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Education news and issues in the Ozarks.

A Guide to the Group of MSU Student’s “List of Demands,” and Their Response to Criticism

Multicultural Resource Center
Scott Harvey

One week remains for Missouri State University administrators to respond to demands from a group of students seeking change to the school’s diversity policies.

The signed document calling for acknowledgement and action on a number of issues was delivered Nov. 17 to President Clif Smart, Dean of Students Thomas Lane, and Vice President of Student Affairs Dee Sisco.

Three of the seven students who signed the document spoke with KSMU about the list and what’s transpired since it became public.

Demanding Change

“I’d like to pose the question of why the word ‘demand’ is so controversial?” questions Ravyn Brooks, acknowledging the vitriol that has emerged since the story of the demands was first published by the Springfield News-Leader.

“If we’re mandated to do homework, if we’re mandated to be in attendance to class, why can’t we mandate our administration to listen to us? If I pay to go here, why can’t I issue a demand? I’m a shareholder in this university. I feel like I have that authority,” Brooks told KSMU.

The students had been meeting with university officials for weeks, the group explains. And point out that their preparation of this document began prior to protests at the University of Missouri gaining national attention, eventually leading to the resignations of the MU system president and chancellor.

Among the demands is an acknowledgement by the university of systemic racism in higher education. Brooks says systemic racism has to do with faculty and staff representation, opportunity, as well as power and privilege and who holds it.

We're not trying to create any type of hostile environment. We're not trying to be combative. It's more of we know what needs to be done, and so we're just giving you ways to get it done, basically. - MSU Student Nomachot Adiang

She used student government as an example, saying those positions are normally filled with fraternity and sorority life, of which the bigger organizations are predominantly white.

“So if we have overlapping of power, it makes it harder for marginalized groups to gain power, gain visibility, gain access.”

Brooks also cites MSU’s Multicultural Leadership Scholarship, of which she is a recipient, as an example because it’s not specifically race-based.

“My mission is to contextualize everything,” said Brooks “If we look at the state of the United States in the past five years, there’s been conversation of systemic racism period. Often we have an individualistic idea of concerns and issues with diversity. I want us to engage with the national conversation, because Springfield is not in its own little bubble.”

The group also seeks a public statement from the school that includes a commitment to differentiating “hate speech” from “freedom of speech,” instituting a zero tolerance policy for hate crimes, and an explanation for moving Multicultural Services from the Division of Diversity and Inclusion to the Division of Student Affairs. These “demands,” as is stated in part of its six-page document, have a Dec. 1 deadline.

Concern Over Multicultural Programs

Much of the document calls for details and action items related to the Diversity Center and Multicultural Services.

That includes the name of the Diversity Center. The Mary Jean Price-Walls Center for Diversity would be named after the school’s first black applicant, a high school salutatorian who in the early 1950s was denied admission because of her race. The school awarded her an honorary degree in 2010.  

Brooks wants to clarify that the students had already been given the naming rights by Dr. Dee Sisco.

“She said you guys can name it whatever you want, this is for you. So it’s not like we’re requesting for rights. I just wanted to clear that up, because social media got it confused.”

The students also want Dominiece Hoelyfield, the assistant director and coordinator of LGBT services, to act as interim director of the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). Former Director Francine Pratt resigned from the position in October. Additionally, the demand document calls for the MRC, located in the Plaster Student Union, to be left in-tact during and after all construction projects related to diversity.

In an interview with KSMU, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Student Thomas Lane confirmed the MRC will not be moved.

“The discussion surrounding a Diversity Center is additional space that will be added to the existing Multicultural Resource Center, which is a long-standing, cherished space, especially by our students from underrepresented backgrounds. And there is no intention of moving that office,” he said.

But Lane declined to offer a specific response to a number of the student’s demands, noting that those details will emerge upon deadline. 

“There is going to be a university communication from the Office of the President on December 1st that will speak to the spirit of the concerns that the students have expressed. And that’s been in concert with our effort to try to be as timely and transparent as we can to demonstrate to the students that we take these concerns very seriously.”

He noted recent efforts by the university to provide safe spaces for students, faculty and staff to engage with one another about issues surrounding race and equity. Lane believes the school has been proactive in working with students of underrepresented backgrounds, but says communication can still be improved, including as it relates to organizational change.

“I think the students have been very helpful in putting a fine point on concerns that they see as really important and that they wanna know that their voices matter. And I think that’s why we’ve certainly tried to communicate to the students that we take these concerns seriously.”

