Minority students at the University of Iowa started a digital campaign to show how they feel their needs have been overlooked by administrators there.

February 27, 2019

Walking across the University of Iowa grounds last Thursday, it was difficult for students to miss the crudely constructed banner, a ripped tarp held up by two wooden poles, with scrawled lettering that read, “Build the Wall.”

The support for President Trump’s campaign rattled many on the campus.

Online, students criticized officials for, in the name of free speech, allowing a conservative campus group, Young Americans for Freedom, to arrange the display. Some of them confronted the organization members directly, debating them and accusing them of spreading xenophobia.

Many students said the quick defense offered to Young Americans for Freedom seemed in contrast to a lack of support campus minorities felt.

The university is overwhelmingly white -- 71 percent of the student body as of fall 2017, according to federal data. Only 3 percent of the students are black, and 7 percent are Hispanic. And like many campuses across the country, Iowa has been subject to racist and hateful graffiti and distribution of white supremacist literature.

On Monday night, students started a social media campaign around a hashtag, #DoesUIowaLoveMe, sharing anecdotes of when they felt the institution neglected them or officials and faculty members were seemingly tone-deaf to their experiences.

While such digital crusades are not uncommon, the astonishing outpouring of stories on both Twitter and Instagram clearly illustrated that many students felt the answer to the question -- Does the University of Iowa love me? -- was no.

Which students or groups organized the campaign is unknown. The masterminds behind the accounts on Twitter and Facebook declined an interview because the students had not clarified their demands or the message “they wanted to send out.” Other students who initially agreed to interview with Inside Higher Ed eventually decided not to speak.

“We also do not want our mission being misstated or misrepresented,” their statement reads.

The university also had little to say. A spokeswoman declined to make administrators available for an interview, saying that administrators were working with students on Tuesday and that they had reached out to some students who “needed immediate assistance.” She directed a reporter to a two-sentence statement online: “We respect our students as they communicate their frustrations and experiences at the University of Iowa. We are committed to hearing their concerns and improving our campus climate.”

And the frustrations were many.

One story that received significant attention online was one student’s insinuation that institution officials wanted him to conceal his queer identity when he was representing the university.

The student wrote on Twitter how he took part in a university photo shoot for marketing materials the previous summer. When the students were asked to pose like they were studying, he was instructed to stow away his laptop that had a rainbow sticker on it that read “pride” -- for support of LGBTQ people.

He was told “it was too controversial.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the tweet was retweeted nearly 70 times and liked more than 500 times.

“I’m starting to actually think this entire state is garbage,” another Twitter user wrote in response.

One student, who said he was a first-generation college student and Latinx, said he was told once (he did not say by whom) that he shouldn’t be attending the university because of his financial status.

“At that moment I knew that not everyone thought I belonged,” he wrote on Twitter.

Another student, on Instagram, wrote that she had accused a professor of racism. She wrote that the professor had harassed her and other minority students with claims that she and others had plagiarized and cheated on course work.

When she reported this to a dean, she asked, “Why would you want to have a faculty member that is racist representing UIowa?”

The dean replied, “Why do we have Trump as president?”

“I guess that’s [the university’s] cheap excuse,” the student wrote on Instagram.

A student who said she sought out a university therapist said she was made to wait months despite the university “bragging” about mental health services, she wrote on Twitter.

After waiting months, the student said that she was suicidal and informed the therapist of this -- she said she didn’t think she would survive the weekend, but she was told, “Survive until Monday,” and to find somewhere else to “fix” her.

“How many other students did they turn away? How many lives could they have saved? How can they stand by claims of aiding mental health on campus when they send us off without a number to call or any hope at all?” the student wrote.

Professors even joined in the conversation. Benjamin Hassman, director of Iowa’s Conversation Center, which helps primarily international students with their communication skills, urged his followers on Twitter to look at the hashtag.

In an interview, Hassman said he couldn’t judge whether the university had been responding properly to the kind of encounters the students were alleging. But he did say that “anyone who keeps their eyes open” knows these types of incidents are happening.

He said he was impressed with the student leaders -- they have far fewer resources but still had a massive reach with the campaign.

“Here these students are using their own difficult, challenging experiences to generate challenging conversations around that,” Hassman said. “If that’s not what higher ed is for -- that what critical thinking -- I don’t know what is.”


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