CEDAR FALLS — Concerns minority students are being ignored on the University of Northern Iowa’s campus aren’t new. But last spring’s handling of a Waka Flocka Flame concert on campus reignited those concerns.
Now, saying they’ve been unsuccessful at getting UNI leadership to change, a group of students has a new tactic: Call them out.
The hashtag #UNIisNotAnAlly and related Facebook and Twitter accounts officially came alive Friday morning with complaints UNI hasn’t acted on goals set out by students involved in the Racial and Ethnic Coalition, the unofficial student group behind the movement.
“They have belittled us and utilized white supremacy tactics to deter us from our activism efforts,” the group said in a message posted to social media and sent to media outlets last Friday morning. “We, as a coalition, have taken steps to communicate this failure to the student body, and have been censored by the administration from telling our story. We are furious and deserve to be heard.”
We want to raise the voices of all students of color in higher education, specifically at UNI. We want people to share their experiences and expose the deep-rooted racism at our institution and in our community.— UNIisnotanAlly (@UNIisnotanAlly) November 1, 2019
The group has posted video testimonials from UNI students of color talking about issues they’ve had on campus, whether dealing with a racist professor or fellow student, or trying and failing to navigate UNI diversity policies set up to combat them.
The Racial and Ethnic Coalition, or REC, said it didn’t originally intend to call out the administration publicly.
“For a while, we were trying to collaborate with them,” said Mahlia Brown, a UNI senior and part of REC’s public relations committee. “Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out the way we had wanted.”
Brown and others went to UNI President Mark Nook and his senior leadership team with concerns following the pulling of public ticket sales in February for the Campus Activity Board-sponsored concert featuring hip-hop artist Waka Flocka Flame.
The group, primarily students of color, argued the reason given for pulling tickets was based on misinformation: Nook told students UNI was worried about gang activity because police warned them of concerns, but police told The Courier they had no information there might be gang activity at the concert.
“They were giving us bogus answers,” Brown said.
Others in REC noted the reason cited for canceling public tickets or otherwise tightening security — possible violence — appeared to be racially biased. UNI senior and REC member Ayne Bell noted concerts on campus featuring white artists have included violent incidents, including in 2012 where two people were stabbed in the hours after a Jason Aldean concert.
“At the Tyga concert, at the J. Cole concert, there was metal detecting,” Brown said of the two black hip-hop artists. The same wasn’t true of white artists: “I never got metal-detected for Jesse McCartney. ... Why are R&B concerts being heavily policed when country concerts have the same concerns?”
With the discrepancies laid bare, Brown, Bell, UNI senior Ryan Frank and others held a town hall on campus, and out of that came REC, with the goal of advocating for students’ concerns. In April, the group put those concerns to paper in the form of six short-term goals they wanted UNI to implement by the start of the fall semester, and the Northern Iowa Student Government passed it.
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Those goals ranged from speaking about the Center for Multicultural Education during admission tours, how to report acts of bias, public support for multicultural organizations on campus and defining the roles of university administration.
For UNI’s part, Nook said the requests were “very reasonable.” But when students returned to campus and met with Nook in September and October, they said they didn’t see any of the proposed changes.
“We were very frustrated,” Frank said. The group drafted another NISG resolution saying the administration had continued to ignore them.
On Oct. 23, Nook sent a letter to the NISG president saying the resolution was “based on inaccurate information,” and that although administration hadn’t completed the goals by the September meeting it had done so by the October one, a contention REC members dispute.
“It was my understanding that everything had been completed, but students clearly at the Oct. 16th meeting didn’t feel like they were,” Nook said in a phone interview. “It’s my understanding they felt that some of them had not been completed, and others had not been completed the way they had been expecting.”
Frank said that was the last straw, spawning #UNIisNotAnAlly out of “the mishandling — the fact they they have continually lied to their own students and staff,” said Frank.
In the wake of #UNIisNotAnAlly, Nook sent an open letter to the “UNI community” taking responsibility for failing to fulfill the goals and “recommitting to moving us forward together in this important work.”
“I want to personally apologize for this, for the message this situation sent to our campus, and for the frustration and distrust felt by these students,” Nook wrote in the letter. “While we have made some progress, we have focused too often on managing expectations and making changes on the margins.”
Nook said in the letter he would form a new committee, the President’s Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Advisory Committee, made up of faculty, staff and students. That committee would then create a diversity, inclusion and equity action plan to “provide a clear set of priorities to create the needed systemic change to our culture.”
REC members plan a town hall at 7 p.m. Monday in the University Room in the basement of Maucker Union for anyone interested in learning more about REC. They hope to start institutional change that can be replicated on other majority-white campuses where students of color feel perpetually frustrated and beaten down.
“This is not just a UNI thing,” said Bell. “It’s bigger than UNI.”
Nook agreed UNI “resemble(d) much of the rest of the country, and certainly our community” in failing to address systemic racism. But he noted he’s trying to listen, scrolling through #UNIisNotAnAlly messages and watching video testimonials from students.
“I have watched many of these videos to hear the students’ stories to get a better understanding of the issues and the challenges they face on campus,” Nook said.