By Alyssa Brandon, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 20, 2015
On a cold Martin Luther King, Jr. Day last year, members of the University’s Black Student Union stood atop the steps of Hill Auditorium, holding black signs etched with white chalk. The organization gathered to protest stagnant minority enrollment and demand the University meet seven goals for improving campus climate.
Engineering senior Robert Greenfield, BSU treasurer, said in early discussions, administrators expressed a genuine willingness to collaborate with the BSU.
“University administration is made of the highest and best servants of our University, and the BSU is very appreciative of how they have collaborated with us,” he said. “However, as of now, it is the overall sentiment of the BSU that progress is not being made, and as an executive board, we’re questioning the administration’s willingness due to how fast things are progressing.”
Despite progress on several of the BSU’s demands, which included revising the Race and Ethnicity distribution requirement and providing emergency funding for students, Greenfield said he and other members of the BSU believe progress slowed over the last year, particularly in increasing minority enrollment and establishing a new multicultural center on Central Campus.
“It’s been a year, and many of the things that still need to be done, the Black Student Union just can’t control,” he said. “Many of the solutions to the demands have been handed over to people who are very passionate about fulfilling the work, but just simply don’t have the resources to do so.”
In November 2013, the BSU had launched the Twitter initiative #BBUM. Students of color used the hashtag, which stands for Being Black at the University of Michigan, to share thoughts and experiences about being a minority on campus. #BBUM soon went viral, accumulating over 10,000 tweets by 10 p.m. the evening of its launch. The creation of the hashtag and the subsequent movement gained national media attention and inspired similar movements on other college campuses.
Law Prof. Martha Jones, co-director of the Law School’s Program in Race, Law & History and an associate professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily that she was not on campus when the movement began, but followed the events via social media.
“I recall vividly setting my Twitter to the hashtag, so I could keep up with the hashtag, and I remember seeing the photographs of all the postings on the posting wall,” she said. “Those still, to me, are some of the most powerful images of the movement.”
As part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day demonstration, BSU made seven demands of the University administration and challenged officials to respond within seven days. According to the BSU website, the demands would give the group “an equal opportunity to make change” on campus. Shortly after, weekly discussions between the BSU and the University administration commenced. During these meetings, plans to address every demand were developed.
Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones was present during the weekly meetings between the BSU and administration. In an interview with the Daily, she discussed some of the work that has been done since discussions with the BSU began.
“Progress was made with every single one of the demands, and several of the demands have been completely rectified,” Dean Jones said. “For example, the Bentley documents have been digitized and stricter Race and Ethnicity requirements have been implemented.”
Last April, University officials and the BSU co-authored a press release outlining how each of the seven demands was to be addressed. Dean Jones referred the Daily to the press release when asked about the progress made to address every demand thus far. Among the seven, four demands have been completely remedied, she said.
The BSU was granted $60,000, for funding a variety of student groups on campus, an increase from the $37,000 previously allocated to the organization.
The University also approved Intergroup Relations courses to count toward the Race and Ethnicity distribution requirement, increasing the classes in credit value from two credits to three. Seven colleges within the University adopted IGR courses as classes fulfilling the Race and Ethnicity requirement.
The administration also addressed emergency funding for students with financial need, which the BSU demanded the University increase. By launching a survey, the University determined that available funds had not been exhausted. As a result, several University units, including the Office of Student Life and Central Student Government, created a central website to raise awareness about available emergency funding options for each school and college.
Lastly, officials digitized Bentley Historical Library documents with information on the Black Action Movement of the 1960s. A long-term plan for digitizing the remaining documents is currently in development by the Bentley Library.
Talks to address affordable housing are ongoing, though evening and weekend bus service has increased as of May 2014. The Dean of Students Office has also allocated funding for students for whom transportation is an issue. Discussions on increasing minority enrollment and building a new Trotter Multicultural Center on Central Campus are also continuing.
Greenfield said developing a business and architectural plan for a new Trotter is difficult when the committee responsible for doing so comprises students and faculty who lack the resources necessary to move the project forward, a challenge which has impacted many of the proposed initiatives.
Overall, Dean Jones said the initiatives implemented so far are helping move the University closer toward tangible results.
In an interview with the Daily, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, said it is normal to feel like progress is slowing down at this point in the planning process.
“They have been meeting weekly and biweekly and doing the planning for the new cultural center,” she said. “This is more long-term work, so it’s going to naturally feel slower than actually making the decision to have (a new multicultural center). We’re at the working phase.”
Harper also said the decision to allocate money for the new Trotter Multicultural Center lies in University Provost Martha Pollock’s office, and will be budgeted once a plan for the new facility is finished. Students and faculty are expected to finish planning by the end of the semester.
“There is no expectation for the students and faculty to have all the resources they need to actually build a new Trotter,” Harper said. “What we’re asking students and faculty to do is help with the planning. You don’t know what resources you’ll need to execute the plan until the plan is finished being made.”
The BSU and University administration agree that the demand for a 10-percent representation of Black students on campus has been the most difficult to address.
“By the time we received the demands, admissions decisions had already been delivered,” Jones, the dean of students, said. “At that point, we decided we needed to focus on yield, making phone calls and sending e-mails to students of color who had been admitted, really encouraging them to accept and enroll.”
Dean Jones also said the administration has hired Kedra Bishop to serve as associate vice president for enrollment management to further address minority enrollment.
Greenfield thinks the admissions office should focus on targeting urban communities — where students tend not to apply to the University — to raise minority enrollment on campus.
“Instead of focusing on race and some of the cultural backgrounds of students, admissions should focus more on geography, and highly concentrated minority areas or even SES status,” he said. “They’re going to have to start considering innovative admissions techniques.”
Voters in the state of Michigan banned the consideration of race, among other characteristics, in admissions with a 2006 ballot initiative.
Aside from continuing to collaborate — the administration and BSU are currently scheduling meetings for the winter semester — both groups are developing future events and plans. The BSU is currently planning a leadership conference to help increase post-graduate opportunities for students of color. The BSU hopes the event will include professional networking events and speakers. Details for the conference are projected to be released sometime this term.
In December, University President Mark Schlissel announced his intention to release a campus diversity plan and to host a leadership breakfast for various community members Feb. 18 focused on developing a strategic plan for diversity at the University.
Many agree #BBUM and the movement that followed had a significant impact on the University and will be remembered by the University community for years to come.
“It definitely provoked a lot of listening and thought,” Prof. Jones said. “I was thrilled and so proud of our students for so creatively and so eloquently bringing this movement not only to our campus audience, but to a national audience.”
She also said #BBUM will serve as a prime example of student activism to which younger Wolverines can aspire.
“BBUM will be linked to a long chain of the history of activism on this campus,” she said. “It has left a challenge for students on this campus. How are you going to leave your mark? What do you care about, and what are you going to do about it?”
“Be understanding and be open minded,” Greenfield said. “Don’t allow your social circle to be your end-all-be-all. Consider what others have to offer.”
Dean Jones said the work will continue.
“We all need to keep working on this together,” Dean Jones said. “We have to keep the momentum going, keep the support going, and keep the lines of communication open.”