Lane referred to the student’s demands as “concerns,” and signaled that there is still much to discuss and many to involve in addressing them.

“We work in an environment that works in the spirit of shared governance and there’s a lot of constituencies that need to be a part of that dialog when you’re talking about meaningful institutional change. Those entities like I mentioned Faculty Senate, Administrative Council, our Board of Governors, student leaders. And so together I’m confident that we’re gonna move forward on a number of initiatives that speak to the spirit of the student’s concerns.”

Those concerns deal with the jurisdiction of all Multicultural Services. Last year, it was moved from the Division for Diversity and Inclusion to the Division of Student Affairs. The students that issued the list of demands want it moved back by the spring semester. 

“People don’t even know about the change,” says Nomachot Adiang. “They don’t even know their relationship to the vice president, they don’t even know who the assistant vice president is, who the director answers to. So it’s basically the idea like they can move these things around, they don’t even tell students, and the whole multicultural programs gets overlooked.” 

The students say that new oversight of the office could threaten the care and attention Multicultural Services needs, including funding.

The group also wants clarification on what money is available within Multicultural Services, calling for the university to request an audit from an outside party, and present a budget for the office by the end of March.

Backlash to the Demands

Public criticism to the demands was swift on social media, with nonverbal jabs against the group ranging from reverse racists to whining children.

“Just with the comments that I read and saw, you see that what we’re trying to prove that there is - it’s out there,” says Monica Villa-Meza, another one of the document’s authors.

Villa-Meza says the list of demands was the culmination of multiple meetings with peers and school officials as a way to help.

“And people are saying that we’re just whining when they don’t even know that we’ve actually met with the administration, we’ve actually talked to them multiple times and we’ve had meetings, and they still don’t take action to anything. It’s good to listen, yes, but when is there going to be action to something? When are they going to do something? She asks.

I'm confident that we're gonna move forward on a number of initiatives that speak to the spirit of the student's concerns - Dean of Students Thomas Lane

The group thanked Dr. Lane for his support during this process, noting that he reached out to them after some of the negative comments emerged online.

Adiang says that the focus on Multicultural Services doesn’t just impact a particular race, but can be used by all students. She adds that these requests could help start a dialog for students to interact with others of different backgrounds.

“For example the president said that when it comes to diversity issues and making students feel comfortable it lies amongst the students. But the students themselves they might be ill-equipped coming from a place where it’s a small town, there’s not that much diversity, you’re not gonna know how to deal with it here. So what we were suggesting is working with the administration and figuring out what to do about that stuff,” said Adiang.

Gradual Change

Other demands offer longer periods of time to implement. The students want a mandatory Diversity Curriculum for administration, faculty, staff and incoming students starting in fall 2016. In the next five years, the group calls for an increase in ethnically diverse staff and students “that accurately reflects our nation’s demographics.” That item goes on to say the number of staff and student should always be congruent with one another with the number of ethnically diverse staff.

Villa-Meza understands this will take time.

“We didn’t put a specific number because on a large scale it’s a very – like 10 percent is very small on a large scale - and it’s hard to establish that. It takes time… so we can’t be so specific on that.”

In the aftermath of the Mizzou protests and resignations of its top administrators, students there have demanded the university grow its black faculty and staff to 10 percent within two years.

Missouri State’s Dean of Students Thomas Lane says 20 percent of recent hires through the Provosts’ Office are from diverse backgrounds. And recruitment of minority students has jumped from nearly 1,500 six years ago to 2,796 in fall 2015, or roughly 11 percent of the campus.

“In six years we’ve almost doubled our underrepresented population,” says Lane. “And we have been and will continue to be intentional about wanting to increase and effectively serve that population.”

Brooks and Adiang, two black students from Kansas City, and Villa-Meza, a Hispanic student from Monett, say MSU’s promotions of multicultural services in part encouraged them to enroll. Brooks and Villa-Meza are also recipients of the school’s Multicultural Leadership Scholarship. But they say upon coming to school they’ve found that more can be done to improve cultural competency.

The document says that should these demands go unmet, the students are prepared to demonstrate, protest, and exercise their rights to press until they are. But Brooks wants people to know that this is not “us against the administration.”

“We are proposing a deal, pretty much. You’ve asked us the questions, here are our answers,” she says.

Adiang adds that she’s heard from many who fear these demands could prompt the same type of actions seen at Mizzou. But she says that’s not the intention.

“We’re not trying to create any type of hostile environment. We’re not trying to be combative. It’s more of we know what needs to be done, and so we’re just giving you ways to get it done, basically.”

Find the full list of demands here.