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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Students petition administration for new building

By Alyssa Evans

The Ethnic Student Center has a maximum capacity of 52 people. // Photo by Daniel Liddecoet
The Ethnic Student Center has a maximum capacity of 52 people. // Photo by Daniel Liddecoet

Standing elbow to elbow, roughly 100 students crowded into the hot room in an effort to showcase their need for a larger space. Tired of the room they have been utilizing for 25 years, users of the Ethnic Student Center decided to strive for change.

ESC users and supporters sent a letter to Western administrators on Monday, Feb. 1, demanding that the university fund a multicultural center, along with additional academic resources. Attached was a picture of the overcrowded space and about 200 signatures.

The proposed building would include a relocated Ethnic Student Center, which is currently located on the fourth floor of the Viking Union.

Abby Ramos, the AS vice president for diversity, worked with other students of color to create the letter and gather the signatures

“The university continues to pride itself on diversity and students of color, but the ESC has a max capacity of 52 students, so how does it make sense that the university wants more students of color on this campus, but the only center that is here for students of color can only have 52 students?” Ramos said. “That doesn’t really equal out to me.”

The letter calling for the new building also highlighted other issues with the university’s support for the ESC.

“Not only have we reached max capacity of square footage, we do not have the needed resources to keep us on the campus of a predominantly white institution,” the letter stated. “We currently have two full-time staff members, five desktop computers, no library, a shared part-time academic advisor, five student employees and a shared social space that is expected to also serve as a study area.”

Eileen Coughlin, the vice president for enrollment and student services, has been working with Ramos and AS President Belina Seare in meetings to find the best solution to the space issue.

“We are absolutely committed to figuring out a solution, but we have to figure out first what are all of the options and we have to figure out how do we give and take what’s most important,” Coughlin said.

While Western continues to grow in size, Coughlin, who has been meeting with ESC coordinators and other students about the issue, wants to ensure that Western will continually strive for diversity on campus.

“We have grown in not only our number of students, but our commitment to diversity as an institution, but not far enough. We’re not where we need to be and we recognize that,” Coughlin said. “It takes continual work and that’s what this should be about for all of us.”

President Bruce Shepard responded to the demand for a new building through an email sent to all students and staff on campus on Feb. 5. In his email, Shepard noted that the building request wasn’t sent through the proper channels.

“Proposals for buildings go through our transparent, on the web, 10-year capital projects planning process,” Shepard wrote in the email. “That allows the many capital project needs to be comparatively assessed by all of us with final decisions on priorities made by our Board of Trustees.”

Senior Stephanie Sisson, a student faculty design major found Shepard’s letter to be divisive and misleading.

“This is a letter meant to pit the student body against the ESC. Bruce Shepard didn’t adequately bring up the demands of the students in the ESC. Instead, he covered them up with other things,” Sisson said. “This is a very divisive tactic that’s used to silence the students that are organizing on campus.”

Sisson pointed to fall quarter’s racially charged threats directed at AS president Belina Seare, as well as larger issues with the campus climate for students of color at Western.

“[Bruce Shephard’s letter] is immature, but it’s what people have to face when they start to ask for changes to protect themselves, especially on a campus where people have recently received threats; death threats and rape threats. That’s because the general environment on this campus is unsafe for students of color,” Sisson said.

In the letter sent out by ESC users demanding a new building, students of color advocated for other funding methods outside of increased student fees.

“If the university decides not to fully fund the building, we are demanding you find other assets before imposing a student fee,” the letter states.

Shepard’s email indicated the difficulties associated with finding funding for the new building, chiefly that the money cannot come from the state.

“No matter how hard we lobbied down in Olympia, we would not be able to get a state funded ESC building,” Shepard wrote in the email. “The state only funds buildings for programs that are also funded by the state; basically, these are our academic programs.”

The AS and its programs are currently funded by student fees, and a potential solution to the lack of state funding for the building would be an additional fee for Western students. Shepard found posing an additional student fee to be unfair due to high tuition and fees.

“What would the 100 percent student fee option mean? A very modest $20 million new building would, by my quick, back of the envelope estimation, cost every full-time Western student another $150 per year every year, for the next 15 years,” Shepard wrote. “And, funding for maintenance and operation costs would have to be added on top.”

Sophomore Ricky Rath, business and marketing major and Khmer Student Association vice president, has been involved in the ESC relocation effort and thinks it’s unlikely that a new fee would be passed.

“We talked about this in our relocation meeting and we felt like the majority of the rest of campus would not favor paying that fee. We feel like, as colored students if [the fee] is going towards a new building, we would probably have no problem,” Rath said. “We feel really outnumbered when it comes to that case.”

Efforts to relocate the ESC started this summer with a plan to potentially move the ESC to the fifth floor of the Viking Union through a $1.5 million renovation.

The renovation idea expanded to the ESC filling the space that currently houses the AS bookstore. After the idea failed when the university found the bookstore needed the entire space it was using, students decided to advocate for a new building.

With President Shepard suggesting  a student fee may be the only way to fund a new building and students of color hesitant to advocate for a fee increase, the question of how to fund a new project remains unanswered.

“I really wish that the rest of the campus would see the light and come see the ESC room that we have, the little basement and sympathize with us,” Rath said.

Ramos wanted to remind the community that a new building isn’t all that students of color are seeking.

“This doesn’t mean that if we get this building that we’re satisfied. There are demands that we have,” Ramos said. “A new building isn’t the solution to every problem that we have on this campus, so we’re really wanting to hold the university and the admin accountable for the experiences that we’ve had that they have not clearly worked towards fixing.”

On Feb. 23, there will be a meeting for students and administration to discuss the potential of a new building and other options. The time and location are to be determined.

READ MORE: Students respond to ESC proposal, Letter draws Red Square protest

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