Education

Racial tensions rise on Iowa's public university campuses

Iowa State University students rally, UNI chief apologizes, University of Iowa leaders flounder

At an open forum last Monday at Iowa State University to discuss increasing racial tensions on campus, ISU doctorate candidate Wesley Harris, left, echoes a sentiment held by others that ISU’s administration is too lackadaisical about addressing racial issues. He said he’s “pessimistic” that the university would ever hold perpetrators of incidents of bias accountable. (Robbie Sequeira/Ames Tribune)
At an open forum last Monday at Iowa State University to discuss increasing racial tensions on campus, ISU doctorate candidate Wesley Harris, left, echoes a sentiment held by others that ISU’s administration is too lackadaisical about addressing racial issues. He said he’s “pessimistic” that the university would ever hold perpetrators of incidents of bias accountable. (Robbie Sequeira/Ames Tribune)
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IOWA CITY — Only partway through the fall semester, Iowa’s public universities find themselves responding to acts of racism and widespread concerns that leaders are too complacent about confronting diversity issues — with the University of Northern Iowa apologizing for shortcomings and Iowa State University conceding that “we still have much work to do.”

The University of Iowa, beyond addressing occasional racist incidents on campus, is struggling to maintain a head of its diversity, equity and inclusion office — with the administrator it recently hired quitting after just six weeks.

With the regent system’s increasingly diverse student bodies demanding change and, at ISU, protesting in the streets, issues about the atmosphere on the Ames, Cedar Falls and Iowa City campuses have been shoved into the spotlight.

Students who identify as racial or ethnic minorities account for nearly 16 percent of all UI, ISU and UNI students — the most ever, and up nearly 6 percentage points since 2010, according to a Board of Regents’ fall 2019 enrollment report. And that growing prominence has empowered students to demand administrative attention and action in the face of blatant discrimination.

Take, for example, ISU, which in recent weeks has seen racial slurs scrawled in a residence hall, anti-Semitic vandalism and a student adviser in blackface.

“We are going to get to the point where we are going to ask them to step down,” ISU sophomore Alexa Rodriguez, 19, told The Gazette about the perceived inadequate administrative response to the incidents.

“They refuse to confront racism,” she said. “And this is happening across the campuses in Iowa.”

ISU acknowledges it has ‘work to do’

This fall’s rash of racist epithets is not a first for the universities.

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Before and after the 2016 election, ISU police yanked down racist posters across campus and responded to reports of racial slurs. UI and UNI dealt with similar incidents, according to police and media reports.

“All of this has been going on a long time,” Rodriguez said, asserting the administrative response has amounted to “empty promises.”

Amid recent protests that involved occupying ISU President Wendy Wintersteen’s office and stopping traffic on busy Lincoln Way, Rodriguez and her peers — calling themselves “Students Against Racism” — have submitted a list of demands to ISU leaders.

The university must declare a “zero tolerance policy toward racism and anti-Semitism,” according to the list, by — among other things — expelling students who chalked neo-Nazi slogans on campus and who vandalized the Bean House in the Geoffroy Hall dorm.

The students also want administrators to shut down a “Students for Trump” club accused of attaching neo-Nazi slogans to political writings; fire the student government adviser who wore black face; and add a student advisory board run by students of color to the list of campus offices charged with handling discrimination.

They’re demanding “extensive inclusivity and diversity training” for faculty and staff, bias training for ISU police and clearer messages about attacks on marginalized communities. The messages should “clearly state the incidents that the email addresses, and make it very clear that we do not tolerate this on our campus.”

Last Monday, students and representatives from the university held an open forum in which frustration with lack of administrative response, demands for action and personal accounts of discrimination experienced on campus were shared.

But some said the room was to small for the crowd, and urged without success to move to a larger room. Susan Vega Garcia, who serves as the assistant dean of Inclusion and Diversity. said that since the room couldn’t exceed 108 people under fire code regulations, people might have to be turned away or wait in the hallway for a seat to come open.

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Students called on the administration to hold a public meeting no later than Wednesday for a check-in on their demands, plus a public statement condemning white supremacy.

A week before receiving those demands, Wintersteen wrote a campus message responding to racist acts by noting ISU’s aspirations for a “welcoming and inclusive environment for all of our students, faculty, staff, and visitors.”

“Clearly, we still have much work to do,” she wrote. “Members of our community continue to report being subjected to racist messages, the use of racist epithets, and other racist conduct and speech on campus. This is unacceptable and wrong.”

Wintersteen, in her message, acknowledged she doesn’t issue a campus communication after every incident. But, she said, “I want you to know that each and every incident is hurtful and counters the welcoming and inclusive environment that we strive to create.”

“The bigoted ideas behind racist messages and conduct are abhorrent, false, and inconsistent with my values and the values we expect within our campus community,” she wrote.

A “Campus Climate Response Team” follows a process of collecting and assessing reports of racial incidents, and assigns them for follow-up — with ISU police or the Department of Residence, for example.

“I will continue to discuss these issues with my leadership team to evaluate how incidents are handled and determine how we can better ensure all impacted individuals feel supported,” Wintersteen wrote.

Rodriguez said such statements fall short of the action they desire, and students will get louder in their calls for ISU leaders to resign if the administrators don’t meet the demands.

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“At the end of the day, we pay for this education, we are here to receive a degree and a profession, and they work for us,” she said. “And I think that they’ve forgotten that.”

Months of inaction, then a UNI apology

At UNI, some students likewise are frustrated with what they view as cultural incompetency and a lack of respect across the regent system.

“There is obviously a diversity issue across all the public universities across the state of Iowa,” UNI senior Anissa Smith said, noting she loves her school and the opportunities it provides.

