Perhaps it's one of those anecdotes that people point to as part of the "worst place to be black," but this story goes a bit beyond that: The University of Northern Iowa, after initially opening up a Waka Flocka Flame concert to the public (as they've done for all concerts on campus in the past), took the unusual step of banning the public from the concert -- and refunding tickets that had already been sold to the public -- after supposedly hearing about potential gang violence from would-be ticket buyers.
This struck several UNI students of color as blatantly racist, and they asked us to look into this. I had conversations with UNI President Mark Nook, who made the decision to refund the public tickets, as well as police departments from both Cedar Falls and Waterloo, both of whom denied telling UNI that they were worried about gang violence in conjunction with the concert.
Out of those revelations was born the Racial and Ethnic Coalition at UNI, a group that is now pressuring administrative leaders on campus to put resources into their diversity and inclusion policies, hoping to change the culture on the majority-white campus that has persisted for a long time. It remains to be seen whether the campaign will work, but I'll continue following their stories to see.
CEDAR FALLS -- The president of the University of Northern Iowa issued a new apology for his administration's handling of an upcoming rap concert on campus, but local law enforcement agencies deny they told administration that gang violence would occur if public tickets were sold.
UNI President Mark Nook issued "An apology to students" on Friday in the wake of viral controversy surrounding the university's response to the Waka Flocka Flame concert on Saturday.
Nook said the apology was for all students but "especially members of the Campus Activities Board Live and minority students," who raised concerns after administration pulled all public ticket sales from the concert, taking place in the Maucker Union Ballroom.
But while Nook apologized that administration was not more transparent, he stood behind UNI's reasoning.
"The announcement of the event (which included ticket sales to the public) raised serious concerns among area police departments, which were brought to the attention of university leadership," he wrote on Friday. "Let me be as transparent as possible: they were concerned because there was solid evidence that area gang members from rival groups were going to attend the concert, and there was significant potential for violence to occur between the groups. Police were monitoring and evaluating those conversations."
Nook declined to mention specific threats or people that police were concerned about, nor which law enforcement agency had been passing along the concerns.
But Maj. Joe Leibold with the Waterloo Police Department said Friday that UNI officials had reached out to them after the concert was announced, but his department had "no information on any threats" related to potential Waka Flocka Flame concertgoers.
"Waterloo Police were consulted about gang activity at the concert, but we have no information of actual gang violence occurring at the concert," Leibold said.
He noted that the department does not have a "gang task force" as a Des Moines Register article mentioned, but that they do have a Safe Streets Task Force and a Violent Crime Apprehension Team, both of which track gang activity in the city. Safe Streets is part of Project Safe Neighborhoods with the federal government, while VCAT is local. Both are staffed with Waterloo officers.
Cedar Falls Public Safety Director Jeff Olson told The Courier on Friday that his department did not advise UNI about any concerns related to the concert.
"We didn't make the comments" to administration officials, Olson said. "We're not working it, we're not organizing it, we don't have anything to do with it."
He said his department has increased staff over the weekends in the last few months due to the recent shooting on College Hill, but that they were not taking any extra precautions for the Waka Flocka concert.
A person answering the phone at UNI's Department of Public Safety said only that "all of those questions will have to go through University Relations."
The artist himself is aware of the controversy, tweeting "Wow" in response to The Courier's article. Some supporters have called on Waka Flocka to cancel his appearance.
Nook's full statement is below:
Friday, February 15th, 2019
I am writing to apologize to the students of UNI, but especially members of the Campus Activities Board (CAB) Live and minority students. University leadership was not as transparent and open with students as we should have been about the decision we made to limit ticket sales and change the venue for this weekend's Waka Flocka Flame concert.
I understand that some students have blamed CAB Live members for the changes to the event, which is unfortunate, and regrettable. No CAB Live members, nor any other students, were involved in the decision to limit ticket sales or to move the event from its originally advertised location. We are working to make sure this does not occur in the future.
Over the past two weeks, university leadership has engaged in several difficult discussions about safety concerns stemming from the upcoming Waka Flocka Flame concert. I want you to know upfront that we absolutely do want artists of all genres and all diverse backgrounds to perform on our campus, and this fact was consistently part of the conversation.
Diversity should be part of the student experience at UNI, and it is something we are committed to enhancing in the future.
However, there were a few important factors to carefully consider with this concert. The announcement of the event (which included ticket sales to the public) raised serious concerns among area police departments, which were brought to the attention of university leadership. Let me be as transparent as possible: they were concerned because there was solid evidence that area gang members from rival groups were going to attend the concert, and there was significant potential for violence to occur between the groups. Police were monitoring and evaluating those conversations.
Initially, university leadership was asked to keep this sensitive information confidential, which unfortunately resulted in an inability to be fully transparent about the reasons behind the changes we knew we needed to make to the event.
I cannot regret administration's decision to act on the evidence brought forward by law enforcement. One of our most important responsibilities is the safety of our students. I would never be able to look a parent in the eyes and tell them that I knew their child might be in danger, but did not take action to prevent it. Ultimately, we have a responsibility to protect you and provide you with a superior education. That is our commitment.
What I do regret, however, is something that runs much deeper—the fact that these concert changes made some of our students concerned that we were making decisions based on fear and racial bias. We received feedback on multiple occasions from some students that they did not support these decisions and were confused and concerned that these changes were unnecessary. After many conversations and weighing these concerns, we opted to move the concert back to Maucker Union, with additional safety measures in place.
Some students told us they were worried there was a subconscious bias at play that we were not fully recognizing; others were concerned it was more intentional.
