In a meeting fraught with tension and frustrations, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank agreed on Wednesday to an ongoing dialogue with the UW BIPOC Coalition, but urged student activists to work with her subordinate administrators in seeking progress on racial justice at the university.
In the virtual meeting, Blank told representatives of the BIPOC Coalition, the Teaching Assistants’ Association and the Asian-American Student Union that she would meet with activists twice per semester in the future to discuss progress on their wide-ranging demands of her administration.
But throughout the meeting, Blank insisted that in order to see their goals through, the students calling on her for action should instead work with administrators like Lori Reesor, UW’s Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, and Dr. Cheryl Gittens, Interim Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion and the university’s Chief Diversity Officer, both of whom were present in the meeting.
“I think you have the process a little wrong, to be blunt. I am not the one who makes final decisions on a number of issues,” Blank told the group of activists. “I have staff, Vice Chancellors, who are in charge of different areas, and they have full decision-making power in those areas. When things need to come back to me, they will. But oftentimes, they don’t need to come back to me.”
The students began the meeting with a slideshow presentation outlining their concerns about the state of racial diversity and inclusion, calling attention to the campus’ 69% white student body, the difficulty of finding safe spaces for students of color, instances of targeted racial bias and what they called the university’s “continued contracting with industries of racist practices.”
“Over the course of years as it compounds, if you feel like you’re not wanted, if you feel like people don’t want you to be there and don’t understand you. Overall it becomes tough to feel like UW wants you and that you’re supposed to be here,” BIPOC Coalition member Josh Mitchell said.
In 2016, the university’s own climate survey found that 23% of students of color felt excluded very or extremely often, and 30% of reported incidents of harassment were racial in nature. Students of color were also less likely than their peers to feel their contributions in the classroom were respected by fellow students and instructors.
In the future, the Coalition said, the university should commit to monthly meetings between the Chancellor and campus multicultural groups, create specific timelines for responding to various demands from activist groups, involve more students in crafting plans for the UW’s COVID-19 response and increase transparency in university operations by including students of color in administrative meetings.
Until Wednesday’s meeting, the BIPOC Coalition, which has spent much of the semester pushing its list of 10 demands for the university to address racial inequities on campus, had tried for months to speak directly with the Chancellor, but representatives from the newly-formed student activist group say they were told instead to meet with other administrators and university representatives. Earlier this month, Blank backed out of an agreement to speak with the Associated Students of Madison, citing a scheduling conflict with the meeting’s agenda after the coalition was given time to speak as well.
“Why don’t we agree to meet twice a semester, but I will expect in between those meetings, that you have actually moved issues forward with the people who are responsible for moving them,” Blank said in the meeting. “Things have to move forward. And they aren’t going to move forward in conversations with me, I can tell you that. They’re going to move forward in conversations with people on the ground that have responsibility for those issues.”
Dr. Gittens also seemed frustrated by the way student activists have chosen to pursue change on campus, saying that no one in the meeting had contacted her in her administrative role.
“None of you have cared to meet with me as Chief Diversity Officer. If you want me to speak for you, you need to meet with me,” Gittens said.
The group of activists committed to setting up a meeting soon with Gittens and Reesor to further discuss their ideas and possible strategies. But students also seemed wary of the Chancellor’s hands-off approach to their demands that her administration take racial justice seriously. One student pointed to Blank’s recent comments that the “social revolution” ignited by George Floyd’s death was one of a number of crises facing the campus.
“If this social movement that has been happening for years is a problem on campus, it needs your direct attention,” one student told the Chancellor.
“The university is … claiming to value diversity, but I’m sorry, Chancellor Blank, we literally had to hunt you down to have this conversation,” another student said.
The university officials pointed to the progress the university has made in recent years in faculty and student diversity — initiatives headed up by the Office of the Provost — as evidence of this administrative structure’s effectiveness. The Chancellor also told students that Reesor and Gittens are developing diversity training programs for students, faculty and staff, and that the university has worked hard to enforce disciplinary actions for incidents of racist behavior on campus.
“I do believe that the people who work for me and with me are busting it — literally working hard to not have you express the way you’re expressing,” Gittens said of the progress the university has made.
In response to the coalition’s claims of limited space on campus for students of color, Blank cited recent renovations to the Red Gym on campus, where many of the university’s multicultural student organizations are housed.
Yet, other cultural spaces around campus have come under threat in recent years. In 2012, to make way for the recently-completed Hamel Music Center, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán was displaced and its office’s building demolished by the university. The current home of the American Indian Student and Cultural Center faces a similar fate under the university’s current master plan.
“It’s not okay that the only space that students of color on campus feel that they can go is one building at the very end of campus,” BIPOC Coalition member Tarah Stangler said of the Red Gym.
Ultimately, administrators and students alike agreed that more needed to be done to improve the UW experience for BIPOC students, but in the eyes of the students, officials’ recognition of their shortcomings is a far cry from the solutions they want.
Even as they made plans to schedule meetings with Gittens and Reesor in the near future, multiple students expressed disappointment that they felt the need to continue activism work, which dates back fifty years to the 1969 Black Student Strike on the UW-Madison campus.
“I have an econ exam tomorrow,” another student told the Chancellor. “I can’t study for my exam because I’ve had to spend the last week preparing for this meeting. I’m a full time student and a full time activist. You guys are full time workers. Why aren’t you doing your job?”