‘Whose Diversity?’ challenges administration hypocrisy

by Nick Theis, Students for a Democratic Society

On Jan. 27, University President Eric Kaler planned to unveil the renovations to the second floor of Coffman Union and promote his efforts to support diversity at the University of Minnesota. Kaler and other administrators were prepared to deliver speeches, while visitors would circulate around the floor collecting stamps for their mock passports and sampling food representing each cultural group.

This event was part of a University initiative to market itself as a diverse, cosmopolitan and culturally tolerant place. Unfortunately, these are only tokenizing gestures because they do not address campus-wide issues of demographic underrepresentation, racial profiling and outright racism.

It was against this backdrop that a group of students called Whose Diversity? planned to disrupt the event in order to draw attention to these and other issues. The administration may have spent $2.5 million on the floor over the summer, but the renovations were neither careful nor unanimous. Murals describing historical student struggles such as the Morrill Hall takeover in 1969 were painted white. Groups were moved into the periphery where they do not see as much traffic, and their access to the second floor was jeopardized by new attendance quota policies. Such quantitative assessments are becoming rather popular at the University, but they are not always appropriate. It is more important that the second floor remains a safe space and that student groups there do not have to compete for territory.

So while Kaler was prepared to quietly unveil the second floor and show off the University’s diversity, Whose Diversity? was poised to challenge the administration’s hypocrisy loud and clear. Unfortunately, subzero temperatures forced a University shutdown, and the unveiling event was canceled.

That same day, an organizer with Whose Diversity? received an email from Vice Provost of Student Affairs Danita Brown Young discouraging them from confronting the administration in public, asking instead that concerns be brought to Kaler during his office hours.

We do not know how Brown Young obtained information about the action, nor do we know how she obtained the organizer’s personal email. Nevertheless, her emails raise concerns about surveillance of student activists and highlight the administration’s prerogative to keep students’ movements quiet and concerns private.

Brown Young’s emails also indicate the University does not see civil disobedience as acceptable or legitimate.

The University instead encourages students to voice concerns through proper channels, which have proven to be ineffective. We have used these channels for the past several years. Last year, Students for a Democratic Society led a student-initiated referendum to cut administrative pay and increase budget transparency. It received more than 85 percent support, but the administration did not respond in any meaningful way. We must acknowledge that the proper channels are obsolete. The administration is treating concerns about racism, policing, cuts to ethnic studies programs and tuition similarly — by ignoring them.

The administration has hosted campus safety forums to address police profiling, but it has done little to ameliorate the concerns discussed there. The administration knows high tuition costs are barriers of entry, yet while many non-white resident populations at the University have been decreasing in recent freshman classes, in-state tuition has only increased. Black, Latino/a and Native American groups are underrepresented, and while tuition is only one reason for this, it is perhaps the most basic and the easiest to address.

The University may have inadvertently canceled Whose Diversity’s? action, but it will not stop students from organizing. Whose Diversity?, Students for a Democratic Society and other groups will continue the struggle until the administration acknowledges and addresses institutional racism and the soaring cost of education at the University.

We seek to make the University’s language of diversity a real promise for racial justice.