After wrestling with this difficult situation for the last two weeks, what I truly regret is that our actions were perceived as being motivated by these factors. Students expressed their concern not only about their university and the way it is governed, but also about the greater Cedar Valley community and its struggles with diversity. We know bias exists, and for some of our students, it plays a large role in their daily lives. There are much bigger conversations that must be had about diversity, acceptance, inclusion and respect.
We should have been more sensitive to this perception, and taken steps to mitigate those concerns. Our motivation was based solely on concern for the safety of our students, but we acknowledge how some could perceive that bias may have occurred. We deeply regret the impact that had on our students. The last thing we want is for our students to feel disrespected, marginalized or unheard.
Diversity and inclusion are critical parts of our university vision, and having a diverse community at UNI is not only important, it is essential. We are an institution of higher learning, and it is our responsibility, challenge and opportunity to embrace differences and grow from one another.
This past weekend, I had a two-hour listening session with members of CAB and allies. It was an important moment for us to learn from one another-something I will ensure we continue to do routinely into the future.
We're proud of our students and the role they played in this larger conversation. We recognize this as an opportunity to do better and raise our collective understanding of these important issues.
It is our hope that we can move forward from this experience and transform into an even stronger institution. We're on a journey of learning deeper, doing more and being better. We need the help of our students to navigate these challenging waters.
Mark A. Nook
CEDAR FALLS — Some students are accusing their university of racial bias after University of Northern Iowa officials cut off all non-student tickets to a rap concert put on by a student group, but UNI officials say it’s because police told them “potential gang members” could be in attendance.
Waka Flocka Flame is slated to perform Saturday in the Maucker Union ballroom on the UNI campus. But now, only student tickets will be honored for the concert.
Originally, tickets for UNI students were $15 each and public tickets were $25 each, the normal course of events, according to UNI’s Campus Activities Board, which puts on concerts and other activities for UNI students on campus.
But administration officials told CAB on Jan. 22 the public could no longer buy tickets, that any public tickets already sold would not be honored and would be refunded, and that the concert itself would be moved to the Nielsen Field House, according to CAB adviser Ashley Adams.
CEDAR FALLS — He brought you rap hits “No Hands,” “Hard in Da Paint” and “I Don’t Really Care.”
After students met with administration officials and UNI President Mark Nook on Sunday, the Waka Flocka Flame concert was moved back to its original location at Maucker Union, but administration officials told Adams the entire building would be closed for the day leading up to the concert.
UNI administration had previously not involved itself in CAB concerts, had never cut off public ticketing, changed venues or cut off building access, Adams said.
“A decision was made by the university to remove public ticket sales specifically for the safety and security of the students in attendance,” she said. “I don’t know the ‘whys.’”
UNI’s Office of University Relations Director Cassie Mathes said the university got wind of problems from “area law enforcement” — declining to name which department — a few weeks after public tickets went on sale.
“The university began receiving information from local law enforcement about potential gang members attending the concert,” said Mathes.
Mathes said she didn’t “know that level of detail” about specific concerns or threats, except that “certain groups from the community were interested in attending that presented a security risk.”
“So we began discussing that information, but it was information that ... we were asked to keep fairly confidential,” she said. “It became a challenging situation, being able to answer very natural questions arising from our students.”
Student Mahlia Brown, a junior psychology major who is also a student senator on the Northern Iowa Student Government, said she and other students of color suspected racial bias was behind the decisions by administration — the artist Waka Flocka Flame is black.
“For other CAB concerts, this is not how it’s handled usually,” Brown said. “It seems whenever there is a black artist that comes on campus, this occurs.”
She said they’ve gotten conflicting verbal accounts from administration officials, who have given reasons ranging from the Field House having fewer doors and more accessible parking to vague “safety” concerns.
“They weren’t very transparent about the information given to warrant the safety risk,” Brown said.
Brown and other NISG senators Ryan Frank, Laura Roman Jimenez, Isaak Espersen and Kristin Rasmussen drafted a resolution condemning UNI administration officials for “the racial biases that appear to be present and a lack of data or research to support the decisions” and “the negative and fearful message this sends to the greater Cedar Valley community, specifically black community members.”
We, as the Northern Iowa Student Government Senate, are supporting the black students on our campus, as well as the Campus Activities Board, in requesting that the Waka Flocka Flame concert be moved back into the Union, and that access be reopened to the public. @northerniowa pic.twitter.com/xVDAIdw8od— mahlia (@MahliaBrown) February 8, 2019
The resolution passed unanimously and was forwarded on to administration, according to Brown.
Frank, a UNI junior and NISG senator who is white, also drafted his own statement and released it on Twitter, calling out administration officials for “systemic racism” at UNI.
“This goes far beyond this issue pertaining to Waka Flocka,” Frank wrote. “I have heard again and again the negative experiences that students of color have on UNI’s campus. Beyond those experiences, I have only heard of inaction by those in positions of power.”
Brown said she and others are putting on a town hall meeting next Tuesday to talk about the concert and other instances of ways they say they’d like to see university officials be better on their diversity and inclusion strategic plan.
“This isn’t going to be the end of this,” she said.
Mathes said President Nook himself touched on those issues in an interview with student newspaper The Northern Iowan on Tuesday morning.
“He wanted to make it very clear that, on behalf of the administration, he was very apologetic that it felt that way to students — that there was an underlying institutional racism perception that they were feeling — and he wants to be very clear with our students that this was not driving this particular situation or these particular decisions,” Mathes said. “The administration here has to sometimes make difficult decisions with the safety and security of our students in mind.”
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