At community forum, students demand administrative action regarding systematic racism at Western
Members of the administration met with hundreds of students in Fraser Hall to discuss ongoing accountability and proactivity on issues of racial injustice at Western. // Photo by Brooke Wilson
Following a student-led sit-in in Old Main on Dec. 3, hundreds of students gathered in Fraser Hall to continue the conversation surrounding systematic racism and denial of the needs of minority students. With finals week fast approaching, many students had not found time to study as they stayed up late organizing discussions with administrators, forum organizer and AS Vice President for Diversity Camilla Mejia said.
Spilling into two additional “overflow” rooms, attendees submitted questions for public discourse with administrative staff and waved slips of green and red paper to indicate either support or disagreement for statements throughout the evening. At the center of the discussion was a clear, resounding question: where is administrative accountability for the safety, representation and support for students of color and other marginalized groups at Western?
The community forum was organized by a group of five students including Mejia, Associated Students President Millka Solomon, AS Vice President for Student Life Anne Lee, Fairhaven Student Senate representative Dayjha McMillan and second year political science student Michaela Budde. The five students gathered questions from the audience and posed them to the administrators onstage: President Sabah Randhawa, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Melynda Huskey, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Brent Carbajal, as well as other vice presidents of the President’s Office and deans of colleges.
Organizers emphasized how racist issues on campus are not isolated occurrences, but part of a pattern of systemic injustices that repeat without recourse. They stressed that it is time for the administration to take action and create a safe learning environment for students of color.
With many issues being met with promises by administrators of future solutions, students pushed them to make more concrete commitments to improve the level of safety for students of color on campus. You can view the event livestream here:
This is the student-led, student-run Community Forum: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression at Western Washington University. Please submit questions to https://docs.google.com/forms/d/12AYv9yBZo3wWN4TcgkSqjqK6Ctw8chnxllK20Rp941E/viewform?fbclid=IwAR0UfbIWGZgUZrfEvalV8mNB04WkHZL2i3i8BCjlVTES0qGyTHEIx9m23aw&edit_requested=true
Posted by Associated Students of Western Washington University on Friday, December 7, 2018
Among the testimonies presented at the forum was that of Associated Students Vice President for Activities Ama Monkah.
“Western has invested money to put up banners all along Bill McDonald Parkway that state words like ‘Equity’, ‘Justice’, and ‘Success’. So my question to you, is what specific systemic policies will you change and implement to uphold equity, justice and success so that Black students can thrive on this campus?” Monkah asked administrators.
Addressing imminent threats
Questions were presented to the panel of faculty and administrators regarding student safety amidst the ongoing vandalism case. In connection to reports of racist and homophobic speech written on Wright’s Triangle on campus, Shayne Merwin, a Western student charged with second-degree burglary and malicious harassment was cited as a leading example of grave concern among campus community.
One frustration was the distance between what the administration constitutes as an “immediate threat” and how that term is defined differently by students of color. AS President Solomon pointed out how slurs like the n-word can be seen as direct threats to people of color, despite not being considered a threat to an individual by the administration.
“[Western] Alerts are sent out when there is a dangerous or imminent threat. That is a threat that you are defining when we know that those things are a threat to us. So, how will we be involved in the process to decide what is a threat to us?” Solomon said. “All of these people are not represented in that decision and now they’re not safe.”
President Randhawa said he would commit to seeking input on this definition, thoroughly reassess the definition of “urgent” matters reported on campus and revise the protocol for releasing that information.
Western Vice President for Relations and Marketing Donna Gibbs said she recognizes Western’s past failure to consider racist and homophobic slurs as imminent threats, something that was stated by students at Monday’s sit-in.
“We now look at those as an imminent threat, and I’m sorry that we didn’t sooner,” Gibbs said.
Students also expressed frustration with inconsistent communication and delayed notifications for other hate crimes that have occurred on campus. They questioned why the university sends out Western Alerts to students via text regarding incidents of voyeurism around Bellingham, and yet no one received text notifications about the racist and homophobic vandalism that occurred in late November 2018.
