I got to the Whose University event after the play was performed. The audience got a chance to interact with the actors by stepping on stage and saying how they felt about the performance. One girl said that the message of the play touched her because her parents were going through a divorce, another said she appreciated the messages about body image that "you never hear about in school," and another audience member shared how her best friend committed suicide because of how people harassed him for being gay. I missed the play, but the play director summed up her message by saying, "I hope it leaves you always looking for ways to improve things for yourselves and others. [...] You should know that students just like you created the safe space for us to address these issues today." That is what I felt that the Whose University event was about. I stayed for an informational presentation about the campaign, addressing 3 questions:
Who has access to the University?
Who is supported?
Whose knowledge is valued?
It became clear after listening to students, faculty, and people who had not gotten into the U that these answers could not be found in the types of promotional pamphlets usually handed out to prospective students. The students started the presentation by talking about the 7 black students who took over Morill Hall in 1969 and demanded a campus that not only tolerated them, but provided a supportive and empowering environment for people of color. They welcomed a speaker from the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, who had national and state statistics showing age and racial disparities in test scores and academic progress. She said it was worthwhile to note that regardless of race, aspirations for higher education remained high for all groups and that is why we need to ask ourselves what we can do to increase access to higher education. Then, continuing to put the problem of access in historical context, students talked about the general college that was discontinued in 2005 and noted that some departments (mostly cultural studies) had budgets smaller than the refreshments stand at TFC, and smaller than some other departments' office supply budgets! That really surprised me.
"We offer a wide variety of programs," one Asian American student explained, "and when we talk about how we have classes on the Civil War, maybe we should start including slave experiences from the point of black people. Maybe when we talk about Vietnam, we could focus less on the Kennedy policies everyone knows about, and more on the Asian-American protests happening around the country." I looked at everyone nodding their head. We are obviously missing a very crucial voice by eliminating these points of view in our curriculums.
A graduating student of Chicano studies talked about why La Raza cultural center was so important to her. Nontraditional students have unique problems and experiences, and safe spaces are not just built into the plan, they are fought for and never permanently established in Coffman. She noted how the University liked to pay lip service to diversity by saying there's a place for everyone here, but the reality is that they are literally trying to push the programs that support diversity out of the common space, saying that they are trying to allocate the space fairly. "This is not just another club or student union," she pointed out. "We have always, always been marginalized and underrepresented." And that underrepresentation would continue if the cultural center closed.
The vice president of the black student union had a great way of putting it.
"The black student union completely transformed my experience here. Without these spaces, students of color will have a very hard time remaining on this campus and feeling like they can and should belong here."
The rhetoric the school is using does not align with the reality of the admissions process, which excludes a wide variety of talent. As the Vice President of the Black Student Union put it, "We cannot outsource our commitment to diversity to community colleges by blocking our point of entry."
The increasingly narrow criterion for admissions has a tendency to reflect an economic and social resemblance to whiteness. "Applying for admissions made me feel like a soldier in a battlefield," said one student who didn't initially get in. She talked about how her school was poor, did not encourage her to apply to colleges, and she had to go above and beyond what most high school seniors do in order to get into the U.
I'm glad I went to this event because it made me realize how important it is to speak up when an institution you pay for and attend is deliberately trying to remove cultural safe spaces from a student center. I knew they were debating space but wasn't very informed until I came to the event. I feel like I have a better understanding of what sorts of power operates in making these decisions and maybe I should get more involved in trying to help this campaign in its commitment to change.