Finding outlets: Students lean on self-organized events, not University, to talk diversity

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 - 10:45pm

Protestors gather for a Black Lives Matter protest that would march from the Diag to the Michigan League where a debate on the movement was being held by the Michigan Political Union on Tuesday.

Protestors gather for a Black Lives Matter protest that would march from the Diag to the Michigan League where a debate on the movement was being held by the Michigan Political Union on Tuesday. Buy this photo
Amanda Allen/ Daily

 

Though the question has been a persistent one throughout its history, over the past year the University of Michigan has focused in on how to become more diverse, more inclusive and more welcoming under a University initiative to create a campus-wide strategic plan for diversity.

On Oct. 6, that answer is supposed to become clearer, when the University formally launches its campus-wide Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan, a year-long effort started by University President Mark Schlissel. However, after the discovery of racially charged fliers in University buildings and a controversial debate over the merits of Black Lives Matter earlier this week prompted massive student protests, new questions about issues of race on campus and tensions between the University and students have surfaced. Though both the debate and the posters have been a focus, many students have also pointed to systemic issues of climate they said those incidents highlighted — criticizing what they described as years of University inaction and citing the strategic plan as an example.

LSA freshman Na’kia Channey, who spoke at the protest Tuesday night, said there was a lack of trust between Black students and the University, echoing the sentiments of multiple other students interviewed throughout the week.

“As far as I know, the only reason we’re having discussions now is because it was stimulated by those examples of discrimination,” Channey said. “I’m not sure if the University of Michigan is really open about having discussions, but I feel like we should not have to wait until an inciting incident for us to have these dialogues. We shouldn’t feel like we have to curate our space for our voices to be heard.”

This consistent discussion of larger campus issues throughout the week illuminates a different kind of question, one situated between student concerns and University efforts — why were two days of protests able to draw almost triple as many people total as University events themed around campus climate and the diversity plan have drawn in past weeks?

Until the protests began this week, public participation in discussion about the University’s approach to diversity on campus had been limited. Last week, multiple University-sanctioned forums were held on campus around campus climate, as LSA launched its part of the diversity plan. However, though LSA Dean Andrew Martin sent out an email about the forum dates on Aug. 30 and the events have been advertised across campus, the discussions received only a modest turnout, with the exception of a forum for staff. About 40 undergraduate students attended the student forum, and in total, about 230 students, faculty and staff attended the four forums overall.  Conversation at the forums also tended to focus on a lack of student, faculty and staff involvement, and general under-attendance.

In contrast, the protests in total over the past week have drawn more than 600. Hundreds of students, faculty and staff gathered Monday night to protest the racially charged posters. Almost 400 individuals, many of them University community members, protested the scheduled debate about the merits of the Black Lives Matter movement. Groups of students have also chalked the Diag or put up posters of their own throughout the week.

The discrepancy in attendance numbers was also present between the protests and a college-sanctioned event for students to discuss the impact of this week’s events, which drew roughly 100 community members.

Vikrant Garg, a School of Public Health first-year grad student, was one of the organizers for both protests. He said he did not attend the forums this September because he was not pleased with the how town hall discussions around the strategic plan last April and March were conducted.

“I had gone to the ones earlier, last year before coming back to campus, and I was not pleased with one, the way that they were run, and two, with the way that the plan was filled out,” Garg said. “It wasn’t really listening to student voices, even though it was a town hall for students.”

Garg said while he does not speak on behalf of all the organizers that planned the protests, he believes the space created at the student-organized protests was specifically for Black people and other students of color to talk about their experiences of racism and discrimination on campus, adding that those who live here feel the weight of national and local events.

“Personally, I think one of the reasons we shut down the Fishbowl (during a protest) is because we often find that the University addresses the problem are extremely disingenuous,” Garg said. “I will say that individually administrators do care. But I think that as an administration, it does not show that. It is not something that is translated beyond the individual, those reactions feel as if they’re saving face.”

Elizabeth James, faculty advisor for the Black Student Union, wrote in an email interview that isolation is the main reason people of color may have not contributed to the diversity forums.

“I really value speaking your truth. However, when people of color attend events such as forums, they often find themselves in the same situations that they face in classrooms or at the workplace: being seen as the "spokesperson"  for your people and representing a group, rather than yourself as an individual,” James wrote. “It's not fair, but it's a reality.”

Similarly, Ross sophomore Kyle Trocard said Black students often also feel defeated by their circumstances at the University.

“The reason [no one attended] is that it's a tough time for us with all the things going on on this campus, all the things going on around this country,” Trocard said. “We haven't had time to take care of ourselves.”

In an interview Wednesday, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald pointed to the different natures of the protest and the LSA forums as reasons for the discrepancies.

