An open forum on diversity at the University of Washington Bothell on March 10 sought to get practical solutions from students for a new diversity center on campus after they staged a walk-out from classes on Feb. 25.
The protesters stated they’re looking for a place where students can come together to overcome and learn about diversity issues, while also feeling included in the campus community.
Director of Diversity Terryl Ross stated at the open forum that students were invited to help brainstorm ideas for the new center. At the same time, he assured them of the university’s commitment to diversity. He told the crowd of approximately 60 people who were conducting a comprehensive study on diversity, including a survey of faculty and staff, and they have a student survey planned as well. They also have a diversity week scheduled for April 6-11.
During the student walkout, Ross said he supported the creation of a space, whether in a temporary or permanent location, but has to fit within the priorities for academic buildings.
“The biggest challenge is the campus is growing faster than we can accommodate,” Ross said at the Feb. 25 walkout. “The number one priority is instruction, labs, etc.”
For Chancellor Bjong Wolf Yeigh, the forum was the first opportunity to address students since the walkout, as he was not on campus at the time. Since then, he said he was bombarded with messages from students on numerous social media outlets about the matter. Having gone through them and watching the videos sent to him, he said their demands are not necessarily related and that separate issues have been “thrown into a pool of things” that makes it hard for him to address.
“Sometimes the significance of each of these gets drowned out,” he said.
Like Ross, he reaffirmed his commitment to diversity campus. Since 2010, he said, the student body has grown by more than 50 percent, and the percentage of students of color is now around 45 percent. He said he shares their desire for more spaces for things, such as childcare and a veterans’ center, but they also have to operate within realistic limitations.
“We have made a lot of progress, but some think we are too slow,” he said.
Among the problems for building a new diversity center, he said, is that with 5,000 students the university is not large enough to charge a fee per student that is financially feasible. They also can’t expect to get any state funding for it, as the state will not fund non-academic buildings. Students already pay more than $500 for building fees, which covers maintenance costs for current buildings.
Inviting the students to generate ideas, Yeigh said they had to be ones which the administration can act on. Both he and Terrel also encouraged students to get more involved with the diversity council.
“I need more of you to participate,” he said. “We need to find out how to get from where we are now to where we want to go.”
During the open discussion, the response from students and faculty ranged from articulating the reasons for a new center to criticism of the open forum itself, which one student said was done at an inconvenient time and without proper notice.
Yet, the students also seemed conflicted as to what they wanted precisely. The first one to speak said it was not about space, per se, but access, while another said student services were more important. Some of the protesters, along with their children, brought self-made signs reading “right to childcare,” saying they needed these services if they were to continue attending the university.
“We have to miss so many opportunities because we have children,” one mother said.
One faculty member who spoke said the student walkout reflected a clear dissatisfaction with the situation and that the administration should take heed.
“Students are angry,” she said. “They have petitioned. We are doing a disservice if we don’t make a change.”
As for the protest itself, Yeigh expressed his displeasure at having students come to occupy his office while he was gone.
“I would rather have these issues handled in a civil way,” he said.
In response, a woman said that the protest was the most effective way of getting the administration’s attention.
“The students were very clear what their opinion was,” she said. “You clog hallways, you disrupt things or you won’t be heard.”
One female student who helped organize the Feb. 25 walkout and skipped class to attend the open forum, said their main objective is to simply be able to communicate with the administration.
“We know what we want,” she said.