Higher education

University of Iowa social justice forum peppered with outbursts, walkouts

Johnson County supervisor: 'I was obviously extremely frustrated'

The Old Capitol building is shown in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The Old Capitol building is shown in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Social justice — and its advocacy — took several different forms Monday night during a discussion with University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld that included outbursts and walkouts.

Several of the dozens of faculty, staff and students in attendance expressed frustration with the lack of response to several questions and topics, including why the university has decided not to increase pay for 2,685 employees in line with a Johnson County-wide stepped increase in the minimum wage.

Audience members also expressed concern with a lack of diversity on campus — among both students and faculty — and the lack of healthy discussion on the topic inside and outside the classroom.

After one woman asked Harreld, “At what point does the institution take action to create justice on this campus instead of just talking about it,” graduate student union President Jeannette Gabriel raised her voice. “We can’t hear you, President Harreld,” Gabriel said. “You’re getting paid too much money for this. This is a public forum. Speak up.”

Harreld was among several panelists who participated in Monday’s discussion on social justice — connected to the campus’ “Just Living” theme this semester that has brought speakers, exhibits and events to campus.

When several audience members, including Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan, raised questions about why the university did not increase the minimum wage on campus, the panelists fell silent.

“It seems like a very basic social justice issue,” Sullivan said during the discussion.

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“I think that’s a wonderful topic that we can add to our list,” Brittney Thomas, coordinator of the learning commons in the UI Main Library, said in response, prompting multiple audience members — including Sullivan — to stand up and walk out.

“I was obviously extremely frustrated by the university’s decision to ignore that topic,” Sullivan told The Gazette after the forum. “I’m glad the university has been doing the stuff they’re doing this semester. But to have a social justice forum and ignore the elephant in the room ... the irony was almost too much to bear.”

Johnson County on Sunday increased the mandatory minimum wage from $8.20 to $9.15 an hour, nearly $2 higher than the state and federal minimum of $7.25. The county ordinance has the minimum wage bumping to $10.10 in January 2017.

Officials with the university, which doesn’t have to comply with the county ordinance because it’s a state entity, have said the institution aims to provide market-competitive salary rates, and student employees average $9.66 per hour.

Of the 2,685 UI employees making less than $9.15 an hour, 2,647 are students and 39 are temporary staff, according to UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett.

“I’m extremely disappointed in their decision, and I’m even more disappointed in their unwillingness to talk about that decision,” Sullivan said. “Reasonable people can disagree, but the fact that they won’t talk to the taxpayers who fund that place to me is completely unacceptable.”

Before launching into Monday’s discussion on social justice, several of the panelists said they were prepared for an uncomfortable discussion on real issues facing the campus. And some of that occurred.

One man asked questions about the growing UI international student population — primarily among students from China — and one of the panelists asked why more students of different races and ethnic backgrounds weren’t involved in the discussion.

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When asked how the university is going to increase diversity among faculty “with the regime of austerity, which we all know is coming with the current president,” Harreld said he has no austerity plans in the works.

“The issue of us needing more resources is imminently clear,” he said, adding that administrators are looking at advocating for more state support, increasing tuition and being smarter with the institution’s scarce resources. “It might be possible to think more intelligently with some of these.”

In the end, Harreld vowed to continue the conversation — even using summer months — to focus on specific topics in hopes of better addressing the issue of social justice on campus.

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