inclusive. Recent examples include English 320, a required course for lowers developed two years ago that encourages exploration of racial identity through literature. The Classical Languages Department has revised their Latin textbook to represent a greater diversity of perspectives (female, non-elite, enslaved, non-Italian) and remove stereotypical depictions of enslaved people in cited passages. The Art Department, in partnership with the Lamont Gallery, created an exhibition of student artwork that celebrates the strength of our diverse community, entitled, “Critical Joy.” Teachers in the History Department are placing emphasis on globalizing the curriculum. Additional examples could be provided from every other department. All of this work is integral to our pursuit of knowledge and goodness and our commitment to academic excellence.

Time is a precious commodity at the Academy. Accordingly, one of the most important and exciting developments this year was the decision to build dedicated time into the weekly schedule for anti-racism work. During one period each week, students and faculty engage in sustained conversations about race, racism, anti-racism and the work we are committed to doing as a school. Dr. Bramlett has spearheaded the design and implementation of our programming for this work. During the fall term, members of the administration, various departments and several student organizations were invited to share their approaches to this work in virtual school assemblies. We concluded the series with an assembly where I spoke about our anti-racism work on campus and answered students’ questions. During winter term, we have shifted to small-group discussions designed and led by student-faculty teams. We will continue this approach in the spring. Each “mini-course” meets three times, and students are able to choose from a wide variety of subjects:

  • Beyond Black and White: The Social Construction of Race in the United States 
  • Where We Live: Racial Residential Segregation 
  • Queer History and Anti-Racism 
  • Structural Racism in Policies and Practices 
  • The Racialization of Scientific Thought
  • The Call-In: for the Woke, the Canceled, and Everyone in Between
  • A Vision of Justice: How Art Opens Eyes, Touches Hearts, and Transforms Society
  • Constructing Competitive Culture: Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression in Athletics
  • The Structure and Culture of Racism 
  • Racial Health Care Disparities
  • Anti-Oppression Requires Intersectionality 
  • Immigration, Ethnicity, and Racism
  • Anti-Oppressive Leadership Training

In January of last year, I announced an initiative and appointed a steering committee to undertake a thorough examination of our school history for any connections between the Academy and the institution of slavery. Work has begun slowly, partly as a function of the pandemic. It has become apparent that the complexity of the project will require a larger committee and the aid of professional historians or other outside experts. Importantly, we will involve students in the initiative, whether through formal courses of study or participation on committees or task forces. As a first step, two seniors are pursuing an independent study project this year to understand and document John Phillips’ ownership of enslaved persons during a significant part of his life, including the year when the Academy was founded.[1] We may explore opportunities to collaborate on some aspects of this initiative with Phillips Academy Andover, given the historical ties between our schools.

Principal’s Discretionary DEI Fund

We announced last June a new Principal’s Discretionary Fund to support the Academy’s anti-racism work and DEI initiatives. Every trustee has contributed to the fund, as have other alumni. I will consult with Dr. Bramlett and others about the best ways to use these funds over time. I allocated a portion of the fund this year to support a third Dissertation Year Fellow. (We ordinarily have only two such positions.) I anticipate dedicating some of the fund to augment the work of our new Assistant Dean of Faculty and Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion and to advance the research into our school’s history with slavery. We have several other ideas under consideration, and I will report further on this subject at a later date.

This letter focuses on new initiatives undertaken this year, and much information about other ongoing work has been omitted. Our assembly program is a key component of our effort to celebrate our diversity and create an inclusive community. OMA-sponsored affinity groups are critical to nurturing a strong sense of belonging in all our students, and the student leadership of these groups is just one way students are contributing to the important work of building an inclusive community at Exeter. Essential work also is being done in the dormitories, advisories, athletics, music, drama, dance, visual arts, and myriad student activities. Here again, adults and students are sharing the load and the lead in the work we must do to realize our vision.

In my 2019 Opening Assembly remarks, I told students, “No accomplishments will be more important than how we function as a community. We will learn together. We will support each other. We will celebrate our diversity in all its dimensions. We will seek to grow in our awareness and understanding of others, and seek to become a stronger and more inclusive community. Our pursuit of knowledge and goodness, and our commitment to excellence in all we do, require nothing less.”

We will continue our work with resolve and purpose, and with the humility that comes with understanding that there is more to be done. Thank you for your attention to this letter.



William K. Rawson ’71; P’08


[1] This history is acknowledged in Crosbie, Laurence M. (1923). The Phillips Exeter Academy: A History. The Plimpton Press, p. 25; Heskel, Julia & Dyer, Davis. (2008). After the Harkness Gift: A History of Phillips Exeter Academy Since 1930. University Press of New England, p. 14.