Black Lives Matter at The Rockefeller University

Natural Selections Editorial Board

The appalling and tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis during a pandemic that was already disproportionately affecting Black communities provoked a global re-awakening for justice for Black people. This seeking of justice has not excluded the realm of academia. 

The Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative (RiSI) is a student-run organization formed in 2018 with the support of Erich Jarvis as the faculty advisor. Dr. Jarvis, a Rockefeller alum himself, is the first and only Black full professor in the 119-year history of Rockefeller. RiSI’s mission is “to unify diverse voices and improve our campus and broader scientific community” in terms of diversity and inclusion. In the two short years since its inception, RiSI’s work and passion have already had an impact on the Rockefeller community and the broader scientific community, including their advocacy for contracted custodial workers at the beginning of the shutdown due to COVID-19.

So when no official statement came from Rockefeller for days after the murder of George Floyd and the beginning of protests, RiSI stepped up. On May 31, 2020, they sent an e-mail to the Rockefeller community acknowledging Floyd’s murder and encouraging university members to show their support for the Black community (see RiSI e-mail, page NNN). 

Black Lives Matter signs were subsequently hung around the university, most prominently displayed to the public on the north side of the Kravis Research Building along the East River and in the halls of university housing (shown below). Unfortunately, the sign hung in university housing by Rockefeller graduate students Rachel Leicher and Donovan Phua was removed the next day, according to Leicher. 

Photo courtesy of Rachel Leicher

RiSI also followed up with an e-mail linking to helpful resources including fundraisers, petitions, literature, and organizations related to social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. After sending a statement of solidarity to the community along with this list of resources, RiSI collaborated with Women in Science at Rockefeller (WISeR) and People at Rockefeller Identifying as Sexual Minorities (PRISM), as well as a group of Rockefeller alumni to send concurrent e-mails to the Rockefeller administration addressing their silence. 

RiSI, WISeR, and PRISM sent a collaborative e-mail to the administration on the evening of June 1 (see RiSI, WISeR, and PRISM e-mail, page NNN). After collecting 116 signatures from alumni belonging to graduating classes ranging from 1969 to 2020, the alumni group sent their e-mail the following afternoon on June 2 (see Rockefeller alumni e-mail, page NNN).

On the afternoon of June 2, the Rockefeller administration broke their silence with an e-mail to the Rockefeller community. After additional prompting by RiSI and others within the Rockefeller community to stand publicly in solidarity with the Black community, the initial e-mail response was made public two days later.

The administration also acknowledged their receipt of the alumni letter and said that they would use their ideas as resources to consider how to move forward and improve the community at Rockefeller. 

RiSI continued to have multiple meetings with the administration and followed up with an additional letter and petition for the administration to commit to taking actionable steps to address racism on campus (see RiSI petition e-mail and petition, pages NNN-NNN). 

Within twenty-four hours, the petition had garnered support from 350 members of the Rockefeller community. This continued effort led by RiSI resulted in the first racial equality Town Hall meeting of academic staff and students with the administration on June 10, which was also the date of #shutdownSTEM, a day used by academia to protest and reflect on social injustice in support of the Black community. As of June 25, RiSI’s petition had the support of 444 members of the Rockefeller community, including sixteen Heads of Laboratory.

The Rockefeller administration is trying to respond to these cries for justice. To show their support, they have provided free COVID-19 testing for those wishing to participate in protests in the city. Statements of solidarity, like the one given by President Rick Lifton at the beginning of the 2020 Virtual Convocation Ceremony, are greatly appreciated as are steps that have already been taken to make the university inclusive. But a response to cries for justice predicates that there is an unmet need in the community and there is clear room for improvement. Continued, consistent, and intentional action and support are required. Our community needs to unequivocally say and show that Black Lives Matter. 

RiSI e-mail:

“Last Monday’s horrific scene in Minneapolis, in which police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee planted on George Floyd’s neck until his death, has sent shockwaves throughout the US. The frustration and anger towards Mr. Floyd’s death and staggering frequency of injustices on the Black community has culminated in nationwide protests in at least 48 cities. People are tired of the silence and frustrated at the lack of meaningful response to previous movements calling for social change.

Now is the time to show our support to the Black community in any way that we can at Rockefeller University. Though many may take comfort in the claim that science is apolitical, our Black community members are not afforded this privilege. The excellent work of several laboratories and departments at Rockefeller (lab safety, custodial, food, animal facility, etc) are led by people from communities hit the most by police brutality and racism. As Rockefeller begins to reopen, more people from these communities will be on campus and it will be important for their presence to be recognized.

