The Associated Students of Madison (ASM) student council and university officials discussed initiatives for diversity, campus safety and inclusion Wednesday as campuses grapple with increasingly tense conversations across the state.
Wednesday’s meeting came as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, maintained the UW System will not receive $32 million unless it cuts DEI offices, with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor telling ASM early in the meeting that UW-Madison “will not be cutting those positions.”
It was also the first fall semester ASM meeting after May protests in response to a video of a white UW-Madison spouting racial slurs and violent language directed toward Black people.
ASM Chair Kevin Jacobson committed to prioritizing “holistic” student well-being in ASM’s direction for the coming year and focusing on small issues “not regularly addressed by our student government.”
“In the past, a lot of people focus on really large things, and we've neglected a lot of things that affect people's day to day lives,” Jacobson said. “What I'm focusing on is reshifting towards focusing on a holistic view of students' lives from top to bottom.”
However, one of the “large” things ASM committed to fixing is an alleged listening problem — a historic track record of failing to meet the needs of underrepresented and marginalized students. Those concerns were brought to center stage after the racist video, which led to protests and the formation of a new student group, the Blk Pwr Coalition.
“How can we start improving the campus if we are not listening to the campus?” Jacobson said at Wednesday’s meeting.
In its first step towards greater inclusion through listening, ASM established an ad hoc Internal Equity Review Committee. Through this initiative, the organization will hold bi-weekly open discussions to provide any student with a platform to discuss how systemic injustice manifests at UW-Madison and within ASM.
ASM leaders hope the committee will be able to change its policies and practices to better represent traditionally marginalized students. The committee intends to present a strategy plan by Feb. 24, 2024 detailing how ASM can more effectively serve every student.
Reesor and Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion LaVar Charleston, who attended Wednesday’s meeting as guest speakers, said they are committed to accountability and collaborating with campus leaders to build a culture of belonging.
“I'm excited to both share with ASM some of the things we are doing to address growing concerns and to [have] shared accountability, shared responsibility in helping to progress the institution,” LaVar Charleston said.
Pivoting to free speech arguments, she noted that the Office of Student Affairs plans to address demands made last May during protests over the university’s response to the racist video.
“We wanted to be here to talk and address any of the concerns from the end of the last semester,” Reesor said.
Reesor and Charleston shared steps taken and noted their planned partnership with the Blk Pwr Coalition, a student advocacy group formed last semester.
Additionally, Charleston noted the university intends to bring on multiple expert communicators to address feedback on dissatisfaction with how UW-Madison communicates. One is Diana Harvey, newly named inaugural vice chancellor for strategic communication.
To that end, Reesor noted UW-Madison will prioritize the accessibility of Bascom administrators through office hours with vice chancellors, Dean of Students Christina Olstad and campus listening sessions. Reesor said the listening sessions will be open to all students, though some will be tailored towards marginalized groups on campus.
Reesor said these campus listening sessions were in response to “campus climate” surveys performed in 2016 and 2021, which were initially intended to be conducted every three years before being postponed due to the pandemic.
Josiah Gomez, a UW-Madison student and Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) member, pressed university officials for a concrete answer on any expulsion of Audrey Godlewski, the student in the racist video, and concrete policy changes the university intends to make to protect students on campus while speaking during open forum.
“The threshold for hate speech is incredibly high and difficult to pass over,” Reesor said. “Most speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
Reesor maintained UW-Madison is bound by federal law in sharing disciplinary action toward individual students and expressed willingness to assist in arranging meetings with the general counsel for interested students.
Regarding policy changes, both Charleston and Reesor highlighted the community's capacity to unite. Regarding substantive policy change, Reesor noted UW-Madison is bound to the UW System non-academic misconduct detailed in Board of Regents Administrative code UWS 17.
Gomez was dissatisfied with Reesor’s response.
“It was a very, very cut and dry response — very copy and paste to what you would expect them to do,” Gomez said. “I feel like they do have the power to do a lot more than just say, ‘What we're trying to do is let people know what free speech is.’”
Gomez also worried listening without implementing more concrete response measures could open UW-Madison to additional hate speech.
“It's very hypocritical of them to be saying that they're doing all this work, but they aren't really truly feeling what the students are feeling,” Gomez said.
The next ASM Student Council meeting will be on Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 6:30 p.m. in the Hearing Room on the fourth floor of the Student Activity Center at 333 East Campus Mall. Reesor said Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin is planning to attend and answer questions about ongoing University efforts.
Editor’s Note: Nicholas Sinn is on the UWPD Police Advisory Board, the Committee for Student Organizations, the Student Activity Center Governing Board and the Equity Inclusion Committee but has not started working in the ASM intern program at this time.