“To call out the university does not bring me happiness,” Smith said. “If we want to get enrollment numbers up, we never will get that if we’re on the same pace we are now.”

UNI President Mark Nook recently issued a vision for a “more welcoming and inclusive campus” in response to student and faculty condemnation of his administration’s lack of action and failure to meet students’ diversity-related suggestions and goals.

“I want to personally apologize for this, for the message this situation sent to our campus, and for the frustration and distrust felt by these students,” Nook wrote in an Oct. 30 message.

The “situation” compelling Nook’s comments started in the last academic year, when UNI officials tried to relocate and limit access to a student-organized concert with rap artist Waka Flocka Flame — citing threats of gang violence.

Many of UNI’s minority students felt those actions were discriminatory and, in February, they worked with UNI’s Student Government to pass a resolution condemning “racial biases” in the administration’s decision making.

UNI leadership apologized, agreeing to meet with a new student-led Racial and Ethnic Coalition. But months later — despite a list of goals and recommendations UNI administrators promised to pursue — nothing had changed, members of the student coalition told The Gazette.

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“They agreed these are doable and said, ‘We can have them done by the fall when you return,’” UNI senior Sashay Carroll, 23, said, noting a September follow-up revealed administrative apathy. “They were not done — none of the things we asked for. They neglected to do all of these things.”

The group’s six recommendations included crafting a script for what those giving admissions tours should say about the UNI Center of Multicultural Education and Diversity Inclusion and Social Justice; clarifying how students should report perpetrated bias on campus; offering institutionally-backed publicity and support for multicultural organizations; defining senior leadership responsibilities related to diversity, equity and inclusion; doing the same in job descriptions for top administrators; and more widely disseminating multicultural support and resources across campus.

When students in the Racial and Ethnic Coalition discovered administrators hadn’t follow up on their suggestions, 22-year-old UNI senior Mahlia Brown said they gave the leadership an extra month. In October, administrators provided a document with what the students characterized as “misinformation” about what they had and had not done.

“Nothing was fully competed, and we don’t want to continue to meet until it’s done,” Brown said. “They are not being courteous of our time.”

UNI’s Student Government responded swiftly by passing a resolution Oct. 16 condemning — among other things — senior leadership and Chief Diversity Officer Gwennette Berry for failing to recognize “the lived experiences of students of color on this campus.”

Faculty came out in support of the students, and Nook in his Oct. 30 apology acknowledged UNI leadership had not “fully accomplished” the students’ “very reasonable requests” by the start of the fall semester. That, he conceded, served as “a reflection that we did not prioritize them nor our commitment of becoming a ‘diverse and inclusive campus community.’”

In moving forward “with dedication and measurable action,” Nook announced plans to form a “President’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Advisory Committee” of faculty, staff and students.

The group’s first agenda item will involve crafting an action plan to set priorities and guide the campus’ work.

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But Montesha Carter, a 21-year-old member of the UNI student coalition, said the group doesn’t want an apology and calls it a “slap in the face.” It has incited a social media campaign propelled with the hashtag #UNIisnotanally.

UNI senior Carroll dismissed committees as just more inaction.

“What we have started to notice with these meetings is they like to talk in circles,” she said. “A lot is said. And not a lot is done. They are going to talk about solving problems, but students of color are not going to be seeing the results.”

Shortly after Nook’s apology, UNI faculty leadership issued a statement shredding campus leaders for their inaction and efforts to suppress the students’ concerns.

“We strongly condemn the physical blocking of students from passing out informational materials, removing informational materials for public deliberation, and taking informational materials from students’ hands, actions witnessed by faculty and faculty leadership,” according to the statement.

“President Nook’s apology is merely a public relations attempt at damage control,” said Joe Gorton, a UNI faculty member and former union president. “It is the second apology he’s made this year about his administration’s role in creating racial tensions at UNI. Instead of accepting any measure of responsibility he implies this most recent incident is a product of prior administrations. This is not leadership, it is pure public relations managerialism.”

At UI, diversity director last 6 weeks

The UI likewise has been navigating racial tensions for years, with a “Build the Wall” banner erected on a campus walkway last spring inciting a #doesUIowaLoveMe social media campaign revealing stories of discrimination and marginalization.

The campus has reported several incidents this fall it deemed racist.

In one, a member of the UI Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority posted a picture on Instagram of girls dressed in white with the comment, “Join the KKK,” followed by the comment, “I mean join the KKG.”

The UI Panhellenic Council quickly denounced the comment and promised immediate action — including reassessing how it educates its members. But UI officials have not clarified what that means.

“The Panhellenic Council is working on an internal education program. We have no additional details to share at this time,” reported Hayley Bruce, a UI spokeswoman.

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The Kappa Kappa Gamma headquarters has not responded to The Gazette’s questions whether any disciplinary action was taken against the member who made the comment.

And while the university recently conducted a campuswide survey and crafted a diversity, equity and inclusion action plan, the administration has struggled to find someone to lead its diversity operation.

A director of that division resigned for another job in 2017, followed by two interims and then a hire who left after just six weeks on the job.

The university has not announced if it will conduct a new search for another director. But it assigned Provost Montserrat Fuentes to oversee diversity efforts.

While leaders at the universities struggle with making their campuses more inclusive, new statistics show those campuses are growing more diverse.

Of this fall’s first-year UI undergraduates, nearly 20 percent identify as a racial or ethnic minority, and 22 percent are first-generation students, according to a new regent enrollment report.

ISU’s student body is reported to be more diverse than ever, with over 15 percent of all undergraduates identifying as multicultural.

And UNI reports 11 percent of its student body identifies as a racial or ethnic minority.

Those trends, among other things, have emboldened students to action — which ISU’s Rodriguez said won’t stop.

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“We are not going to let this die down,” she said. “We are serious about this.”

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

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