La Casa begins conversations with administration, sees slow response to calls for representation

Thursday, March 22, 2018 - 6:37pm

Nearly two months after the Latinx Alliance for Community Action, Support and Advocacy released a list of demands for the University of Michigan to take to ensure a more supportive environment for the Latinx community, students see gradual progress on certain demands but encounter an overall lack of urgency in support of institutional change.

The Latinx community is the University’s fastest-growing student minority group, growing from 4.75 percent to 6 percent between 2012 and 2016.  The majority of La Casa’s demands called for more Latinx representation in University staff, faculty and administration as well as more services for Latinx students and an overall acknowledgment of the community on campus.

After the list was released, E. Royster Harper, vice president for Student Life, Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers and Julio Cardona, interim assistant dean of students, met with La Casa in order to discuss what steps needed to be taken to move forward. Since then, the administration has continued meeting with La Casa to work toward solutions.

In an interview with The Daily on Wednesday, Harper explained the University administration has been helping La Casa make contact with various department members to assist with the University’s efforts to respond to the demands.

“We have been meeting with La Casa members and faculty members of the community, I would say for maybe at least a month, and sometimes twice a day,” Harper said. “Going through what the concerns are and, in some cases bringing people in to help us understand what we’re currently doing.”

LSA junior Yezeñia Sandoval, external director for La Casa, highlighted the administration’s timely response to the list of demands and lauded the administration’s plan to get La Casa representatives communicating with directors from different departments.

“After we released the demands, the University was quick to set up meetings, especially Royster and Sellers,” Sandoval said. “The meeting was just kind of to get a better understanding of what the demands actually meant, what details were in them, and set up a series of demands that would follow them up. We also would get people from those actual offices and departments to sit in a room with us.”

Harper explained another aspect of these meetings was to look at the Campus Climate survey by Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in order to better understand what challenges Latinx students face on campus.

Sandoval touched on some of the positive outcomes from conversations with administrators. For instance, La Casa had a chance to speak with the director of dining at the University establishing a more inclusive dining experience for Latinx students through a new bus tour program.

“From the meetings I have attended — one was about dining — and we had the director of dining sit with us and talk about how we can make dining more inclusive and authentic and one thing proposed was bus tours to local restaurants in Detroit and to local areas so students can try the food and give feedback on dining,” Sandoval said.

Additionally, the administration and La Casa have started discussing outreach programs directed at the needs of the Latinx community.

Harper praised the efforts of the students from La Casa, and appreciated their work to establish a more inclusive campus. She also pointed out the administration’s willingness to create new solutions for the issues raised by La Casa’s list of demands.

“It would be premature for me to say this is where we are because we are in the process of figuring out together where we are,” Harper said. “I think that the Latinx Community has raised some important issues. That is one of the things really I admire about our students here that they will see a concern and raise the issue, and what I love about the administration is that we are responsive. So we are engaged in that discussion dialogue process right now to better understand and then to figure out given what the needs are what it is that we are able to do.”

While progress is beginning in areas of dining and outreach, LSA sophomore Alexander Mullen, internal director of La Casa, expressed his concern about meetings with administration being rooted more in conversation than in creating actionable change.

“They definitely want to do something, but when we’re actually meeting with these offices and people who we are meeting with, we don’t see a lot of actual action items on the table,” Mullen said. “It seems like they want to just talk about the way we feel and why this came about, so it doesn’t seem like it’s a really productive meeting entirely, but it seems more like framing future conversations.”

Mullen also touched on the lack of urgency he felt coming from the administration’s alleged efforts to meet La Casa’s demands.

“From the meetings and the tone of the meetings we don’t really get that there’s a big sense of urgency to meet these demands and have them worked on at all, especially with the end of the year coming to a close,” Mullen said. “I think one strategy a lot of people seem to be using is just kind of waiting it out until the year is over and then moving on to the next thing for the next year.”

Another challenge La Casa faced while dealing with the administration is updating new staff from different departments on reasons behind creating a list of demands. In this past year alone, members of the Latinx community have faced racial bias through the defacement of the Rock with anti-Latinx statements and led a boycott against Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs for a lack of Latinx representation.

Mullen said the frustrations of having to explain the events of the past year slows the process of establishing measurable change.

“One thing we’ve had happen is that new staff have been hired in a few offices so they’re meeting with us coming in with only a few months of experience working with that department or office,” Mullen said. “So it’s just kind of like framing the whole story, trying to get them to understand the events that have happened earlier in the year that set the tone for the demands and set the need for them.”

Representation is one of the main areas Sandoval and Mullen cite as not being acknowledged by the administration. La Casa feels that the staff, faculty and administrators do not adequately reflect the student body.

Mullen explained some of the pushbacks against adequate representation comes from Proposal 2, a ballot initiative aimed at stopping discrimination based on race, color, sex or religion in admission to colleges, jobs and other publicly-funded institutions — outlawing affirmative action at public institutions. He said meetings with Sellers and other diversity-focused faculty have been more effective in starting a push for more representation but still drag compared to other initiatives like the bus tours program.

“A lot of obstacles come up with Proposal 2, but we’ve been meeting with people like Robert Sellers who can help to affect change in those kinds of hiring practices through strategic hiring practices,” Mullen said. “We’ve been meeting with him and other people who are in charge of those kinds of issues.”

Sandoval shared Mullen’s sentiment about the trickiness of gaining more Latinx representation in administrative positions. She also discussed how the advisory board, which was proposed in the list of demands as a method to connect Latinx students to University President Mark Schlissel, could help the University with this issue.

“That’s always been a touchy, tricky topic, but we have been talking about that and one specific proposal was the advisory board and I feel like that’s just one mechanism for how students, staff, graduate students who are Latinx can give feedback directly to the president in order to create concrete change,” Sandoval said. “Right now, that’s the one that has been the trickiest, and the one that has been lacking the most.”

Moving forward, Mullen hopes to see more urgency from the University in implementing La Casa’s demands. He also expressed the importance of not allowing the desire for change to disappear moving into the upcoming school year.

“I’d definitely like to see more of a sense of urgency,” Mullen said. “I feel like especially, as I mentioned before, with the end of the year coming up, I think everyone is kind of winding down … That burnout is kind of dangerous to a movement like this because it lets you think it’s not important right now and we can just leave it for next year. If we just leave it for next year that same energy and that same momentum isn’t going to be there.”

Sandoval echoed Mullen’s call for establishing concrete change and emphasized the need to build a campus environment that allows future Latinx students to feel more included.

“Our point is to really make sure that there is sustainable change,” Sandoval said. “It’s great that we are having these meetings, but once I graduate and once the other directors graduate, how do we make sure incoming freshman are able to benefit from these discussions? How can we ensure these offices cater to their needs? That they have a good dining hall experience, that they have a good housing experience, that they really feel they belong. These are the goals we are striving towards.”