One simple way to do this is by posting signs that reflect our support for the Black Lives Matter movement around the laboratory and other areas on campus that are heavily trafficked. Please refer to the signs in the dropbox link for examples to easily print out and put on windows and doors. If other laboratories/facilities nearby are interested as well please coordinate with each other to make something more visible.

Please ensure that your Head of Laboratory is comfortable and supportive of posting signs prior to doing so.”


RiSI, WISeR, and PRISM e-mail:

“Dear Members of the Rockefeller Administration,

Last Monday’s horrific scene in Minneapolis, in which police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee planted on George Floyd’s neck until his death, has sent shockwaves throughout the US and the world. The frustration and anger towards Mr. Floyd’s death, and the staggering frequency of injustices on the Black community, has culminated in nationwide protests in at least 48 cities. People across the country are tired of the silence, and frustrated at the lack of meaningful responses to previous movements calling for social change.

Though many may take comfort in the claim that science is apolitical, many in the Black community, and other communities of color, are not afforded this privilege. Science and medicine have a long, unfortunate history of exploiting marginalized communities, particularly those of color. Some of the most infamous examples include the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments, the acquisition of HeLa cells from Henrietta Lacks, and the erroneous justification of racism through genetic studies. 

Black individuals and communities most affected by police brutality and racism are an integral part of the Rockefeller community, leading much of the excellent and vital work in several laboratories and departments (lab safety, custodial, food, animal facility, etc.). As Rockefeller begins to reopen, more individuals from these communities will be on campus and it is imperative that their presence be recognized.

This past weekend, we, the Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative (RiSI), sent out a call for students and postdocs to speak to their HOLs about posting Black Lives Matter signs around the laboratory. Additionally, we sent a list of funds, organizations, and media to support the cause further. Our emails were met with enthusiasm from both students and the HOLs they’ve contacted. The Rockefeller community is coming together during this time to show that movements for equality can be, and should be, advocated for by scientists.

As leaders of the University, your voice speaks volumes to our community, and those watching us. It would be meaningful to Black members of our Rockefeller community, and the community at large, for the administration to directly address the systemic racism brought to the forefront by recent tragedies, including George Floyd’s death. We ask that you consider joining many universities in expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, principles of equity and inclusion, and condemnation of police brutality and systematic racism in our nation. We also ask for your support in a community effort to hang Black Lives Matter signs in places where we can most powerfully show our stance, such as on the pedestrian bridge over 63rd St and Kravis Research Building windows facing the river. 


César Vargas and Josue Regalado
Rockefeller Inclusive Student Initiative

Stephanie Marcus and Audrey Harnagel
Women in Science at Rockefeller (WISeR)

The PRISM Board
People at Rockefeller Identifying as Sexual Minorities (PRISM)” 


Rockefeller alumni e-mail:

June 2, 2020

Dear Members of the Rockefeller Administration,

We are writing as alumni of Rockefeller University to express our support for the recent call to action from the graduate community to address racial justice and anti-racism. As you’re aware, there has been a large and appropriate response to the murder of Black Americans across the country. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade’s names have all been added to a long list of Black lives lost at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. We must recognize that our Black colleagues live with the knowledge that it could be them.

Rockefeller’s motto — science for the benefit of humanity — is a fundamentally political statement implying that science has a duty to serve society. Embedded within that motto are political questions, such as: for the benefit of whose humanity? Who is allowed to steer the science for that benefit? Throughout our history, we have seen the biomedical research community make research choices driven by politics and value judgments. When we run a Fisher’s Exact Test, we cannot forget that Ronald Fisher was a pioneer of eugenics. When we pull out a culture of HeLa cells, we cannot forget those cells were extracted from Henrietta Lacks without her consent. When confronted with the devastating statistics surrounding COVID-19, we cannot forget that this virus has taken disproportionately more Black lives because of systemic inequities in healthcare.

As leaders, you have a responsibility to Black trainees, faculty, and staff to openly and loudly affirm that you are aware of our history and that this legacy stops here. Your voice is essential in asserting you are working to ensure that Black members of our community are safe at work from racism and discrimination — that you commit to working for the benefit of their humanity, as well. 

