More action, less talk.
K-State students are calling for more direct efforts from university administrators after what they consider another incident of racist speech — this time in the university’s newest multicultural center.
At a diversity, equity and inclusion meeting Monday, students expressed their concerns and outrage over a lack of action from K-State administrators after racist messages were found scribbled on whiteboards inside the Morris Family Multicultural Student Center. The messages berated Black History Month and promoted white supremacy.
Someone wrote they celebrate Black History Month “by donating to white national causes!”
Other writings included the phrase “all lives matter” and another called Black History Month “a huge joke.”
“Words are weapons that fuel individuals to act in horrendous ways,” said sophomore theater major Nikela Reed. “Here at K-State, our safe space was violated; we were met with dehumanizing statements.”
The meeting gave students, both in-person and online, the opportunity to pose questions and make comments for a panel of administrators regarding efforts to make K-State a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming campus. Approximately 100 people watched the meeting virtually, with more than a dozen in-person audience members. The panel included dean of students Thomas Lane, associate vice president of diversity and multicultural affairs Adrian Rodriguez, and chief diversity and inclusion officer Bryan Samuel.
Speaking to the panel, Reed presented a series of demands for the university to uphold to ensure the safety and well-being of multicultural students. Those include a complete reform of the Wildcat Dialogues series; dedicating an academic week each year to professional training for faculty and staff members on matters of diversity and multiculturalism; and documenting all cases of racism, xenophobia and harassment on campus as well as making those records public.
Reed said if the university fails to meet those requests, multicultural student organizations will call for the resignation of university president Richard Myers along with other administrators.
“When was the last time President Myers engaged with multicultural students?” Reed asked. “This should keep you up at night; you should be willing to go to war for us.”
Rodriguez said Myers is scheduled to meet with the university multicultural council on March 26 as well as in the fall semester. Myers has not responded to a request for comment. University officials posted on the K-State website Saturday, addressing the discriminatory comments written on the Morris whiteboards. In part, the statement said “the university condemns white nationalism as being in opposition to our values.”
Reed said she has heard stories of racist or discriminatory events on campus over the past decade.
“Every story ended in false promises made by the administration and posts online,” Reed said. “Do not hug out racism, do not sugarcoat discrimination.”
Last summer, former K-State student Jaden McNeil posted inflammatory tweets about the death of George Floyd, the Black man who was killed when a police officer in Minneapolis held a knee to Floyd’s neck. K-State students and alumni called for the university to expel McNeil, and a group of K-State athletes said they would not play or practice until McNeil was reprimanded or removed from the university.
Following that incident, Myers issued a statement with a list of action goals to improve accountability and address injustice, which led to players resuming activities, but he cited free speech as the reason the university wouldn’t expel McNeil. However, the university confirmed in January that McNeil is no longer enrolled in the university.
Several audience members expressed concern over a lack of university policy which could enforce rules against racism and discrimination beyond just condemnation. Maria Izquierdo, a freshman majoring in nutritional sciences, said she was curious about any investigation into who may have written the messages in the multicultural center, and what actions the university will take to punish them.
Lane said the Morris building has cameras, and he said administrators believe they have video of an individual who was responsible for “at least some of the writing.” Lane said after conversations with other administrators, they do not believe this was an instance where university policy was broken.
“It occurred in a public forum, but that doesn’t negate the offensiveness and hurt it caused,” Lane said. “This was not an issue of policy being broken, it was a case of an expression.”
Samuel said it was an expression “that is holistically antithetical to our values and beliefs.”
“We hope our policies will advance in the future,” Samuel said. “There are many universities across the country where this kind of act can come under punitive action.”
Lane said any policies implemented by the university would have to abide by rules set by the Kansas Board of Regents and state agencies. Lane said administrators will have to be careful when crafting new policies to protect freedom of expression on campus.
“We’re taking a look at all the polices we have, from discrimination to threat management,” Lane said. “We’re looking at how we can improve.”
Samuel said K-State is taking some actions on campus, including reorganizing the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, adapting the social media policy to include potential punishment for hateful speech, and the creation of a student ombudsperson position to help address student concerns.
Other audience members expressed frustration over the incomplete list of goals for the diversity and inclusion action team on campus. Samuel said the university will update the online dashboard on those action steps as it receives information. He said the university would complete some steps by the end of the year, while others would be carried over into 2022.
Monica Cohen, a staff member in the College of Agriculture, said she has been part of conversations on campus about how to deal with racism and hateful speech for the past 20 years.
She said as a Black woman, it’s “downright disgraceful that after 20 years, we’re still having the same conversation with no action being done.”
“Something has to change,” Cohen said. “These people need to know there are repercussions for the things they do.”
Cohen said she has a niece who was planning on attending K-State but decided against coming to Manhattan because so many of the same situations continue to happen. Reed, along with other audience members, said the lack of direct action against racism on campus is leading to lower enrollment figures and people turning away from attending K-State.
“I’ve been in places where there was an expectation when you came to that university, that this is what it meant to be part of that community,” Samuel said. “As we think about who gets to come to our university, we can do more in saying, ‘We want to value every member of our university community, treat them with dignity and respect, and we expect you to also do that when you arrive.’”
Winniebell Xinyu Zong, an international student, said she would trade all the things she has gained from her K-State experience if she could have gone to another institution and felt safe.
“I don’t want our resilience to be our excuse that this is not an emergency issue,” Zong said. “If other people continue to have your permission to do whatever they want more than seven months later, you have not prioritized us.”