“I think they’re really two different events, but, say part of the LSA strategic planning process — many of the units have had specific events that were designed for either students, faculty and staff, sometimes all three, sometimes separately, things that we’re thinking about doing and getting feedback,” Fitzgerald said.

However, beyond the events of this week, students said the mass attendance at the protests also illuminated broader concerns with the administration’s approach to campus diversity, with many citing doubts both about the University’s ability to make change and the sincerity of their desire to do so.

Channey said she attended both the protests and the the LSA-sponsored community event, but was disappointed that administrators seemed uncertain about how to proceed during the latter.

“I spoke to an administrator outside of those discussions about what they plan on doing in response to, for example, the fliers, and they say they do not know,” Channey said.

This, she added, might explain why Black students feel prompted to create their own spaces on campus instead of relying on the University.

But though the University-sponsored event did not give her the experience she was hoping for, she said as a new student to campus, she still feels administration need to continue trying and they need to create more spaces for Black members of the student body to speak out.

LSA freshman Asia Green echoed Channey’s sentiments, saying she didn’t feel talking to administrators was an effective way to cause change.

“There are not enough events hosted, not enough forums,” Green said. “All of the people up higher always talk about how they want to promote diversity and inclusion but nothing is being done.”

Along with criticism, however, others pointed to a misunderstanding between administrators and students as the reason for a negative campus climate around diversity.

LSA freshman Carlena Toombs said at Tuesday’s protest that while she appreciates the steps taken by the University thus far, she feels the response was not entirely in line with what the Black community wants.

“I feel like it’s very hard for (the administration) to do what we, Black students, want them to do, but at the same time, I appreciate them allowing things like protests to go on, which I feel like is as much as they really can do, politically,” Toombs said.

James also suggested that the need to speak in front of a group of strangers during the forums may be another barrier, as a particularly vulnerable experience that students of color often face.

“After the posters were sighted on Monday, that evening hundreds of students gathered together in DAAS to view the Presidential debate,” James wrote. “That large number resulted not just because of the debate, but I believe it was more related to a need to feel safe after a threatening, scary moment on campus. Some of the students had never faced blatant racism before and it was reassuring, for them, as well as myself, to be together to commiserate and share time with our community.”

These issues — administrator inaction and the relationship between administrators and students — also figured heavily into specific criticisms of the plan itself, much of which has not yet been released.

Garg said he believes the plan’s goals are too far reaching for the current campus climate. The plan uses the year 2020 as a benchmark to evaluate whether the measures that have been implemented will be a success and conversations at the start of the planning proccess asked the community what they wanted the University to look like in 2025.

“It doesn't look at the problems today and find solutions, they are reacting in response to things that are happening they plan on doing something about this within the next five years. At the town hall, they asked “What do you want to see?” Garg said. “And people came up with concrete things that could be done immediately and they would be like okay, we can include that in our plan. We can ensure that by 2020. I’m not even going to be here in 2020.”

At Monday’s protest, LSA junior Lakyrra Magee, an event organizer, also criticized the long-term focus in the diversity, equity and inclusion initiative as a solution to campus climate issues.

“It’s possible to do both,” Magee said, referring to the University addressing current events and the five-year DEI plan. “But they’re not doing it. We want Schlissel to address us … about 2017, not 2025.”

Nonetheless, many of the students interviewed said they’ve seen traction across the University since the protests beyond these incidents, on broader campus climate issues.

Garg noted that the School of Public Health is now opening up a space for students to share their experiences, a meeting Tuesday between Angela Dillard, LSA’s new Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, and the Dean of Students and a campus-wide conversation on race recently announced by Schlissel for Sunday.

Green said the response to the protests thus far has made her optimistic.

“The fact that we’ve been having so much support has really been making the situation better, and hopefully we can take it further in terms of getting it to higher executives and making sure people really do feel safe on campus,” Green said.

In discussing next steps for the administration, Fitzgerald stressed a campus-wide discussion on race that is slated to occur Sunday in response to the events of this week.

Schlissel announced Wednesday the University will hold a campuswide discussion on race following the events of this week on Sunday. Both Green and Garg said they were planning to attend Sunday’s event.

“I just know that the event for Sunday is something I noticed the president and other senior leadership are hoping a good number, and a cross-section of the entire University community, will come together and foster that kind of hearing from each other and speaking to each other,” Fitzgerald said.

James wrote that while diversity, equity and inclusion are noble goals for any campus, the small numbers of students, faculty and staff of color make it hard for them to feel comfortable, even in the best of circumstances.

“I believe the U's diversity plans are promising and have great hope that they will result in a more inclusive university,” she wrote. “Maybe we just need other ways of collecting information about how to make it all come together. Sometimes I wonder if smaller focus groups with people of similar backgrounds wouldn't provide richer discussions where people would feel free to talk, then later bringing the groups together to discuss the similarities and differences could provide a bridge to connecting the dots.”