As instances of hate and prejudice accumulate on campus, conversations surrounding free speech and how hateful acts should be addressed by the university’s administration have heightened.
This Tuesday, students from African-American, Hispanic and other communities exercised their own right to speak in a town hall meeting with Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis and members of his cabinet.
The dialogue was held in response to a hateful Snapchat photo featuring two students in blackface.
In an email distributed campus-wide, Vice Chancellor of Student Life Vincent Carilli decried the photo as “repulsive,” its sentiments “abhorrent.”
Carilli stressed the administration’s commitment to combating racist speech and behavior, and urged students to attend an upcoming meeting with university leaders.
Students from throughout campus came to Ballrooms B and C in the Student Union, engaging in conversation with Davis and other administrators.
Several other relative newcomers to the administration joined Davis in the meeting, including Interim Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement Tyvi Small and Vice Chancellor for Communications Tisha Benton.
Provost David Manderscheid and Carilli were also among cabinet members.
The meeting began with brief addresses from Small and Davis; the cabinet then opened the floor to student questions.
From 2 p.m. to approximately 5:30 p.m., students expressed their frustration with a campus environment that bombarded them with racist attitudes, both from fellow students and faculty members.
Many also expressed their disappointment in the administration for responding merely with a slew of emails and unrealized promises.
African American and Latino students cited repeated manifestations of racism—both in their personal lives and from the campus environment as a whole—as evidence that the administration’s past resolutions to create an accepting campus environment had failed to bear substantial fruit.
Taylor Gladney, a freshman majoring in computer engineering, found the majority of the administrator’s responses during the meeting to be equally unsatisfying.
“(They) were very repetitive … saying ‘thank you for your story, I’m so sorry, that was well said;’ I got tired of hearing that after every single response … there’s a reason why this has been a recurring problem … this is a cycle, and cycles don’t get broken by you repeating the same actions,” Gladney said.
Gladney’s words echoed a number of her peers’ sentiments. Several students directly chided Davis and his cabinet for paying lip service, and, as they perceived the cabinet’s responses, insincerely apologizing for the suffering inflicted by a campus tolerant of insensitivity and prejudice towards minorities within its own population.
While the dialogue initially focused on the hateful photo posted last week and its effect on members of the black community, the conversation soon addressed other forms of hate: acts of hate perpetuated against the LGBTQ+ community and women.
Sharon Couch, chair of the Chancellor’s Commission for Blacks, commended students for stepping forward and speaking freely, but lamented the lack of focus to which the meeting occasionally succumbed.
“These situations morph into ‘all’ or (just about) ‘diversity’,” Couch said, referring to the verbiage that slowly changed from referring specifically to the issues facing the black community to those facing a generalized “diverse” or “minority” population.
“I get that we have a lot of other things going on … but (we need to be) strategic about addressing racism and caring for and supporting our black students,” Couch said.
In an interview, Small outlined the action plan that the administration had begun to draft, a set of changes which spans additions to a general education curriculum, orientation programs, first-year studies and leadership training for faculty and staff members.
For Small, the process of reforming the campus climate is a joint effort between students and the administration.
“It’s a partnership: the students have let us know how they feel, what they think, their perspective; they’ve opened their hearts, their souls and their spirits to us," Smalls said. "So now it’s up to us … to think about what we can do right now.”