By Alyssa Evans
The Student Assembly for Power and Liberation, an activist group at Western, has garnered widespread attention for its list of demands to the university from news outlets including The Seattle Times and The Daily Beast.
The overarching objective of the group’s demands is to “meet the growing needs and demands for educational opportunities that emerge from and contribute to movements for social justice, especially those that reflect the histories and experiences of marginalized peoples.”
The Student Assembly for Power and Liberation was reached out to for a comment, but did not respond.
The group’s demands from the university center around the creation of a College of Power and Liberation. The college would be focused on meeting the demands of marginalized identities through movements for social justice, according to the petition.
Additional demands include an annual allocation of $45,000 for people doing any “de-colonial work”, the creation of the Office for Social Transformation, a mandatory online survey for community members to express concerns about discrimination and safety, a multicultural residence hall and compensation for any student who has experienced “institutional and administrative violence” through racism, sexism, misgendering, ableism, employment status, citizenship and mental health.
Why it’s more than a petition
The petition highlights Western’s increasing diversity and the issue of needing more resources for students of color, in light of recent campus climate discussions.
In 1980, there were only 388 students of color out of 10,616 students, meaning 3.7 percent of students were of color. This past fall, the university was found to have 3,799 students of color out of 15,332, meaning 24.8 percent of Western students were students of color.
Retention rates among students of color are found to be slightly lower than white students. In 2011, retention rates for students of color were 84.2 percent, while retention rates for white students were 85.1 percent. Two years later, in 2013, the rates fell to 80.5 percent for students of color and to 82.3 percent for white students.
In 2014 Shepard gained national attention by saying if Western were as white in 10 years as it currently was, the university would have failed in his 2013 fall convocation speech.
Junior Peyton Winterowd-Laughman, a behavioral neuroscience major, finds Western to be aware of the issues that the group’s petition brought attention to.
“I feel like Western, especially with the comments President Shepard made [three] years ago, is a very diverse and socially aware college that is really aware of all of that oppression, no matter what sort of form it comes in, whether that’s sexual orientation, gender or race,” Winterowd-Laughman said.
Winterowd-Laughman also finds the group to have good ideas, but finds them to be unrealistic and potentially harmful.
“To sum up the whole proposal, I think it had a lot of good ideas, but a lot of what they’re saying isn’t going to work for a number of reasons. We’re not going to have the funds,” Winterowd-Laughman said. “[They’re] not really realistic demands and I think it’s going to backfire because a lot of what they’re saying is segregating minorities and people who feel oppressed and separating them from the campus and the community as a whole, which defeats the purpose of giving them power and purpose within society.”
Since Shepard became president, The President’s Taskforce on Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, which was created in 2012, has conducted a survey on campus climate in 2012 for faculty, endorsed a report about the experiences of students of color on campus, along with other measures. The Taskforce has also held meetings to discuss campus climate.
The university’s response
President Bruce Shepard responded to the petition in an email directed at the Associated Students Board of Directors. The Student Assembly for Power and Liberation also received the email.
The group presented the petition on Friday, Feb. 26, during a press conference and called for a response from the administration to agree to their demands by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1.
Shepard’s sent the email to the AS board at 5:29 p.m. on March 1, directing them to pursue “whatever involvement you conclude to be appropriate” in response to the demands.
In his email, Shepard brought attention to the way the petition was written and pointed to the difficulty of responding to the demands.
“The proposal is problematic, initially coming, as it has, to my office. This is because Western works bottom up, not top down. Support, understandings, and alliances must be built working bottom up,” Shepard said in the email. “No president can simply command such developments as those contained in the proposal.”
Shepard also said the proposal fails to work within the processes and policies the university currently has in place.
“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,” Shepard said in the email. “I further find, in the proposal, language possibly threatening our core commitments to campus-wide inclusivity and, again possibly, to academic freedom.”
University Director of Communications Paul Cocke was contacted for clarification on what language was found threatening, but did not receive a comment by the time of publication.
On Thursday, March 3, a special meeting was held between the AS Board of Directors, the Board of Trustees, Faculty Senate President Molly Ware and administration to discuss roles of governance at Western. The meeting came days after the student group had demanded the Trustees attend a meeting on Friday, Feb. 26.
During the meeting, the main focus was the AS and ways the organization is having trouble with making change. The seven member AS Board find their workloads to be overwhelming, so they hope to have a student senate created within the next few years to help improve student representation on campus.
What students are saying
Freshman Gabriel Hopp finds the petition to be troubling, but feels that the group is coming from a place worth acknowledging.
“I like where they’re coming from because there are issues that we value, like the Yik Yak [situation],” Hopp said. “But, the way that they said it made me feel like they were a bunch of whining children as opposed to people trying to address a real problem.”
Aspects that made Hopp feel as if the group were whining included the amount of money that they were asking for, as well as how everything they wanted was a demand rather than a proposal.
“It felt like they didn’t have an idea how much money they were asking for, especially within the time period that they gave,” Hopp said. “Also, they were demanding everything when coming here is a privilege. We really shouldn’t be demanding things from the administration.”
Junior Owen Fox, a music education and vocal performance double-major, feels that there is an issue of Western’s promotion of diversity, yet lack of ability to support students of color’s needs for infrastructure.
“White students on campus already have the infrastructure. Every building that isn’t a building of diversity is a building for white students,” Fox said. “They deserve the same infrastructure that white students have the privilege of enjoying everyday.”
Fox hopes that students stay open-minded towards the petition and the needs of students of color.
“This is a big social point for Western students, to either push towards or against diversity in the future and there really is no right or wrong answer, it’s all a gray area,” Fox said. “I hope that students at Western will keep an open mind and try to understand where the Student Assembly [for Power and Liberation] is coming from, feeling that they rightly have to fight against the infrastructure in our community to have an equal voice in our society.”
Freshman Kyle Guggisberg, a music education and vocal performance double-major, finds the group’s demands of a new building and a multicultural residence hall to be difficult to accomplish.
“It’s a little bit extremist having a whole entire new building and residence hall built right away. I also think the demands about the dorm having a committee to choose who’s in it seems like it’s going towards Greek life rather than what Western is trying to promote. Western’s current system is a lot more fair.”
While Guggisberg isn’t completely in support of the college, he thinks the university should consider the idea.
“[The college] should definitely be on the table, however Western has the knowledge to decide what they would need to do in order to support a program like that,” Guggisberg said. “Whether that means a new building or hiring the amount of faculty they said. I don’t think [the group] needs to decide whether the school needs to build new things.”
What needs to happen to make the petition become a reality
Faculty Senate President Molly Ware believes for the group’s petition to be considered, the demands need to be adapted to follow university policy and state law.
“The University Planning and Resources Council (UPRC) considers budget proposals and has a specific timeline that can be found on the University Budget Office website,” Ware said in an email. “All proposals that UPRC considers would need to conform to Washington state law, University Policy and policies that support academic freedom and shared governance.”
However, Ware could not offer any more specifics about what needs to occur for the petition to align with state and university policy until she has studied the petition more closely, she said in a clarifying email.
Any curricular changes would also need to be approved by the Academic Coordinating Commission, Ware said in the email.
Curriculum changes that the group is demanding through the petition include allowing students to determine what is taught at the college and who teaches at the college, as well as temporary faculty buy-outs for the college.
“I think the power of moments like these, moments where you have people saying ‘This cannot stay the same,’ is when we’re able to eventually find creative ways to actually imagine and create a new thing that is fundamentally different from what we currently have,” Ware said.