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Minnesota students confront President Kaler to demand real diversity

By Matt Boynton |
March 19, 2014
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Students protest U of M President Kaler at Coffman Union second floor unveiling
Students protest U of M President Kaler at Coffman Union second floor unveiling (Photo from Whose Diversity? - Minnesota facebook page)

Minneapolis, MN - On March 12, 35 students interrupted a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the University of Minnesota to protest the lack of real diversity on campus. The protest was organized by a new student group called Whose Diversity? and was supported by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, students marched to the front of the crowd, chanted and spoke to the audience and administration before the event began. As U of M President Kaler begun speaking, protesters raised signs that read, “Support the right to self-determination,” “does my culture make you uncomfortable?” and “We reject racism” between President Kaler and the crowd. Unable to speak clearly or even see the audience, the president made a handful of remarks and then turned the microphone over to the next speaker. Non-white students are silenced every day by university administrators, but Whose Diversity? flipped the script.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony was the public unveiling of the newly-remodeled second floor of Coffman Memorial Union, the Minneapolis campus’ student center. This is where student cultural centers are located, such as the La Raza Student Cultural Center, Black Student Union, American Indian Student Cultural Center, Women’s Student Activist Collective and many more. Students revealed that the second floor remodeling - which students resisted throughout the process - was an attempt to ‘whitewash’ the previously vibrant space because a conservative white man threatened to sue the University for discrimination several years ago.

For years the administration has been tightening the largely non-white groups’ annual budgets and restricting their access to their own spaces, particularly on the second floor of Coffman. At the protest, students demanded “Where are the murals?” referring to historic cultural murals that the administration destroyed as part of the remodel of the student cultural center spaces. The murals were an important legacy of student struggle at the U of M - such as a mural depicting the historic 1969 student takeover of Morrill Hall which resulted in the establishment of the African and African-American Studies Department. Flustered by the students’ disruption of the press event, President Kaler hid in the student government office until it was his turn to speak.

While Minneapolis is 18.6% Black and 10.5% Latino, the U of M remains overwhelmingly white. The U of M’s student body is 4% Black and 2.4% Latino/a in 2014. And the Chicano Studies, American Indian Studies and African American & African Studies departments are continually underfunded, as are non-white student groups. Students demanded that these issues be addressed. After the protest, students gathered to celebrate a successful action and motivate people to keep building the student movement.

Students for a Democratic Society member Stephanie Taylor said afterwards, “The University systematically excludes poor and oppressed nationality students. UMN needs to expand access and support for departments and programs that serve these students. It’s not about diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about justice for oppressed and exploited communities in our state.”