Gibbs said that the Emergency Communications Group met this week to revisit protocol for alerting students about events that happen over weekends or breaks. She also said the group will meet in January to discuss potential technological resources such as apps that would allow students to notify university police anonymously about incidents.
When asked if she could ensure student safety on campus, Huskey stated that while she can guarantee the administration will act swiftly and thoughtfully in response to death threats, she cannot guarantee that students will be safe on campus.
Another issue raised was the requirement for police presence at events hosted by students of color and how that practice isn’t standard for other clubs on campus. Specifically, organizer Mejia referred to the consistent presence of police at the Riding Low in the 360 event organized by Western’s AS club Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan, or MEChA, and how this doesn’t occur at Lawnstock, a campus event of roughly the same size.
Huskey responded to this question by saying she doesn’t know why certain events have police presence while others don’t.
“I will commit to finding out why we do that and to see what we can do to get information and to make the necessary changes,” Huskey said.
Two hundred and thirteen signatures from Western alumni were provided in solidarity with the student body calling upon the administrative team to respond against the hostility incited by white supremacists at the university. Alumni who contributed to the letter urged administrative staff to be accountable for the repeatedly dismissed oppressive and discriminatory behaviors on campus and the delayed resolutions.
“Western advertises that its environment and administration will nurture active minds to change lives. In reality…what kept our minds active was the hyperracialization in classrooms,” read the quote. “What changed our lives was experiencing firsthand how the recycled violence and racism weighed on us. We learned out of survival, not curiosity.”
Organizers and attendees asked why accommodations for students who have declined to register for classes with Western professor Paul Stangl have not been prioritized on the administrative agenda. Stangl faced accusations of sexually harassing two teaching students during a summer class trip in 2016, yet he remains the only professor teaching a required course for Western’s urban planning major, according to a previous Front article.
Steven Hollenhorst, Dean of Huxley College of the Environment, was asked how he defines “not tolerating someone,” seeing as President Randhawa has sent out multiple emails that state that Western does not tolerate racism, hatred or sexual harassment, among other things.
“If something happens that constitutes misconduct, we don’t tolerate it,” Hollenhorst said. “We get on it, we investigate it, we put all our resources together to find out what happened and come up with whatever the sanctions are going to be.”
When approached with the matter of Stangl, Hollenhorst responded that his door was always open to discuss accommodations for students.
“I’m happy to, at any time, talk to any student who wants to about what we need to do to make their academic studies in that program work, and we’re open to any ideas about the way we can work,” Hollenhorst said. “In fact, I’ve had this conversation with several students and we’ve worked it out.”
Samara Almonte, a fourth-year urban planning major, countered Hollenhorst’s statement and said she had to take three classes with Stangl and while accommodations were made available, there was no easy route that offered adequate assistance.
“It’s not my job as an overworked student of color to go figure out and ask for the accommodations,” Almonte said. “There should be a clear place, somewhere where I can go and ask for accomodations and not worry about the logistics of it. It has been so traumatic to go to the class everyday and see his fucking damn face and be upset and think about all the pain those women had to go through and all the other women and femmes who are in the class with me. So it is inexcusable for you to say that the accommodations are easy because they are not.”
Addressing unpaid labor of students and faculty of color
Organizers acknowledged how students of color are expected to assemble committees and conduct public forums without financial compensation for the collective time and energy invested in these endeavors, and how Friday’s forum was just one example of this.
“A lot of the people organizing and helping have put a lot of things on hold to make this happen. All of y’all who are here are also putting things on hold, because we’re all busy,” one of the organizers, Michaela Budde, said. “So this is a very clear vision of how important this work is here.”
While Carbajal noted that Western has been “moderately successful” in hiring more faculty of color over the past two years, students wanted to know how the administration plans to support and compensate faculty already at Western who do extra work to support students of color. Carbajal said considerations of what types of service should be compensated should be evaluated by individual departments.
Budde highlighted extra work done by specific faculty such as Verónica Vélez, director of the education and social justice minor at Western and Leti Romo, assistant director of Student Representation and Governance, among others.
