Edmund Manydeeds made clear the severity of the situation facing UW-Eau Claire in the wake of racist social media comments made public last week toward the student group Black Male Empowerment.
“Everybody’s watching,” Manydeeds said. “Every campus, every person in the state is watching. The whole country is watching.”
Manydeeds, a UW System Board of Regents member, spoke during an all-faculty forum Tuesday afternoon attended by several hundred UW-Eau Claire administrators, faculty and staff. The forum lasted two hours and was held to gain input regarding how to handle bias incidents and improve the campus culture going forward.
The public event was spurred by a petition signed by more than 100 campus faculty and staff. The petition circulated in the days following suspensions last week of five student athletes from the university football team who were involved in a group chat with messages targeting BME, including a picture of the Ku Klux Klan and a burning wooden cross.
At the forum, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said the dean of students’ investigation into the incident has concluded. Schmidt said wanted to have sanctions for the students finalized before Thanksgiving, but the university is still working with UW System attorneys to determine sanctions, according to a memo it sent Wednesday afternoon.
Schmidt on Tuesday said he told UW System attorneys that when sanctions are determined, he wants the most generous interpretations of what can be said regarding the involved students within the confines of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“Find the line, and I want to be transparent right up until that line,” Schmidt said. “... I believe it is in this community’s interest to know what happened when the final pieces are done, and so I’m looking for that answer.”
After sanctions are determined, there is an appeals process students can take. They have about two weeks to appeal to Schmidt, who has time to make his decision independent of the dean of students’ investigation. After appealing to Schmidt, students also have the option of appealing to the Board of Regents.
Potential proposals to better address bias incidents were given to attendees of the meeting. The proposals would clarify what faculty and staff can do in the immediate wake of an incident to protect themselves and their students. They would also ideally streamline communication between administrators and faculty and staff, along with updating the faculty and staff handbook to make it consistent with the student handbook and state statutes. Nearly everyone who spoke at the forum expressed support for the potential proposals.
UW-Eau Claire history professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton helped write the proposals and organize the forum.
No formal action regarding the proposals could take place Tuesday, but there will be a joint meeting of faculty, staff and academic personnel Tuesday to finalize language in the proposals.
Those proposals will likely be presented to the University Senate at its Dec. 3 meeting. Biology professor and University Senate chair Evan Weiher assured meeting attendees that the senate will pressure the administration to make changes in those areas.
Need for leadership
During the forum, Ducksworth Lawton said racist incidents are not unique to UW-Eau Claire but said the university has “a unique ability to lead.”
She said it shouldn’t be this difficult to keep students and employees of color safe.
“This meeting is not just about the football incident; this meeting is about 20 years of racial incidents,” Ducksworth Lawton said. “... We are the faculty, we are the staff of this university, and we will protect our people. We will protect the physical safety of our people and our colleagues every day until we walk off this place, and even sometimes after that.”
Partially as a result of the incident brought to light last week, Ducksworth-Lawton said at least six faculty members have told her they will likely not return to the university after the 2019-20 academic year ends.
“We are never going to be able to keep people here if we’re going to keep doing this,” Ducksworth Lawton told the Leader-Telegram during an interview Tuesday afternoon before the forum. “... We’re all afraid. Hopefully this winds up bringing us together and getting us all on the same page.”
Similarly, languages professor Kong Pheng Pha said he and many students of color do not want to be on campus. He fears some of his students, many of whom are Hmong, may leave UW-Eau Claire, and said the university is “failing miserably” if that happens.
“If I don’t want to be here, then my students definitely don’t want to be here,” Pha said.
Ducksworth Lawton said the proposals were not asking for much.
“All we want are the same considerations that faculty who are not from marginalized groups get,” Ducksworth Lawton told the Leader-Telegram. “All we want is a workplace where students, faculty and staff can feel physically safe from attack and physical threat. All we want is what UW System policy and the city of Eau Claire’s laws demand.”
Schmidt opened the forum and said mistakes were made last week, including not communicating quickly enough with faculty and staff. He took full responsibility for the mistakes and said university officials have not moved quickly enough to implement preventative strategies.
“While this is not unique to our campus, it is not the campus community we desire or will tolerate,” Schmidt said. “... I know that there’s more that we can do to ensure this place is welcome for faculty of color.”
Schmidt also said an educational module for students that focuses on equity, diversity and inclusion will be ready by summer 2020.
“Having something that works for 90 to 95% of what we need is better than no educational tool for our students,” Schmidt said. “... I promise that this will be in place for the entering class in 2020.”
Nursing professor Pamela Guthman said the university has a responsibility to improve its campus culture, something that will require moral courage.
Guthman lives north of Eau Claire and said she hears racist rhetoric every day.
“It is alive and well, so we have a responsibility to each other to set out moral courageousness, to call out the incidents that are happening,” she said.
English professor David Shih expressed concern about students who think the Snapchat conversation was a joke.
Shih mentioned a quote from professor and civil rights activist Derrick Bell, who said “the primary motivation for racism in our country is the deeply held belief that black people should not have what white people do not have.”
Shih said he often thinks of that quote in relation to racist incidents and how it manifests in the form of students thinking it is fine to mock BME, for example.
“There’s a sense that black students, and these black students in particular, have something that white students don’t have,” Shih said. “... That explains to me the silence of the other people involved in that Snapchat. That explains to me the students who say, ‘This is just a joke,’ because there is this unease about living in a society that’s steeped in anti-blackness that would require a student organization like Black Male Empowerment.”
Shih said the incident is part of a broader campus culture and that faculty are part of that culture.
“We’re all connected to this,” Shih said. “It’s not just these students, but it speaks to a broader culture, both on our campus and in society in general.”
Several people said improving the campus culture around bias and racism should be the top priority at the university in the near future.
“If we are constantly given a new initiative, a new online training, a new, a new, a new, it’s one of many in the gray area, and I don’t want it to be there,” special education faculty Kirstin Rossi said. “I want it to be a priority for all of us because it’s that important, and we need to be given the time, space and the opportunity to be able to do those things and to be able to do them well and to be able to do them across the board.”
Near the end of the forum, business professor Tom Hilton recommended a resolution for syllabus language condemning racism, bias and discrimination that professors talk to students about at the beginning of every semester.
Manydeeds said people can talk about what could and should be done, but the important part involves taking further action and not letting the academic calendar get in the way.
“I advocate for this campus all the time, and I’m proud of this campus,” Manydeeds said. “I’m not proud of some of the things that happen. This stuff happens all the time, all the time. It’s got to stop. I’m tired of hearing about it. I really, really am, so do something and keep it going.”