Several hundred UW-Eau Claire faculty, staff and university members gathered Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to handle biased incidents and improve the campus climate going forward.
The meeting was held in response to racist social media comments last week toward student group Black Male Empowerment.
Five student athletes were suspended from the football team last week after group chat messages revealed comments targeting BME, including a picture of the Ku Klux Klan and a burning wooden cross.
At the meeting, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said Dean of Students LaRue Pierce has completed the investigation into the incident and is working on determining sanctions for the students. They are consulting with UW System attorneys to make sure everything can move forward. He said the university aims to determine sanctions by Thursday. After sanctions are determined, there is an appeals process that the students can take, both by appealing to Schmidt and the UW System Board of Regents.
Potential proposals to better address biased incidents were given to attendees of the meeting. The proposals would clarify what faculty and staff can do in the immediate wake of a biased 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.
No formal action regarding the proposals could take place Tuesday, but there will be a joint meeting of faculty, staff and academic personnel next Tuesday to finalize proposals. The proposals will then be considered by the University Senate during 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.
As of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, the public meeting was still going on. Around 20 people had spoken as of that time, all of whom expressed levels of support for the proposals.
Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, attended and said she supports and will work with university members going forward.
“I don’t have the answers, but I want you guys to know that I care,” Emerson said. “...This has been occupying my heart, and I’m sorry that we’re going through this. I’m with you guys on this.”
Schmidt started the forum by acknowledging that the university’s land is on the ancestral home of Native Americans. He also said last week’s incident is not an isolated event.
Schmidt took full responsibility for the mistakes made by university administration last week, which included not communicating with faculty and staff in a timely manner.
“We’ve dropped the ball,” Schmidt said. “...I know that there’s more that we can do to ensure this place is welcome for faculty of color.”
Schmidt asked the Provost Office and Dean of Students to begin a process to better communicate with faculty and staff when a biased incident happens. He said by working together, university employees can improve UW-Eau Claire.
History professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton spoke and said the most recent incident is another example of a campus issue that has existed for decades to make people in marginalized groups feel unsafe.
In an interview with the Leader-Telegram before the meeting, Ducksworth-Lawton said the potential proposals were limited and that she and other faculty and staff of color weren’t asking for much.
“Why do I have to beg for my humanity?” Ducksworth-Lawton said.
Ducksworth-Lawton, who has worked at the university since 1993, also told the Leader-Telegram that she has not felt safe on campus over the past week.
Ducksworth-Lawton said it shouldn’t be this difficult to keep students and employees of color safe and not have them fear for their physical safety. She knows of students who left campus early this week due to the racist messages, and she also knows some students are considering not returning to campus.
Several other people echoed those sentiments during Tuesday’s meeting. One professor noted the direct impact that racist incidents can have on marginalized groups.
“When these events occur, the students of color shut down,” one professor said. “They often stop coming to class.”
Partially as a result of the incident last week, Ducksworth-Lawton also 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’re tired of doing this, and we want change,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “...All we want is the same safety that you have … We don’t want more rights than you. But I have to be honest, I feel like a second-class citizen.”
Further, Ducksworth-Lawton told the Leader-Telegram an investigation should be opened into the university athletics department for a culture of racism and bias, which was one of the demands BME members presented Monday afternoon to Schmidt during a peaceful protest.
Several people said they hope future education on these issues are not merely turned into online modules.
“There’s not a module to replace this faculty; we are the module,” English professor Stephanie Farrar said.
Audrey Robinson, director of the UW-Eau Claire Academic Skills Center, said a better communication process should be in place and that tangible action should occur soon.
“Things like this on our campus make me very nervous,” Robinson said. “...If we don’t act, it’s going to continue to escalate.”