On March 8, 2016, the Marginalized Students of the University of Arizona (MSUA) delivered a 19-page list of demands to the university’s administration. These students came from a number of identity-based resource centers around campus, including campus cultural centers (African American Student Affairs, Asian Pacific American Student Affairs, Native American Student Affairs, and the Guerrero Center), the Women’s Resource Center, and the LGBTQ Resource Center to demand better support for marginalized students, staff, and faculty on campus. These demands included increased funding for the cultural centers, required cultural competency training for various university staff and faculty, and increased numbers of faculty who identify as belonging to these marginalized identities. The full document can be referenced here.
In the document’s introduction, MSUA states, “We find it insulting that the University of Arizona has not acknowledged marginalized student experiences or provided meaningful resources to address our concerns. It took a nationally televised event at the University of Missouri and a demonstration by our Black Student Union to instigate any sort of response to serious issues,” (p. 1). After this demonstration by the Black Student Union, UA President Ann Weaver Hart initiated a “listening tour.”
During this tour, Hart scheduled visits to each of the cultural and resource centers on campus and provided some of the center’s students the opportunity to speak about the various issues and environmental challenges they have faced within the institution. However, the groups all felt that they were not being adequately listened to and that they were being “pitted against other students” (source). Thus, MSUA planned the release of the document and demonstration to coincide with Hart’s final visit to the centers.
News of the demonstration and the list of demands swiftly spread to students, faculty, and staff. As a new professional staff member at UA, many conversations with my boss and coworkers centered on these developments. Thankfully, most of the staff members I spoke to were in full support of MSUA – but don’t get me wrong, even the few criticisms of the protests from student affairs professionals at the institution are concerning beyond belief (Why are you here if you have such disdain for students?! But I digress…).
As a master’s in higher education student during my final semester, all of my classes were taken over by discussions about how the university might respond. I remember that these conversations were all overwhelmingly hopeful – we all felt that surely the momentum of Mizzou’s protest would encourage swift administrative action. Just prior to the document’s release, one conversation in my comparative higher education course focused on the student protests against tuition hikes in South Africa. I remember my professor saying something along the lines of, “I don’t understand why American students aren’t organizing protests like students in other countries do – it works!” Then, Mizzou’s protests occurred and MSUA’s document followed closely after. The conversation in that comparative higher education course morphed into excited chatter about a potential change in tides.
Oh, to be young and
A year later and where are we?
Since the document’s release, numerous news organizations and blogs have reacted. Many of these reactions have been negative critiques of students (you know, the standard “special snowflake” and “entitled generation” epithets). Unfortunately, the University of Arizona’s administrative response hasn’t been much more supportive or welcoming. The administration hasn’t attended to any of the specific demands. I think Hart made a rare venture into the campus community (because who says a university president needs to actually interact with students, faculty, or staff at the institution?) to join a (highly photographed) Mizzou solidarity march across UA’s campus. The administration did, however, also publicly open a search for a new chief diversity officer and created a Diversity Task Force (which they, no joke, refer to as DTF) and claimed that these measures were instituted to meet some of these demands. It is worth noting, however, that the chief diversity officer position had previously been vacant for years under Dr. Hart. The search concluded with UA deciding to hire not one but TWO Chief Diversity Officers (wow, such commitment to inclusion and social justice!), each earning more than a $200,000 per year salary. Strange that they were able to find an extra salary line, both above the median salaries for similar positions around the nation, in the time of extreme scarcity and amongst rhetoric that the list of demands would be too costly to implement…
And, to my knowledge, so ends the list of actions that administration has taken to address MSUA’s demands.
As a staff member and a student on campus, I’ve experienced a lot of frustration and, quite honestly, heartbreak when I think back on how this has played out. I have also been frequently frustrated with myself for not being more a more, well, active activist. At the time, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, I was too scared to act because I felt that I needed to be “professional” in my loyalty to the institution. My outlook has changed quite a bit as I’ve embraced the importance of acting authentically according to what I believe. What could possibly be responsible for changing my outlook? The mystery remains…
While I do credit a large part of my change in outlook to Trump “winning” the election, I also don’t want to misrepresent or downplay the UA administration’s role in that disillusionment. Last year, I served on the Student Affairs & Enrollment Management and Academic Initiatives & Student Success (SAEM-AISS) Annual Symposium planning committee (and yes, I’m aware of just how ridiculous the title of our division is). The topic was one that all of us young,
foolish idealistic student affairs professionals were excited about – student activism on college campuses.
My role on the committee was to elicit, collect, and review symposium proposals. We decided to reach out to the Diversity Task Force (and I do refuse to use the acronym) and ask them to hold a panel to discuss how they came into being following a demonstration of student activism and to explain how they have begun the address student concerns stemming from that demonstration.
And so I emailed three leaders on the task force (the chair and two co-chairs) and received… nothing. Not even an empty thank-you-for-the-invite-but-we’re-too-busy-fixing-the-world email back. I was crushed. And so, so angry. And so was the rest of the committee.
Interest convergence and racial realism are real, y’all.
Interest convergence is a principle, introduced by Derrick Bell, that states that the interest of people of color “in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites,” (Bell, 1980, p. 523)
Racial realism is Derrick Bell’s assertion that the subordinate status of people of color is permanent and that acknowledgement of this fact “enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph” (Bell, 1992) p. 374)
UA administration completed only those acts that protected them from the public scrutiny that University of Missouri administrators faced in mishandling their own student protest. UA’s administration took the public steps of filling positions and creating a task force to show that they were committed to creating an inclusive institution, without actually having to create the inclusive environment. That’s some evil-genius-level manipulation, right there.
And why no *real* action? This is because further action would destabilize the systems of white supremacy that reign supreme in the institution. Actual progress would threaten the myth of meritocracy (you see, of course the institution would be happy to hire more faculty of color, if only there were any who were as *qualified* as the overwhelmingly white faculty they choose to hire) and that just wouldn’t be fair. So, instead, they’ll do the bare minimum to shut the whiny students up and cover their behinds.
So let’s keep fighting to break down and subvert these pesky and harmful white supremacist systems any way we can. Until then, I’ll just have to follow in Mrs. MacDonald’s footsteps and use this as my mantra: “I lives to harass white folks”… and college administrators (Bell, 1992, p. 378).
Bell, D. A. (1980). Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma. Harvard Law Review, 93(3), pp. 518-533.
Bell, D. A. (1992). Racial Realism. Connecticut Law Review, 24(2), pp. 364-379.