More Than Words

Leaders of U of Kansas, trying to avoid becoming the next U of Missouri, hold intense, lengthy meeting with hundreds of minority students. Can the university deliver what they want?

November 12, 2015
Students protest at Wednesday's listening session on race at the University of Kansas

LAWRENCE, Kans. -- Tim Wolfe’s speech announcing his resignation as president of the University of Missouri System this week was instructive to anyone following closely. “We stopped listening to each other, we didn't respond and react, we got frustrated with each other,” he said, announcing he was stepping down amid calls from students that he’d failed to address urgent concerns about racism on their campuses.

Among those watching the events unfold at Mizzou were administrators a few hours to the west, at the University of Kansas. Partly in response to tensions at Mizzou and elsewhere, including at Yale University, Kansas organized Wednesday what students on many other campuses have been asking for: a serious dialogue with key administrators about racism and campus climate.

The event, originally planned for one hour, stretched for two and a half, and many students stayed afterward to speak with individual administrators. Hundreds of students filled an auditorium and overflow room in the campus union, with some holding signs saying “Black lives matter,” “We will not be silenced” and other expressions of concern.

It’s unclear whether the event will stave off the kind of tumult that’s rocked other campuses. Students insist that they want real change -- and it remains to be seen what the university can do. Still, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, who moderated the event, assured students they were at least being heard.

“As a university there are a lot of things we need to do and we have to do, and I am dedicated to making changes to make this a place that is more welcoming, that is a place that is affirming of the identity of the different people and groups of people we have here,” Gray-Little said in closing the session.

She added, “I think it is a loss to the university and to this community if you come here [and] find this an alien place and don’t grow as a person and are not able to contribute. … I’ll make a commitment to work with you on this.”

At least on the surface, the Kansas student body doesn’t share the same level of frustration about diversity issues as students at Mizzou. There’s been no hunger strike here, athletes are not involved in protests, at least not yet, and, perhaps importantly -- in contrast to white male leaders forced out at Missouri (including Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who also resigned) -- Gray-Little is a black woman.

But dig a little bit deeper at Kansas -- like many other major universities -- and tensions are revealed. Black students make up just 4 percent of the population, and their four-year graduation rate is depressingly low by any measure, at just 15 percent, compared to 45 percent for their peers. Black professors make up just 3 percent of the faculty, but the state's African-American population is 6 percent -- already much lower than the national average.

The university has plans in place to close the graduation gap, and both student and faculty diversity has increased significantly over the last decade. But students say the rate of change is too slow, and that they face everyday instances of racism that make them feel unwelcome on campus.

A dorm calendar reportedly was covered in racial slurs last year, and a fraternity and sorority skit featured an unflattering depiction of a stereotypical Mexican character called Paco. Numerous students Wednesday reported being called racial slurs both on and around campus.

Others said faculty members had insulted them, such as complimenting them for being well spoken or intelligent, seemingly despite their race. One freshman reported a professor telling her to “pass” on campus because she looked white, so she’d enjoy more privilege. That student and many others said they were planning to transfer due to the environment here. Another freshman said she was leaving the university at the end of semester because she’s experienced more racism in three months in Kansas than she had in 18 years in Texas.

At times, the chancellor struggled to connect with students, as others criticized her for not responding more directly or emotionally to their accounts. Among those displeased with Gray-Little’s approach was Kynnedi Grant, leader of the multicultural student group called Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk. (Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Grant's first name.) Grant said she was called racial slurs and violently grabbed just off campus on Halloween by a several men, and her friends were threatened with a gun. She said the university failed to sufficiently address the incident, and called Wednesday’s forum more of a publicity stunt than any real expression of concern for students of color.

“Do not be fooled,” Grant said, noting that the venue for Wednesday’s event was changed to a bigger room and that Gray-Little had replaced another administrator as moderator. The group presented a series of demands, including the immediate hiring of a new director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, diversity training for all faculty, students and staff, prompt publication of a campus climate survey, and a ban on concealed weapons on campus. Gray-Little said she’d take them into account.

It was perhaps easy to be cynical about the motivations behind Wednesday’s event. Student activism, which was subdued at Kansas for several decades, has increased greatly in the year since the protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. And even though Mizzou draws many more of its students from the St. Louis area -- perhaps a factor in the larger protests there -- the University of Kansas is a just a few dozen miles over the Missouri state line. So there’s reason for the administration here to want to appease student protesters.

At the same time, Wednesday’s event felt authentic in many ways. Gray-Little fielded questions and faced student outrage for hours. She also asked students exactly what kind of accountability they wanted to see from the university. While some criticized her, saying it was hardly students’ job to lead highly paid people with Ph.D.s toward progress, others offered concrete ideas: make ethnic studies classes mandatory, said one white student, and educate away the ignorance plaguing the campus. Make diversity training mandatory for students and faculty -- similar to sexual assault training, said another student.

Shawn Alexander, a professor of African-American studies, said students are desperate to talk to faculty members about their concerns. “Stop shutting your doors -- open your doors,” he said. “It’s a Research I institution, but we are here to teach,” too.

Jennifer Hamer, chair of American studies and a professor of African and African-American studies, has helped organize some of the student events stemming from the events in Ferguson last year. Asked if Kansas could become the next Mizzou, she said, “I think it could happen anywhere.” Hamer said she was advising students not to focus only on immediate goals, but long-term progress. Part of that will be looking at how Gray-Little acts on the ideas she heard Wednesday, if at all.

“It's not that [Kansas] is worse than anywhere else,” she said. But “the university should respond in some way that's meaningful. Even if it's a small step, it should specifically address students' demands.”

Clarence Lang, associate professor and chair of African and African-American studies, said students Wednesday successfully disrupted what they saw as the university's “brand,” and that was definitely not business as usual. The challenge now, he said, “is whether students will be able to translate their demands into an actual changes in university policies and procedures, and for that they'll need faculty and staff support.”

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