Content warning: This story contains information about violent racist remarks and quotes containing profanity.
The Associated Students of Madison (ASM) hosted an open forum Wednesday where students delivered searing indictments of the administration and ASM, criticizing what they said was a weak response to a racist video that surfaced earlier this week.
The town hall came amid widespread criticism from student organizations and community members regarding the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s response to the racist video, which depicts a white student saying racial slurs and violent remarks toward Black people.
Over 200 students delivered a list of nine demands Wednesday to UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin during a sit-in protest at Bascom Hall organized by The Blk Pwr Coalition. Students demanded the university provide more resources for Black students and expel Audrey Godlewski, the UW sophomore recorded using racial slurs.
Wednesday’s forum stretched for nearly three hours and featured impassioned speeches from a diverse group of students. Speakers shared incidents of racism they experienced and perceived university failures in addressing past hate and bias reports.
More than 100 people packed into the hearing room, with many spilling into the hallway, sitting on the floor or watching over Zoom.
UW, ASM face backlash over video responses
UW-Madison Dean of Students Christina Olstad and Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Gabe Javier attended Wednesday’s meeting.
Many speakers directly addressed Olstad, criticizing her as the face of an administration they said hasn’t done enough to provide tangible resources for students of color.
Multiple students questioned the value of filing hate and bias reports.
“There are categories of speech not protected by the First Amendment,” student Jada Young said during the open forum. “[Those categories] are all mentioned within that video and no one is taking this seriously.”
Additionally, students criticized Olstad for handing out ice cream coupons in the Black Cultural Center (BCC) on Tuesday
“Thinking that dropping ice cream coupons off in the Black Cultural Center — when I have never seen you step foot in that place prior to yesterday — was [the right action] is ridiculous,” Young said.
Olstad told The Daily Cardinal she had been to the BCC before Tuesday. Her visit Tuesday was intended to engage students, she said.
When asked if she felt she had done enough to engage communities of color on campus, Olstad pointed to her one-on-one meeting with students at the forum, saying she would be following up with many of them. Olstad is available during weekly Friday office hours, she said.
Additionally, multiple students took aim at ASM’s lack of statement on social media in response to the video. Although ASM released a statement to news organizations condemning the racist video, it did not post the statement on social media or another public forum.
“We fucked up — It was fully on us and I recognize that, and it will be addressed in future communications,” said newly appointed ASM Chair Kevin Jacobson during the meeting.
The statement did not get posted to social media because of confusion over which staff would handle social media posting as ASM transitions sessions, Jacobson told the Cardinal. ASM did release a post Wednesday inviting students to speak at their meeting.
“We don't have a fleshed-out process of who's supposed to be running social media right now,” Jacobson said.
Students continue calls for expulsion
Students criticized the university for saying they could not expel Godlewski because of freedom of speech protections. They cited numerous examples of public universities that previously expelled students for racist behavior.
In 2015, the University of Oklahoma expelled two students who started a racist chant at a fraternity. A University of Kentucky student was also expelled in 2022 for assault charges. These incidents were either on campus or involved active physical violence and legal charges, neither of which apply to the racist video in question.
Brooke Messaye, editor-in-chief of The Black Voice — a student journalism organization at UW-Madison — said she wants UW administration to include Black students in campus communication.
“I want to see Chancellor [Jennifer] Mnookin, I want to see Dr. [Lori] Reesor, I want to see Dr. LaVar Charleston and I want to see Ms. Olstad,” Messaye said. “I want you all to sit here and honestly just listen to what these students have to say. Include them in the conversation.”
Mnookin released a statement Thursday morning in response to student demands from The Blk Pwr Coalition. While she did not address all student demands, she apologized for the pain caused by the video, directed students to university resources and indicated her commitment to meeting with leaders of The Blk Pwr Coalition at a later date.
Additionally, Mnookin asked The Blk Power Coalition to identify a point of contact for a future meeting between university officials and student leaders from the coalition.
"This is, I hope, the first step in an ongoing dialogue with you," Mnookin wrote. "We are committed to continue engaging and collaborating with you in good faith to address your concerns."
Darius Lassiter, who started the petition to expel Audrey Godlewski, also spoke on some of the threats he received on social media, his leadership of the National Pan-Hellenic Council and his difficulties navigating UW-Madison as a Black student.
“I’ve been invited to different towns so I can basically — excuse my language — ‘get my ass whooped’,” Lassiter said. “All I have done is reposting information and made sure that my brothers and sisters feel that they are safe and have the space to speak up.”
District 8 Alder and UW-Madison junior MGR Govindarajan, also in attendance during the open forum, said he was “exhausted” by yet another incident of racism on campus.
“Part of me isn't even disappointed because it's exactly what I expected,” Govindarajan said. “When you get what you expect, how can you feel disappointment?”
Be ‘angry’ at administration, former ASM chair says
Midway through the open forum, Jacobson read a statement from his predecessor, Ndemazea Fonkem. In her statement, Fonkem said she lacks trust in university administration’s leadership after hate and bias incidents.
“No matter how many processing spaces, listening sessions, Daily Scoop vouchers, emergency grants or academic accommodations I receive, I will never trust this university to keep me safe again,” Fonkem wrote.
Additionally, Fonkem said she left ASM because she “will no longer be paraded around as the scapegoat for an institution that never cared about [her].”
She urged students to be angry at UW-Madison’s failure to support its Black community and insisted ASM representatives use their roles to support Black students and student organizations.
“You are the student government. You represent us,” Fonkem said. “I suggest you take this job very seriously.”
Editor's note: This article was updated at 7:11 p.m. on Thursday, May 4, 2023 to include further information from Mnookin's letter to The Blk Power Coalition.
Gavin Escott is a photographer and staff writer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal, focusing on city and state news. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.
Noe Goldhaber is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in campus and state news reporting.