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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Graduate students state three demands for racial progress in meeting with Chancellor Blank

UW-Madison graduate students met with Chancellor Rebecca Blank Tuesday to review and present demands on the campus environment for students of color.

Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Patrick Sims, Dean of the Graduate School William Karpus, Director of Community Relations Everett Mitchell and the chancellor’s Chief of Staff Matthew Mayrl participated in the meeting. The student group consisted of 12 graduate students of various racial backgrounds that were primarily seeking degrees in education, leadership and policy.

“This campus has been a space where racist action has been a consistent part of the campus community, and we are here to interrupt that cycle,” student Jacqueline Forbes said.

The group highlighted three specific demands.

The first requested the “transparency and community involvement” in climate change proposals. One hundred and two proposals were submitted but are not yet available for public viewing. The group asked that the proposals be posted within a month.

They suggested a forum that involves the community be established to review the proposals, and that this process be shared publicly as well. The student group wants them posted by May 9; Mitchell says that this is not possible, but they will hopefully be made available that week.

“We are not going to be able to do 15 things at once,” Blank said. “We are going to try and pick off a few areas where we have good proposals, and do what we can do well in the next year, and not try to do 102 things.”

The proposals are not yet public because the writers were not required to give consent at time of submission. The documents contain personal information that, according to Mitchell, would have to be “scrubbed” in a long process, or consent must be granted, before they are opened.

Next, the group insisted that legal counsel be prioritized for students of color beginning in August 2017, after an exploratory committee forms in May 2016. According to student Gwendolyn Baxley, UW-Madison is the only university in the Big Ten that does not have a formal legal counsel for students of color. Blank claimed she was not aware of this issue and committed to collecting more information to educate herself.

“Of all the events that continue to be highlighted around racial events this semester, one resulted in an arrest, and it was a black male,” Forbes said. “This is another example of the situations people of color find themselves in in Madison.”

The group also demanded improvement of mental-health resources for students of color. Blank stated in a letter to all students in March that she planned to hire two additional health service staff members that specialize in serving students of color. The students requested updates on the progress of hiring people.

Blank claimed that this issue is in the hands of University Health Services, but promised to compile a “one-pager” to explain UHS’ plans to improve these services.

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The group emphasized the absence of graduate students in recent racial climate discussions. They demanded three follow-up meetings with the chancellor with this specific group of students in the 2016-’17 academic year. Blank committed to scheduling these gatherings, and promised to find time at a later date.

The students made a statement of solidarity with undergraduates. This includes their support of a black cultural center and research clearinghouse, where studies of incidents and bias toward people of color can be held. They also stand with the “Our Wisconsin” proposal—which requires diversity training for first-year and transfer students—and the demands of King Shabazz, a student arrested for vandalism—which include his ability to reobtain his belongings and graduate in May.

“You don’t have a clearinghouse, or data, or facts, because there’s nowhere to house them,” student Sarah Ishmael said. “Most diversity framework is decentralized and focuses on relationship-building, and not infrastructure.”

Blank said that Shabazz’s police case is now in the state’s hands. She believes students should not be involved in professional police duties. The graduate students asked why student influence did not seem important, to which Mitchell explained UW-Madison Police Chief Susan Riseling holds a community group regularly.

Blank stated that these conversations need to be had with a broader group of graduate students, despite Forbes asserting this group was diverse. Both made a commitment to have more discussions that are made known to the public.

The graduate students asked the chancellor why extra efforts were made to retain faculty and staff of color, but why money for graduate students was limited.

Karpus explained how he has advocated for increasing budget for teaching assistants and has distributed money to “areas where there is less opportunity to bring money from the outside,” including humanities and social science departments. He said he is also planning to hold “coffee chats” with graduate students to learn what students want, which will assist him in helping them.

Blank and Karpus stated they are currently working on programs for diversity training, but that they will take several years to form.

“You never put something in place and it’s perfect,” Blank said. “You put something in, pilot it, tweak it, try to improve it, and do the same thing the next year.”

Mitchell empathized with the students and vowed to continue fighting these issues even after he leaves his position at UW in June.

Forbes, however, said that she is unsure what the outcome of the meeting will be.

“If the behaviors and the actions that have happened in the past continue then I don’t expect any change unless something different happens,” Forbes said.

The student group asserted they will continue fighting for justice. According to Ishmael, they will focus on their finals for the time-being and not take time out of their lives as if this struggle were their job. 

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