Education

University of Iowa dental students demand change despite legislative blowback

'Things are broken,' student protester says

Fourth-year dental student Jasmine Butler (second from right) and third-year dental student Megha Puranam (right) lead p
Fourth-year dental student Jasmine Butler (second from right) and third-year dental student Megha Puranam (right) lead protesters in chants Friday as they march to the University of Iowa College of Dentistry during a “Put DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) in DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery)” walkout. The protest was discussed earlier this week by lawmakers in an Iowa House oversight committee meeting. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Back in May, University of Iowa third-year College of Dentistry student Chichi Adeleke said in a promotional video for the institution, “The reason I chose Iowa is simple. I was beyond impressed.”

“Whether it’s within classes, between classes, between faculty and students, or students and staff, everyone here is more than willing to help each other succeed,” Adeleke said in the video to the question of why she chose the UI college. “And I knew that was the environment that was right for me.”

But on Friday — speaking to dozens of her peers in frigid temperatures outside the college she had promoted just months ago — Adeleke said she regretted it.

“Things, externally, they look like they’re OK,” she said. “But internally, things are broken.”

Adeleke said she has been part of the dental college’s efforts to “appear” successful in its diversity efforts, urging students of diverse backgrounds to join panels, pursue leadership positions, and help recruit other minorities.

“That is something that many students in this college, myself included, no longer feel comfortable doing,” she said during a walkout and protest of the college’s diversity efforts.

The protest and the issues swirling around it are the focus of a legislative oversight hearing that began this week and continues next on a recurring topic in the Iowa Legislature — free speech on campus.

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GOP lawmakers say they are worried that conservative voices at the public universities are being squelched, sometimes in the name of diversity initiatives and with the support of campus administrators.

Adeleke is among a group of UI dental students who formed the “Action UIowa Task Force” to demand change in the dental college — which is under fire from both sides of the political spectrum for, among other things, its handling of a White House executive order last fall from the Trump administration barring certain types of diversity training.

In a mass email, college leaders condemned that order, which prohibited federal fund recipients like the UI from promoting race and sex “stereotyping” and “scapegoating” in their diversity trainings.

Replying to everyone on that email thread, a conservative student questioned the university’s objection — sparking a lengthy back and forth that left some students saying they felt targeted.

The conservative student — Michael Brase — was called in for a disciplinary hearing. But Republican lawmakers became involved and the UI canceled the hearing.

Brase earlier this week told his story to an Iowa House oversight committee, demanding the UI be held accountable. During the hearing Wednesday that included talk of the impending protest, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, told Brase that “anybody that supports using their First Amendment rights to trample on yours is a raging hypocrite.”

Brase said he and fellow conservative students have been called white supremacists and racists, leaving them fearful to speak freely.

Friday’s protesters, however, said they’re the ones who feel unwelcome and unsafe.

Task force members and supporters read comments and stories from anonymous students, including one from a minority student who reported being asked often if peers could touch her hair.

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Another minority student said one faculty member confuses her with another student of the same race because they “look the same.”

One student reported being asked whether his or her home country has prescription medication, or whether people just sell drugs on the street.

Those students have a long list of demands — including more diversity resources and training, “stricter professionalism guidelines,” social media student conduct guidelines and revised admissions processes.

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter, who spoke at Friday’s rally, said the students are going to get what they’re demanding.

“They’re going to get the help that they need,” Porter said. “I’ve already put it in place. They’re going to sit down with the right people. They’re going to have a seat at the table. They’re going to say what they need. They’re going to get what they want. This is just the beginning.”

UI administrators are expected to testify next week before the House oversight committee about their handling of the White House order and the email fallout.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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