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Grad students at UCLA use rare tactic of interrupting a course, setting off debate over whether this was necessary to combat racial insensitivity or took away rights of other students and a professor.
The University of California at Los Angeles has come under fire multiple times this fall for the state of race relations there. First, concern over the treatment of minority professors prompted a sobering report detailing instances of race-based discrimination against faculty members. Next, Sy Stokes and other black male undergrads made their now-viral video about their slim ranks on campus.
Now some graduate students are weighing in on what they see as a climate of hostility toward minority students, both in the Graduate School of Education’s Information’s Social Science and Comparative Education division and at UCLA as a whole. But the grad students' interruption of a class session with a sit-in has other graduate students questioning their tactics -- and some say their accusations are unfair.
"What we're speaking to is part of a larger, institutionalized culture on campus,” said Kenjus Waston, a black Ph.D. candidate in the division and an organizing member of UCLA Call 2 Action: Graduate Students of Color. The group staged a sit-in, or what it called a “teach-in,” during a second-level dissertation preparation course in the division this month. Watson said members hoped to address racially motivated “microagressions” – seemingly innocuous but ultimately hurtful comments or actions – that have marked their time at UCLA.
About 25 students participated in the sit-in, in the classroom of Val Rust, professor emeritus of education. Watson – a student in that class – said Rust’s course was one of many in which students of “color and consciousness” have experienced discrimination. Of about 10 students in the class, 5 participated in the sit-in. Participants read a letter listing their complaints and a series of demands for reform. Regular coursework was suspended for about an hour because of the sit-in.
“A hostile campus climate has been the norm for Students of Color in this class throughout the quarter as our epistemological and methodological commitments have been repeatedly questioned by our classmates and our instructor,” the group’s letter reads. The statement accuses “the professor” (it does not identify Rust by name) of correcting “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies” and “repeatedly questioning the value of our work on social identity and the related dynamics of oppression, power and privilege.” The “barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate,” it continues.
Watson, whose research focuses on black men and microagressions in higher education, said some within the division – he did not wish to name specific professors or peers – have questioned his research as “too subjective,” he said. In another case that best exemplifies the "grammar 'lessons'" referenced in group's letter, he said, another student who chose to capitalize the first letter in the word “Indigenous” in her research papers saw it changed to a lowercase throughout. Watson said that correction disregarded the writer's scholarly advocacy and had other "ideological implications." Rust also insisted on Chicago Manual of Style form in research papers, even though some in the group wanted to use American Psychological Association style, in line with their more social science-oriented research.
The letter also alleges that the professor has failed to address the “escalating hostility directed at the only Male of Color in this cohort” and crossed a line by physically shaking that student’s arm in a “questionable, patronizing and facetious effort to remind [him] of the importance of dialogue.” Watson said that, during a discussion on critical race theory during which he was wearing a T-shirt that read "Dialogue Matters," Rust tried to stop the heated conversation by shaking his arm. Making physical contact with a student is inappropriate, Watson added, and there are additional implications when an older white man does so with a younger black man.
Following the letter, other participants spoke about their own instances of discrimination as graduate students at UCLA.
In an interview, a Hispanic-American female participant and graduate student in the division who did not want to be identified by name said she’d been told by peers that she was “smart for a woman of color” and that others had expressed surprise that she did not speak with an accent.
Watson said Rust’s class was chosen not to single him out as a particularly intolerant professor but rather as an exemplary of a larger campus culture of intolerance that also impacts faculty of color.
“We chose that course because several students in it have been involved in a larger campus movement based around the Moreno report,” he said, referring to the report on UCLA minority faculty grievances from a panel headed by Carlos Moreno, former California Supreme Court justice. The report, released last month, cites “widespread concern among faculty members that the racial climate at UCLA had deteriorated over time, and that the university’s policies and procedures are inadequate to respond to reports of incidents of bias and discrimination.” It also found that “the relevant university policies were vague, the remedial procedures difficult to access, and from a practical standpoint, essentially nonexistent."
But Stephanie Kim, another Ph.D. candidate within the division, but who is not in the interrupted class, criticized Call 2 Action for not seeking broader input from all students within the division and organizing a dialogue-based forum through which to air their concerns. Racism at UCLA merits discussion, she said – so much so that she teaches her own undergraduate students about a 2011 incident in which a former student mocked her Asian peers on video. But singling out a single professor is unfair, she said in an interview.