Universities and institutions across the country, including Harvard School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, have issued statements echoing their commitment to racial justice and anti-racism, as well as concrete actions they can take to ensure their words carry weight. Actions Rockefeller can take, in addition to supporting the community effort to hang a #BlackLivesMatter sign along the pedestrian bridge, include:

  • Join leaders in the biomedical research community and publicly denounce racial injustice and anti-Black racism;
  • Pledge not to call the police for non-violent crimes, while ensuring campus security are trained in methods of de-escalation;
  • Require bystander intervention training;
  • Hire anti-racist educators to educate faculty, staff, postdocs, and trainees on meaningful strategies to dismantle systemic racism;
  • Convene a committee to draft an explicit anti-racism policy for the campus community, bringing in scholars of anti-racism and compensating them appropriately for their time;
  • Hire independent diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants to assess the current atmosphere and university practices and serve as change management officers to transform the workplace culture;
  • Create an anonymous system for members of the Rockefeller community to report acts of discrimination and bias;
  • Recruit and retain students and faculty of color, particularly those who have been historically underrepresented;
  • Create a policy that explicitly describes how faculty will be rewarded for mentorship and outreach in decisions of tenure and promotion, as these responsibilities often fall disproportionately on underrepresented faculty.

We sincerely hope that you use your position to combat the history of racism and violence — both within and outside of science — and stand with the Black community. Supporting Black lives follows in John D Rockefeller’s commitment to the abolition of slavery and his founding of Spelman College, America’s oldest private historically black liberal arts college for women. We must commit to do the learning and transformation necessary to be part of the solution and to develop robust anti-racist practices in science and society. 

Until then, we are left with George Floyd’s last words to fill the silence: ‘I can’t breathe.’


The Rockefeller Alumni”


RiSI petition e-mail:

“Dear Rockefeller community, 

In response to the global outrage at continued systemic racism and police brutality against members of the Black community, President Lifton’s statement last week called for “the beginnings of efforts to bring about lasting change” and a “rigorous inquiry to evaluate our own biases”. We hope that this statement only marks the start of campus-wide steps to address institutionalized racism on our campus. In efforts towards this cause, we at the Rockefeller Inclusive Student Initiative (RiSI) have been working with the Dean’s Office and administration to develop actionable plans for lasting change. 

While we continue this dialogue, we want to ensure that all in our community are heard and that progress be transparent. We ask that everyone respond to a survey/petition to assess which changes are most needed and desired at Rockefeller. This survey also serves the dual role of a petition where everyone’s voices will be collected and sent to the administration as evidence that the broader Rockefeller community stands behind these actions. The longer this list of names is, the more significantly we can push for institutional change.

Within the survey, there is also a field for individual comments which we strongly encourage all to fill out to strengthen our petition with personal testimonies. There is a national movement for science and academia to #Strike4BlackLives planned for tomorrow, Wednesday, June 10th. We ask that on this day of pause, each of you take a moment to complete the survey and submit any personal accounts you feel comfortable sharing of institutionalized racism in education or science and reasons why institutional support for Black and underrepresented scientists is important. These will be collected and presented to the administration (with the option of remaining anonymous). Please respond by 11:59pm Wednesday, June 10th.


We are also currently asking the administration to conduct a campus-wide town-hall on racial equality issues present at Rockefeller. The responses provided in the survey will be an opportunity for you to draft what you’d like to see discussed at a town-hall, with the possibility of either reading it out yourself or by a member of RiSI on your behalf.

Finally, we encourage discussion within your labs and departments, and we ask that heads of labs and departments make space for difficult conversations concerning diversity and inclusion in science. We want to foster serious, empathetic conversations about racial discrimination and its effects on our scientific community campus-wide to show that these issues involve us all. Together we can take the anger, shock, and frustration that so many of us have rightfully felt these past days to take a stand for a campus that listens to and supports our Black and underrepresented minority members. 

We owe it to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and countless others whose lives have been taken at the hands of institutionalized racism to fight for a more just and equal future. This begins by calling on the leaders of Rockefeller University to listen to our collective voice and fight with us. This movement will continue to press on because this is how change happens. We thank you for your passion.

In solidarity,

The Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative” 

RiSI petition:

“June 9, 2020 

We are disappointed in the administration’s tepid response to the Black Lives Matter movement and a lack of commitment to institutional changes to make the University a more diverse AND inclusive place. We demand that the administration immediately design, circulate, and implement an action plan to make Rockefeller University a supportive environment for all our members of Black and underrepresented minority communities, among our students, postdocs, faculty, and staff. 