An action was also requested at the end of the forum regarding hiring queer counselors of color to support the needs of marginalized identities. Concerns about the lack of people of color in the counseling department on campus was also raised as Monday’s sit-in.
A number of emails Randhawa and other administrators have sent to the student body list different counseling resources available for students to seek support. However, students at the sit-in days before the forum argued that it would be impossible for them to receive sufficient help from faculty who are ill-equipped to understand and empathize with the issues that affect minority groups on campus.
Putting forward demands and continuing the discussion
To finish off the public question period, organizers asked if any of the administrators would be willing to step aside and allow for someone else to seize the reins. Individuals who will promptly address grievances voiced by the student body, increase accessibility and promote the success of marginalized communities on campus.
President Randhawa agreed, “If the institution does not make some sort of progress on those goals, I owe it to the institution, I owe it to the taxpayers of Washington who fund this institution to find someone who can run the position better than I can.”
After the audience pushed white administrators seated next to the president to state their own commitment rather than just deferring to him, Huskey and other administrators echoed his statement.
At the end of the forum, organizers provided administrators with a document to sign titled “Student Body’s Demand for Urgent Needs” that outlined specific actions to be taken in order to improve campus climate. Organizers requested that President Randhawa, members of the president’s cabinet and college deans all sign in agreement to meet with students on Jan. 18, 2019 to discuss these actions.
The listed demands include immediate suspension of Merwin, resignation of Vice Provost for Equal Opportunity & Employment Diversity Sue Guenter-Schlesinger and Dean of Students Ted Pratt, hiring of counselors and other faculty specialized in the needs of marginalized communities, as well as pay the students working to create committees to discuss these issues.
The document expanded on why the organizers were calling for the resignation of Pratt and Guenter-Schlesinger, adding demands for the both resignations to be processed by Spring 2019.
“Hire a Dean of Students/Associated Students that is a person of color and consciousness,” the document said in regards to the replacement of Pratt. “This means to hire someone who who has been properly trained and has experience working with students across many intersecting identities.”
Students feel that Guenter-Schlesinger has failed the students she is appointed to represent, the document says.
“Her [Guenter-Schlesinger] inappropriate comments of survivor blaming (specifically in the Paul Stangl situation), and encouraging survivors to file police reports as a path of justice disproportionately impacts survivors of intersecting marginalized identities,” the document read.
The document was compiled with the help of over 30 people, the majority of whom are leaders of Ethnic Student Center clubs and all of whom identify as minorities, forum organizer Budde said.
McMillan told administrators that these demands should not come as a surprise, as many of the requested actions are ones student groups have requested in the past.
“These demands are examples of the resources you all have said you would try to find,” McMillan said.
However, members of Western’s Black community said that they did not feel completely represented by the demands in the document, and that they felt their voices were being ignored at the forum. On Sunday night following the forum, students including Fatuma Hussein and Shaneen Walter-Edwards and many other members of the Black community released a letter signed by a number of Black students and faculty stating their disappointment with the tokenization of Black voices at the forum, rather than active involvement of their stories.
In response to the demands for urgent needs, President Randhawa said the process of enacting institutional change cannot happen overnight and involves extensive negotiation with unions and the board of trustees. However, he said he would commit to spending the next several weeks with an appointed group of students to look into which requests could be advanced immediately.
Students stated that they were tired of hearing false promises and witnessing no acknowledgement of injustice beyond a campus-wide notification. Attendees implored panel members for a written agreement instead of verbal confirmation.
“With all due respect, I think we’re all really tired of just hearing we have your word… we want signatures from you all saying that you will meet with us,” Lee said to President Randhawa. “We’re just saying to give us a written agreement that you will meet with us.”
Signatures were collected from all the administrators present, minus the Board of Trustees who were not present at the forum, agreeing to attend another meeting on Jan. 18, to continue the current dialogue and seek a legitimate plan of action moving forward.
This article was updated on Dec. 11 to correct the spelling of Dayjha McMillan’s name.
This article was updated on Dec. 16 to correct information regarding the statement released by the Black community following the forum – frustration with the forum was not expressed directly by members of the Black Student Union but by various members of the Black community, and Black faculty also signed the statement along with students.