Diversity in Coffman under attack

Kicking cultural centers out of Coffman Union is a step backward for the University.

Lolla Mohammed Nur

It was my first day at freshman orientation, and I felt isolated. I was shocked to see that the diversity the University of Minnesota bragged about on its website and brochures was almost nowhere to be seen.

It was only when I discovered the racial, cultural and religious diversity in Coffman Union that I finally felt at home.

The cultural centers on the second floor fought for their right to be there, and they have been a niche for students of various marginalized communities ever since. But now the second floorâÄôs diversity is under attack.

The drama started in April, when the Student Services Fees Committee sent a letter to Vice Provost Jerry Rinehart asking him to review CoffmanâÄôs space allocation process. The reason was that off-campus organizations are disadvantaged because their larger budgets to accommodate paying rent receive more scrutiny than on-campus groups whose rent is subsidized by the University.

The letter suggested the current allocation process is biased toward the groups already on the second floor because those groups have been systematically “grandfathered” in.

Currently, the Board of Governors âÄî a committee composed entirely of students âÄî has been tasked by Rinehart to decide the fate of 28 student groups on the second floor. It will host public forums at the Coffman Theater this afternoon and Tuesday evening for students to voice their opinions.

The major options under consideration are to provide an “open collaborative space” for all groups, a combination of resource center and office space, a complete remodeling or no changes at all.

On paper, these options sound wonderful. But in reality, they are ineffective. First, we donâÄôt need another resource center. That would be a waste of space and funding, as there are several printing and copying resources throughout campus.

Also, having an “open collaborative space” is redundant, because that is exactly what the second floor already is. Cultural centers dominate the space, but each room is open for everyone.

The option to provide space for more offices and cultural centers would still be “unfair,” because it wouldnâÄôt guarantee that everyone who deserves a space would receive it due to the size constraints of the floor.

DonâÄôt get me wrong. I would love to see every student group receive on-campus space. But the implications of this for students of underrepresented backgrounds are vast.

Each of those cultural centers fought for its space and all have a historical reason for being there. The Black Student Union received its room after the 1969 Morrill Hall takeover protesting the Jim Crow-style laws which permeated every aspect of life for black students.

The American Indian Student Cultural Center was provided its room after the group received complaints about their drumbeating. Their current room is specifically designed to muffle the sound and has a special ventilation system to burn sage.

Al-Madinah Cultural Center âÄîfor which I served as a board member âÄî met with University administrators in 1999 to request a room because the campusâÄô growing Muslim student population needed a place to pray and break their fast.

These groups were not grandfathered in. They fought for it. They each struggled to receive their legitimacy in this country and on this campus, and they deserve to be represented.

These organizations apply for the space and defend how they use their funding every year, just like any other group does. Why is it unfair to allow these groups to retain their spaces if they continue to follow the rules?

Also, cultural centers are, by nature, unique from student groups. Their mission is to promote social justice, bridge cross-cultural gaps and accommodate the needs of minority groups that are not met elsewhere.

If the University remodels the second floor, it will be a slap in the face of its minority students who have invested so much time in
representing their communities on campus and reaching out to marginalized communities off campus on behalf of the University. If anything, these groups are doing the University a favor by demonstrating the positive influence of diversity.

Also disconcerting is the administrationâÄôs false sense of resource and space scarcity. Rinehart has requested the Board of Governors “address serving more student groups in the existing space available,” but we all know that the space available is not enough for about 50 groups âÄî the rough number that applies for space each year.

Using the second floor isnâÄôt the only option. A solution would be to allocate more on-campus space for the groups who need it.

If the University will allocate more space for flashy buildings such as the new football stadium, why canâÄôt it make room for our student groups? The message is clear: It will not invest more in diversity and enriching the student group experience.

ItâÄôs disappointing that the administration has chosen to let the Board of Governors recommend the fate of current and future generations of minority students on campus. The right thing to do would have been to respect the historical significance and diversity these cultural centers bring.

IâÄôve been to almost every cultural center on that floor: Never have I seen such a diverse, yet close-knit, community. If the second floor is remodeled, an entire history will be erased and a community broken.

 

Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments at
[email protected].