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As reports of discrimination pile up, Blank announces new initiatives

Hundreds from the UW-Madison community have posted stories on social media with #TheRealUW to portray the campus climate for students of color

UW-Madison freshman Synovia Knox was in a Sellery hallway with several friends from the 9th Cohort of First Wave the night before their Line Breaks performance that covered issues of racism, classism and sexism—when a male resident shoved her and spat in her face.

During the assault, the aggressor, who was intoxicated, hurled hateful language about race and socioeconomic status at Knox and three other First Wave scholars: Maryam Muhammad, Nora Laine Herzog and Francisco Velazquez.

He called the students poor and said they “didn’t belong” at the university because they were on scholarship, according to Knox.

She said the scene could almost be taken directly from the 9th Cohort’s Line Breaks performance, titled “Unhe[a]rd: Radical Forms of Protest,” which was performed the next day.

“It hit so much harder after the incident because it was on this topic,” Knox said. “None of us knew this was going to happen.”

The aggressor in the incident was UW-Madison student Matthew Hsieh, who has been cited with disorderly conduct and underage possession of alcohol by the UW-Madison Police Department, according to UWPD Public Information Officer Marc Lovicott.

He said the incident could potentially be upgraded to a hate crime.

Punishments from the university are unclear as it is still an ongoing investigation; much of the information is protected by Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, according to Associate Dean of Students Argyle Wade.

This incident is part of a recent string of discrimination on campus, including an incident where Native American students and a Ho-Chunk elder were mocked at a healing circle outside Dejope Residence Hall, an anti-Semitic incident in Sellery Residence Hall and another student who was also spat on outside of the Student Activity Center.

Knox said the recent occurrences are indicative of the current campus climate at UW-Madison for minority students.

“As many incident reports as you’ve gotten in just the past week, this does represent this university and that is a problem,” Knox said. “That’s what we need to change.”

Vice Provost and Dean of Students Lori Berquam said the incidents that have been reported in the past week are concerning for the entire UW-Madison community.

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“I’m really worried that we are not a campus that is very welcoming, and we’re a campus that is not very inclusive,” Berquam said.

Director of University Housing Jeff Novak echoed Berquam’s sentiment. He said the university is a “campus for many that is not welcoming,” but that efforts by university officials need to be more widely known.

He said roughly 17 percent of students in university housing are from diverse backgrounds, and nearly 30 percent of house fellows are of diverse backgrounds, an intentional effort to make students feel more welcome in university dorms.

In addition, he said university housing hosted more than 90 programs in the 2014-’15 academic school year in an attempt to open dialogues regarding diversity.

Even with these efforts, hundreds of people have shared stories of discrimination on social media with #theRealUW. Many students shared stories about incidents in university residence halls.

#TheRealUW is being told it was easier for me to get accepted because of the color of my skin. It's looking around in a...

Posted by Betty Nen on Sunday, March 13, 2016

The hashtag began trending last weekend when UW-Madison student Karie Le wrote a Facebook post after she was spat on and told to “go back to China” Saturday night by a middle-aged man outside of the SAC.

a true story:so I was walking to the SAC yesterday minding my own business when out of no where this white man, a...

Posted by Karie Le on Sunday, March 13, 2016

Over the last few days, students and faculty members, both current and former, shared their experiences of discrimination on the UW-Madison campus. Several university officials responded on social media saying that they were listening to the stories, and urged students to keep sharing so they could try to improve in the future.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced several new initiatives Tuesday night to help systematically improve the UW-Madison campus climate in an email to the student body.

Most initiatives are not immediate help to the campus climate, but she said she does plan “to provide short-term funding for two additional dedicated positions for student mental-health issues related to diversity and climate” in the email.

The recruitment process for these two positions will begin immediately, according to the email.

In addition, Blank expects to receive recommendations on how to improve the campus cultural center model based on student visits to other Big Ten universities by the end of the semester, and a new cultural competency program will begin in fall 2016. Both of these efforts were in place before the recent incidents occurred.

There will also be a campus-wide session after spring break about the process for reporting discriminatory incidents along with the student conduct process. Blank urged students to send proposals on campus climate to and said she hoped the proposals would come from collaboration between multiple groups on campus.

UW-Madison senior and leader of BlackOut Kenneth Cole said he is glad that Blank has announced new initiatives, but he still expects more in the future.

“I think that the provisions being made, while thoughtful, still will not be enough to solve the holistic problems of diversity and inclusion on our campus,” Cole said. “We do need to continue talking about race and cultural competency on this campus as it is a huge factor that contributes to the harm and the mental situations of students of color on campus.”

He said BlackOut will likely draft a proposal to send to Blank. He said he wants to propose the creation of a black student center and a test-optional application process, which he believes would immediately increase the diversity of future applicants.

Knox said she also wants assurances that programs which help largely underrepresented students—including First Wave, Posse scholars, and the PEOPLE program—aren’t cut and get the additional funding they need.

Velazquez said race and differences need to be discussed just as much as any other topic at UW-Madison to help improve the campus climate.

“It isn’t enough to just instill a class about ethnic studies and have, as soon as you walk out of the class, people don’t care,” Velazquez said.

Blank, Novak and Berquam all stressed the necessity of everyone on campus working to help prevent these incidents.

“Most importantly, we need our entire community to be engaged in improving campus climate, including our student organizations,” Blank said in the email to students.

Knox also said the entire campus needs to join the conversation to best help the college experience for minority students, because for students like herself, the conversation is not optional.

“Just because they didn’t personally spit in my face, just because they might not have personally offended me, does not mean that they aren’t still accountable,” Knox said. “It is everyone’s job to deal with these issues, and I don’t have the choice to not go to these discussions because I live it daily.” 

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