Co-authored by Melody Hoffmann, PhD
On Feb. 9, 13 students were arrested for a peaceful sit-in at the office of University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler. These students are part of an autonomous, on-campus organization called Whose Diversity? and are dedicated to challenging the racist, heterosexist, ableist, and otherwise exclusionary practices of higher education, particularly at the U of M.
We were not present at the sit-in but we are former colleagues of several who were. We are alumni of the University of Minnesota's Communication Studies PhD program, and we are ashamed of our alma mater for ordering the arrest of these students.
Whose Diversity? rightly asserts that marginalized people should be the ones leading the way in reshaping a more diverse and just university system. The organization's vision reads, "A university that proactively utilizes its resources towards the eradication of structural inequity; a university where people of historically marginalized identities are not systematically excluded from discussions but are in the positions to lead these discussions and to have our vision fulfilled."
For almost a year, President Kaler ignored the organization's demands and refused to join members at an off-campus community meeting to which he had been invited by the students. Using tactics rooted in the Civil Rights movement, Whose Diversity? occupied his office in hopes of getting some of the demands met, including hiring more faculty of color and stopping racialized crime alerts sent through campus.
A week later, the U of M announced a new diversity hiring initiative. This announcement came on the same day of a campus protest calling for the university to drop charges against the arrested.
But is this hiring initiative response from the university enough? We think not.
The U of M boasts a commitment to diversity, but it has proven time and time again that it is a hollow claim. As a land grant institution, the university claims to "promote access to higher education and collaborating to advance knowledge benefiting communities, the state, and world."
The U of M's Office of Equity and Diversity states, "Diversity goes well beyond numeric representation and access. Far from just enriching campus life or the academic experience, equity and diversity are critical to issues of campus culture and climate, and fundamental to everything we do at the University of Minnesota."
Why then is the climate so neglectful, and oftentimes hostile, to marginalized and underrepresented students?
For example, although the university states a commitment to supporting and retaining people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, people of various sexual identities and expressions, women, and people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, these groups are significantly underrepresented in the student and faculty population. Raechel can attest to this--as a queer woman and first-generation college student, she had trouble finding common allies who were navigating systems of higher education for the first time, especially with the extra-weight of being a sexual minority. And both of us experienced various forms of sexism during our time at the university.
In addition to the lack of marginalized bodies, the university also perpetuates a culture of racism through the criminalization and displacement of black and brown bodies.
For example, when crimes occur in the campus area, the university sends text alerts about the incident, which often include vague, racialized descriptions of black and brown men suspected of the crime (often "in hoodies").
Some may argue that this is simply an honest description of perpetrators. But this rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum; it contributes to the criminalization and dehumanization of black and brown men, processes that have empowered the unjust imprisonment and murders of people of color. This is to say nothing of the university's literal action of jailing the students of color who took over the office on Feb. 9.
The skepticism of the university's dedication to diversity goes beyond the recent protests by Whose Diversity?.
How can a university so committed to diversity make attacks on student cultural centers? Why does the Chicano studies program have so few faculty (by few, we mean one assistant professor of Chicano studies)? How can the university be serious about recruiting and supporting more low-income and first-generation students while also raising tuition?
These questions point to just a few of the organization's demands.
As alumni, we want to see President Kaler and the university administration do the right thing by meeting these demands full-stop and dropping the charges against the 13 arrested students.
And when we get our mail asking us for our alumni financial support? Well, we won't give a penny until the demands are met.