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U of MN student groups angry with the state of the U

By staff |
March 15, 2016
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Speakers at Student State of the University event.
Speakers at Student State of the University event. (Fight Back! News / Staff)
Javaris Bradford of the Black Student Union.
Javaris Bradford of the Black Student Union.

Minneapolis, MN - Students from the University of Minnesota gathered for the Student State of the University, March 10. The Student State of the University has been an annual response to the administration’s State of the University. The administration delivered its State of the University one week earlier. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called for a Student’s State of the University as in an effort to juxtaposition the concerns of students with those of its administration.

The students and groups participating included Javaris Bradford, president of the Black Student Union (BSU); Rula Rashid, president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP); Joanna Nunez and David Melendez of Whose Diversity?; Nicholas Goldsmith, president of the Council of Graduate Students; Ken Gonzales from Asian Pacific Islanders for Equity and Diversity; and Max Franz of Students for a Democratic Society.

Speakers responded to U of M President Eric Kaler’s State of University address as well as his policies and practices over the past year. Among them were issues of rising tuition and student debt, a lack of diversity and the exclusion of marginalized student populations on campus, mental health issues, and the direct interference of President Kaler in a student government resolution brought forth by SJP calling for the university to joining the growing tide of the BDS movement.

In his own address, President Kaler tried to showcase his five-year presidency with a grand narrative of progress. This narrative delicately skirted sensitive subjects like rising tuition and debts, student occupations and unethical university-conducted research that resulted in the death of a patient.

The first issue President Kaler carefully sidestepped was a proposed increase of tuition for out-of-state and international students by 60%, or by $12,800. Instead, he suggested that he had been “keeping a lid on tuition,” by only making “the smallest tuition percentage increases,” after years of tuition doubling and tripling. He gently twisted statistics about graduating student debt, suggesting that 40% of students graduated with “zero debt from university sources.” In carefully choosing his words, he overlooked the fact that many who do not qualify for “university debt” instead collect debts from private banking institutions that often grant large loans to students with substantially higher interest rates. Kaler and his administration proved to be masters of deceptive rhetoric and mathematics, but cannot actually offer the real facts to support their conclusions.

Max Franz from Students for A Democratic Society offered a direct rebuttal to Kaler on tuition and costs at the university. Franz highlighted how tuition trends had been quadrupling for two decades before Kaler could claim that he kept it to “the smallest” increase of an era typified by tuition hike after tuition hike. With such increases to compare to, any increase might easily seem favorable when matched to such a low bar.

Franz added that SDS had played a central role in pressuring Kaler and the board of regents to stop tuition hikes for years before he adopted such policies. For example, in 2013 SDS led a referendum drive that saw students overwhelmingly support a resolution that tuition be frozen, the budget be transparent, and that administration take a pay cut. Franz added that “we should be working toward what is stipulated in Section 12 of the University Charter, our university’s founding document, which asserts that the University of Minnesota should provide tuition-free education to all residents.”

President Kaler also overlooked the demands brought forth by Whose Diversity? and its occupation of the administrative offices of Morrill Hall a year ago. Among their demands were “engagement with substantive, instead of cosmetic, diversity,” “recruitment, retention, and graduation of students from historically marginalized communities,” that “an emphasis be placed on the well-being of people from historically marginalized communities,” and an emphasis “placed on comprehensive educational experiences for all students.”

President Kaler instead embraced carefully scripted corporate rhetoric about “listening to stakeholders,” describing how he had “created a Bias Response Team,” and “convened a Campus Climate Workgroup.” These efforts continue the trend of administrators to offer superficial bureaucratic mechanisms to pressing matters that require urgent and meaningful action.

Of the groups speaking at the Student State of the University, several responded to Kaler’s “Bias Response Team” and “Campus Climate” buzzwords. Representatives of the Black Student Union, Whose Diversity? and Asian Pacific Islanders for Equity and Diversity all criticized the administration’s preservation of a status-quo.

Javaris Bradford, a sociology major and African American studies minor, president of the Black Student Union and student leader in a Mizzou solidarity rally and student walk-out to demand Justice for Jamar Clark earlier this year, was among those who responded to President Kaler directly. Addressing Kaler personally he began by stating definitively, “Black students at the university feel absolutely ignored and neglected with our needs, and wishes and desires for a university that doesn’t have professors that are racially insensitive.” He called for “a university that doesn’t have detrimentally expensive tuition, that can provide me with a safe campus climate.”

Bradford added that while President Kaler and the university administration has offered a sanitized, sterilized and idealized portrait of diversity on campus, that the reality of being an African American student on campus often includes interactions with white students and staff that can be hostile. He explained that while “the university loves to exploit the racial experiences of minority students, (it) does not care to meet our needs whatsoever.”

At the administrations State of the University a week before, President Kaler was asked directly about race, diversity and about the Black Student Union on campus. Bradford pointed out that in his response Kaler, “first off, got the name wrong” adding that Kaler’s response of “we’re working on it,” continues to result in students of colors’ “experience, and skin color, constantly ignored and delayed.”