This is our opportunity as a community to communicate that issues of diversity and inclusion are fundamentally important and need to be addressed by Rockefeller University’s administration. 

We ask that you stand with us in our efforts to make Rockefeller University more inclusive by becoming a model for these efforts across academia, and sign this petition by the end of the day on Wednesday. 

IN ADDITION to the action items requested in the alumni petition, we demand that the University commit to: 

  1. Administrative position dedicated to diversity and inclusion: Hire a diversity/inclusion officer or similar position that reports to the president. We wholeheartedly agree that promoting diversity and inclusion should be in everyone’s job description, and we will continue championing that goal, but coordinating these long-term efforts takes a significant time commitment. We strongly feel that having a professional solely dedicated to the administrative side of these efforts will shift some of the burden from trainees. 
  2. Public statement on recruiting underrepresented faculty and trainees: Publicly make a commitment to recruit trainees and faculty from communities underrepresented in science on the university website (appropriate locations would be in the Faculty Recruitment and Graduate Program in Biosciences pages). 
  3. Town hall: Organize a town hall (or series of town halls) for community members to discuss incidents of institutional racism experienced at Rockefeller, to brainstorm ways to address these inequities, and for the administration to be transparent with details on how they are enacting institutional change. Recent examples have occurred at other institutions including Weill Cornell, UCSD, Caltech, and an upcoming vigil hosted by Columbia University Medical Center (this Wednesday at 6:30pm over Zoom). 
  4. Climate survey: Administer and publicly disseminate the results of a new, anonymous campus-wide climate survey that specifically addresses issues of racial inclusivity, discrimination, and bias on campus. 
  5. Inviting speakers from diverse backgrounds: Commit to increase the number of invited speakers for lectures and seminars who are from underrepresented backgrounds. Here, we propose to also create an annual Friday lecture that is centered on the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion in science. 
  6. Annual reporting on HOL mentorship: Require HOLs to complete an annual report on mentorship practices and undergo additional training if they do not actively work toward creating a diverse and inclusive work environment. 
  7. Research relationships with minority-serving institutions: Develop a research training relationship with medical schools, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and other minority-serving institutions (as defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965) across the country. We aim to provide research experiences at Rockefeller laboratories to Black and Native American MD and MD/PhD students, and additionally, retain at least one spot in the SURF program for undergraduate students from HBCUs or other minority-serving institutions. 
  8. Anti-racism, anti-bias in science training: Require a module or class on the implications of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, and disability on the history and future of bioscience. This could be incorporated as an extension of the Responsible Conduct of Research course. 
  9. Diversity statements from faculty candidates: Require faculty candidates to provide statements on their past, present, and future contributions to promoting equity, inclusion, and diversity in their professional career. 
  10. Increased diversity in executive team: Development of an institutional plan (with milestones) to increase diversity within Rockefeller’s executive leadership and board of trustees. Increasing diversity amongst the administration will push for decisions to be more inclusive on campus. Current executive leadership and board of trustees are listed here.” 

Excerpt from Rockefeller’s Response:

  • Rockefeller does not have a diversity/inclusion officer. We commit to evaluating the models utilized by different institutions to promote diversity and inclusion, concluding with our own plan no later than the end of August.
  • The University has long published our encouragement for applications from communities underrepresented in science for graduate school and faculty appointments. We will immediately put these statements on display on our public web sites as well. 
  • We will provide forums and mechanisms to report and discuss incidents of discrimination, bias, and institutional racism at the University and determine actions to address inequities and prevent bias.
  • We will administer and disseminate results of an anonymous campus climate survey regarding issues of racial inclusivity, discrimination, and bias.
  • We commit to increase the number of invited speakers and seminars from underrepresented backgrounds, and will host a featured annual Friday lecture focused on promoting diversity and inclusion in science.
  • Working with the Academic Council of the faculty, we will establish guidelines for annual reporting on HOL mentorship practices and provide further training as warranted. 
  • We will seek to establish relationships with minority-serving institutions and expand research experiences at Rockefeller labs to BIPOC students from minority-serving institutions.
  • We will require training on anti-racism and anti-bias in science through the Responsible Conduct of Research course and evaluate anti-racism and anti-bias training for the broader campus community, including training and interventions tailored to units on campus in which specific problems are identified. 
  • By the end of August, we will develop a plan to increase diversity at all administrative levels including the executive team and board of trustees.”
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