Faculty: Drop the charges

More than 150 faculty signed a petition to protect students who protested for diversity.

Benjamin Farniok

University of Minnesota faculty members are petitioning for the school to drop student conduct charges against 13 students who occupied President Eric Kaler’s office in February.
 
Members of Whose Diversity? last winter protested what they called a lack of campus diversity by taking over Kaler’s office in Morrill Hall, and police eventually arrested them.
Some University faculty members are concerned about punishing the students because they say it could hurt freedom of speech on campus.
 
City officials told members of Whose Diversity? — an unofficial student group that advocates for increased diversity — they would not face criminal charges if they abided by a one-year probationary period. However, the school hasn’t dropped charges for disorderly conduct and failing to identify and comply with University 
officials, said David Melendez, a second-year theatre graduate student and Whose Diversity? member.
 
Melendez said he and fellow group member Rahsaan Mahadeo will face the Student Behavior Committee — likely in December — to determine whether the group should be punished under the student conduct code or if the charges should be dropped.
 
Sharon Dzik, the director of the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity, which handled the case over the summer, said a faculty petition could be used during a hearing as a way to argue whether the charges should be dropped, but its effectiveness depends on who is selected for the committee.
 
“It all depends on the people on the committee,” Dzik said.
 
Political science professor and co-author of the petition Teri Caraway said she created the petition because she and other faculty members believe the charges are unreasonable. It is important for students to be disruptive if it means that their voices can be heard, she said.
 
“The language of the student conduct code is too vague. It allows too much discretion to University administrators in what is disruptive,” she said.
 
A punishment would send a signal that students are not supposed to protest, said Barb Frey, a petition-signer and director of the Human Rights Program, adding that the students were trying to improve the University.
 
“The motivation of the students was obviously to improve the academic diversity and quality of the University. There was no intent to harm the University,” she said.
 
Current school policies are about convenience and constraint, said Jane Blocker, chair of the Department of Art History, adding that if a group of students completely followed the rules set for them by the University, the protest would not be very effective.
 
Students sat in on Kaler’s office after they tried multiple times to speak with him about diversity at the school, including issues with racial descriptions in the school’s crime alerts, Melendez said.
 
Blocker said school policies should change to encourage protest to make students more likely to engage in politics.
 
Tim Phillips, the students’ attorney, said the behavior shouldn’t be punishable because students are allowed to protest under the First Amendment. 
 
But because the punishment is based on school rules, he said, it is difficult to predict the final verdict.