News Soka

University leadership responds to student protests and demands

Photo by Saanika Joshi

These statements precede the “Building a Community of Trust, Equity, and Inclusion Open Forum” on Friday. Most of campus will shut down in order to allow all students, faculty, and staff to attend. “The intention is to create an open space for the community members to engage in conversations with the leaders on campus but also make concerns known to the broader community as well,” Vice President of Academic Affairs Ed Feasel wrote in an email announcing the forum.

After a weekend of student protests, Soka administrators are beginning to promise action regarding student demands for reform on campus.

After a tense meeting between students, Vice President of Academic Affairs Ed Feasel, and Dean of Faculty Bryan Penprase regarding African and Ethnic Studies courses, the student groups leading the protests sent their manifesto out to all students and upper-level administration. The manifesto outlined the Black Student Union and Students of Color Coalition’s grievances and concerns about racism on campus, as well as eight demands. 

The demands included the inclusion of African and Ethnic studies courses in the curriculum, campus-wide racial sensitivity training, and formal seats on the Board of Trustees for those student groups. 

 

Administration is committed to working toward “every one of those items that they listed,” said Feasel, in a Tuesday interview with The Pearl. “We want to work with them to make as much progress as possible.”

Feasel said he’s still working with BSU and SOCC to come up with concrete timelines for implementing the student demands. 

Student leaders are still wary of administrative promises, but have committed themselves to seeing through the demands of their manifesto. 

“As students we have the agency to talk pointedly with administration, yet we lack the political power to push administration to actualize any of our demands,” said Kristen Storms, who co-founded BSU and co-leads SOCC with several other Soka students. “I need to see administrators and professors alike getting their metaphorical hands dirty. Students have been on the ground getting the work done for months now. Administrators continue to insist on having ‘dialogue’ and meetings to further ‘understand’ the prospective future of Soka, but students have already taken action to make that future a reality.” 

Faculty have also signed onto the student movement for racial equity, student leadership, and African and Ethnic Studies. On Friday, Nov. 9, the day before the protests, a faculty statement expressing solidarity with the student movement was emailed out to the student body. Thirty-seven faculty signed it as of Thursday, Nov. 14.

In the statement, these professors said they believe the students and were also committed to working with them. “We understand that our university has a great deal of work to do in order to honor and live up to the demands made by our students,” the statement said. “We resolve to listen to our students, to engage them on their terms, and to enact transparent processes in which students have equal representation. We hear the students’ demands and will advocate for them.” 

When heads of concentrations were reached for comment after the weekend of protests, those who signed the statement stood by these words.

Students have argued that the university as a whole has operated under a false sense of “diversity and inclusion” by virtue of its large international student population, which averages about 43 percent of the student body. But in their manifesto, the BSU argues black students in particular have been marginalized by the university and presented as “tokens” to promote the appearance of diversity rather than the practice of inclusion.

Both Feasel and Dean of Students Hyon Moon admitted they believed they were fostering an environment of inclusion prior to the student uprising.

“There were all these things we could point to that what we’re doing concretely,” Feasel said, citing mandatory study abroad, the large international student population, and the inclusion of “East and West in our curriculum.” 

But, as students have called out, these details were superficial – and, they further argue, the presence of a diverse student body does not equate to equity for minority students in general, and black students in particular. One example students cite: The “East and West curriculum” has for years excluded the continent of Africa entirely.

Now, Feasel said, “We want to get toward something that would reflect our values.” 

He said prior to the student uprising, administration assumed they had the students’ best interests in mind when making decisions. “We really need to engage on the BSU and the Students of Color Coalition to make sure that the action we’re proposing, the action we’re taking is in line with what they would want to see,” he said. 

Moon, who oversees Student Affairs, also acknowledged her complicity in the pain of students of color and black students on campus. She said the past couple weeks have been a “humbling and growing experience.” 

“I also come from an underrepresented group and I thought I understood what it’s like to live in the U.S. as an Asian woman,” she said. But – as black students in particular have pointed out – not all experiences of minorities are the same. “My greatest downfall was I operated under color blindness,” Moon said.

Moon said Student Affairs is working toward ongoing racial sensitivity training for her department, a remodel of a space especially for BSU and SOCC member organizations, and is seeking student input in continuing programs and improvements around the issues of diversity and inclusion. “It’s clear we’re behind where we should be,” she said. 

In an email sent Friday, Moon elaborated on the plans of her office, and added that Student Affairs is working on a racial sensitivity training for first-year orientation, hiring a new counselor who is qualified to work with marginalized communities, and revamping Diversity Fusion Fair, an annual event students have criticized for being an example of tokenism. She emphasized student input in all of the initiatives coming out of her office.

With the promises of administration now out in the open, BSU and SOCC are determined to keep the conversation going until their demands are fulfilled. 

“We are never comfortable with the ‘progress’ SUA as an institution seems to be making,” Storms said. “We as students must continue to push administrators and continue building the platform we’ve created for ourselves for our voices to be heard.”

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