Kim, an advisee of Rust’s who has known him for several years, expressed similar sentiments in a recent op-ed in the UCLA student newspaper, the Daily Bruin.
“Prior to this act, the organizers of the sit-in did not seek broader support from the division, whether from students of color or otherwise,” she wrote. “The organizers never addressed their grievances in our divisional town halls. The organizers also did not share their letter widely with the other students and faculty members.”
She continued: “Based on the tension reverberating throughout the division, I believe that the sit-in was a deliberately mean-spirited circus that creates exactly the hostile and toxic environment split along unsettling racial lines that the demonstrators claim to be fighting against.”
Addressing Rust in particular, she added, “As a woman of color, I am deeply saddened that my adviser and mentor for the last five years, Rust, was unjustly demonized as the symbol of white male oppression as a cheap way of arousing public support.”
Watson said he and his fellow organizers did not mean to exclude any of their colleagues, but that the sit-in was meant as an act of civil disobedience to raise awareness of an important issue.
Some faculty members also have criticized the group. John Ellis, head of the California Association of Scholars and professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said it was a professor's job to correct grammatical errors, and that doing so did not constitute racism. Moreover, he said, "stealing time" from other students in the class during the sit-in merited punitive action by UCLA against the protesters.
A UCLA spokesman declined to respond to a question about possible punishment for the students, citing Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations.
Graduate School of Education and Information Studies professors held a meeting late last week to discuss the sit-in. Sandra Graham, professor of education and Presidential Chair in Education and Diversity, said she was not present for the teach-in, but that it was her understanding that it was a result of “tensions percolating” over time within the division. She referred questions to the head of the Social Sciences and Comparative Education division, Douglas Kellner, who did not return requests for comment.
Via email from China, where he is traveling, Rust shared an email he sent to his colleagues within the division immediately following the teach-in. Addressing the issues the graduate students raised about his class and others, he wrote: “First, I have a practice of being rather thorough in the papers (dissertation proposals) the students were submitting to me and they said the grammar and spelling corrections I was making on their papers represented a form of ‘microaggression.’ I have attempted to be rather thorough on the papers and am particularly concerned that they do a good job with their bibliographies and citations, and these students apparently don't feel that is appropriate.”
He continued: “Second, two weeks ago a Student of Color and a white female student got into a big discussion. She wants to use Standpoint Theory [a method of analysis coined by feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith, based on the idea that all knowledge is subjective and based on one's position in society] in her dissertation, and the Student of Color told her she had no business claiming that she was a member of an oppressed group. She came back saying there are all kinds of oppression. I likely did not handle the situation well, because I chose not to stop the discussion between them, so it went on for quite a while, and the Students of Color apparently interpreted my silence to mean I wasn't supporting them.”
Summing up the event and the students’ concerns as a whole, Rust said that the participants “generally complained that there is a great racism at UCLA and in the Department of Education and it has to stop.” He called many of the individual stories “very touching” and said he felt “something ought to be done to address their concerns,” perhaps beginning with the “apparent separation between the Critical Race Theory advocates among the students and the other students in the [division].”
Noting his travel plans, he suggested a division-wide town hall meeting to be scheduled upon his return. He said he hoped “the whole thing opened up a dialogue that may ultimately be productive.”
Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, did not return a request for an interview but forwarded a letter he sent to Department of Education professors and students last week. Following the sit-in he said, he “became aware of the last of a series of troubling racial climate incidents at UCLA, most recently associated with [Rust’s class].” He said he and others in the department were “developing a plan of work to address all the relevant issues – issues that have a long history that antecede” the sit-in.
He continued: “Rest assured I take this extremely seriously. I humbly dedicate myself to listening and to learning from this experience. …Together, as a community, we will work towards just, equitable, and lasting solutions. Together, we shall heal.”
Call 2 Action’s online petition has more than 110 signatures in support of its message and demands for reform, including that the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA commission "an external and systematic inquiry into the campus climate for Graduate Students of Color before the end of the Spring 2014 quarter and work diligently on any subsequent recommendations." It also demands a more standardized, transparent process for reporting "oppressive" incidents; the integration of race and ethnic studies within the curriculum across the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies; and the hiring of two new faculty members of color "and/or allies per division who are equipped" to supervise critical research and mentor students of color in each of the school's divisions. Watson said that although resources are scarce, more financial support for graduate students of color will help with retention.
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