Bradford concluded that at a school where less than half of African American students who are admitted graduate, and only 4% of the student body identifies as African American, does not reflect the kind of diversity and equal opportunities that the administration suggests it is offering. Bradford made it clear that the university can do “better than that, and our athletic department is proof of that. When we can be exploited for profityou see us here in droves.”

Joanna Nunez of Whose Diversity? discussed how she as a first generation graduate student was recruited from her home in Nevada to the University of Minnesota with promises of safety, inclusion and diversity. She explained however, that upon her arrival at the University of Minnesota, “that was not (her) experience.” Nunez recounted how, in response to her experience on campus, she got involved in Whose Diversity?, which aims to radically challenge and transform the university.

Nunez pointed out that the very existence of Whose Diversity? on campus both scares and threatens the administration, “because we are not just going to settle.” She cited the university uses of, “empty rhetoric to mask the oppression that happens here.” Ultimately she linked her activism on campus to both her own and her community’s historical experiences, affirming that, “I don’t think the university understands that when we leave our historically marginalized communities to come to this campus, we are bringing them here with us. “We cannot be disconnected from that, and activism is a central part of our lives.”

David Melendez of Whose Diversity? explained that, in contrast to highly paid administrators on campus, as student activists, “we’re here because we care, deeply.” Melendez, who is in the theater department and did undergraduate work at UCLA in Los Angeles, explained the importance of increasing accessibility to the Chicano Studies Department, as the only department of its kind in Minnesota. The struggle for more tenured faculty, increased funding and more classes for the department has been an ongoing struggle over the last year. The department was recently able to offer a new tenured track position to one of three candidates. Melendez described how they demanded the university to hire all three. The university has denied the request and students continue to pressure the administration to budge.

Ken Gonzalez from Asian Pacific Islanders (API) for Equity and Diversity challenged the narrative perpetuated by the university of a ‘model minority.’ Gonzalez described how the group formed last September out of the botched re-hiring of a faculty member. Juavah Lee, a faculty in Asian American Studies, was first rehired, but months later had the offer rescinded. Gonzalez added that many faculty of color are constantly harassed and run off campus when their philosophies and ideas do not align with those of the university institution. “The moment someone comes into opposition with the kind of ideas and mission they wish to promot they will cut them, corner them, and bully them out of a job… so that those issues are silenced.”

Gonzalez added that, “those ones who are being cut are the ones who are ensuring that student concerns are put first.” Gonzalez highlighted the group’s struggle to transform the Asian American Studies minor into the status of a university department that could serve the large Twin Cities Asian community, which includes the largest concentration of Hmong in the U.S.

Finally, Students for Justice in Palestine President Rula Rashid took to the podium, where she expressed disbelief not just at the State of the University, but at the intervention of President Kaler into the workings of student government days before. On March 8, only days earlier, President Kaler had publicly interfered with a student debate and vote in the Minnesota Student Association resolution to support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement.

The president released a public statement the day of the debate and vote that stated, “The university does not endorse measures advocated in the SJP resolution, which has been offered in support of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement,” mentioning they called for a “comprehensive academic, cultural, economic and consumer boycott of Israel.” The student government subsequently shelved both the debate and vote on the resolution, and a second brought forth by Students Supporting Israel that equated BDS against the State of Israel as being religious intolerance akin to ‘anti-Semitism,’ was voluntarily dropped by SSI.

Rashid described how the statement of President Kaler, “affected a lot of people,” and that he knowingly posted it the morning of forum.” She added that the “influence of President Kaler and outside voices that try to stifle student voices is really problematic.”

Javaris Bradford in his remarks earlier also criticized the efforts of Kaler and outside critics of the SJP push for BDS on campus expounding, “God forbid we address the needs of students of color.”

In working towards bringing the resolution through the ‘proper channels’ SJP believed its course was both appropriate and legitimate. Rashid said SJP was not deterred and added that despite the money and influence of outside organizations opposing the measure, that “there is only so much time before people say enough is enough.” She added, “Investments of this university, either directly or indirectly, are involved with companies that violate international law.”

The group remains resolved to continue the struggle for BDS on campus. Student body President Joelle Stangler also decried striking the resolutions off the agenda and the interference of the president suggesting that, “we need to seriously consider whether we can ask our peers to support the institution,” since President Kaler began “intervening with student discussions.”

SJP’s Rula Rashid concluded her speech saying, “we will not be silenced.” Javaris Bradford of the BSU echoed this resolve to continue to struggle when he challenged the audience, stating that, “if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not helping.”

The organizations involved in the Student State of the University plan to hold a future meeting to form a coalition that can organize, coordinate and support each group in their struggles on campus. Panel members and the audience were overwhelming resolved to working together both to support each other and deny the administration in its efforts to turn groups against one another.