The petition was heard. Were the voices?
The Student Assembly for Power and Liberation has been heard. They spoke, and people listened. The Atlantic responded; USA Today, too. There was a story featured on Inside Higher Ed’s website, and Dan DeMay, a Western alum, wrote a piece for the Seattle PI. University President Bruce Shepard formed a pointed response and so did we, here at The Western Front.
One thing seems to reign true for all: the list of demands are, at this time, simply too big of a bite to swallow.
In essence, some may agree that misrepresentation and lack of inclusivity is less than desirable within this campus’ community. The responsibility to provide safe spaces and equal opportunities for all should be held in high regard.
But the consensus seems to beg the same question: Is it too much to ask for a list of reasonable demands? Especially when considering time availability.
The Feb. 28 debut of the petition called for 5 of 6 demands to be fully funded and/or fully implemented by spring 2016. Demands include tens of thousands of dollars in funding for establishments of additional staff positions and infrastructure. This would involve a 15-person paid student committee to monitor and document oppressive behavior, to be titled The Office for Social Transformation. Additional demands call for the formation of a building to be used specifically for the residency of multicultural students, which involves a mentorship program to support students of color living in residence halls. These tasks, that would reasonably take years to fully develop and implement, were demanded to be met within weeks of their surfacing.
It’s hard to say what the group means by spring 2016, but one’s sense of things may be that it has passed and many of the demands are yet to be met. This scenario drives the question: What repercussions may the university expect to face in the light of inaction? Have the demands of the petition rung so loud as to drown out the voices of those behind it? Two students from the group spoke at a Board of Trustee’s meeting in February stating, “When we talk about whiteness, it’s not just about the color of your skin. We’re talking about all these norms that are created and pushed on us through institutions such as schooling, religious entities and family units. That is how culture is reproduced: through these systems – schooling being key sites.”
These issues are not new and have been circulating for decades. What we have now are more tools than ever to use in the process of rebuilding the language and actions that have long reigned as oppressive.
In his email response to the Student Assembly for Power and Liberation’s petition, President Shepard said, “The proposal would fundamentally contradict our policies, practices, mutually bargained contracts and federal law and policy on such matters as faculty evaluation and discipline, student conduct and discipline, the investigation of alleged racist behaviors and the planning of facilities, spaces and residence halls.” He adds that he finds the petition’s language to be harboring the potential to threaten previous commitments to campus inclusivity and academic freedom.
So, in a sense, the group has been told, “no.” And what does that mean? What will the next step be? Is there a next step? Who will speak for the group as the issue continues to unfold, and does the demographic that they are speaking for support them? These things are complicated and difficult to understand, especially when little room has been left for open communication on the issue. The university has limited its responses and the wave of attention the petition immediately received has subsided.
None of this is to go without saying that there is a necessity for social change and transformation, particularly on a campus where students are encouraged to create their own education and find innovative ways to face the troubling events of the past with awareness of their effects on the present. What we need now is a time for conversation to take place, to share ideas and to find some form of common ground. To make demands, sure, ones that are agreeable and, most importantly, reasonable.