Forum attendants note inclusivity hurdles

In efforts to improve, many point to potential challenges


JONI COBARRUBIAS | The Daily Evergreen

Vice President of Students Affairs, Mary Jo Gonzales, addresses cultural issues on campus to a forum of students, faculty and staff.

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

Student leaders, staff and faculty discussed the obstacles to inclusivity at WSU during a public forum Tuesday, noting problems of communication and adequate support for students, and reiterating concerns that current diversity efforts may not amount to tangible change.

About 75 people attended the forum, part of WSU’s initiative to improve the campus climate. Vice President of Student Affairs Mary Jo Gonzales and regents professor Victor Villanueva answered questions.

The event comes a month after protesters at the French Administration Building sit-in rallied against what many saw as merely the latest hollow show of support for students, particularly those in minority groups. Villanueva said he has been at WSU for 22 years and heard similar conversations many times.

“This time, I’m hoping that we can actually do something,” he said, “not just listen to what the concerns are, which tend to be over and over again the same kinds of concerns, when it comes to folks of color in particular.”

JONI COBARRUBIAS | The Daily Evergreen
Vice President of Students Affairs Mary Jo Gonzales addresses cultural issues on campus.

One concrete step they pointed to is the search for a new associate vice president of community, equity and inclusive excellence. Gonzales said this position would centralize all the diversity units and allow Student Affairs to better support all 30,000 WSU students.

“I wish I could be at every student meeting,” she said, “but I can’t.”

She said the search committee met for the first time last week, and is planning to bring candidates to campus in February. They expect to hire someone in the spring.

Nevertheless, ASWSU Senator Jesus Hernandez said he has spoken with many students who don’t feel they are being heard and don’t feel safe at WSU. He questioned how to tackle these problems if forums and meetings with university officials don’t work.

“What can we do now as student leaders?” Hernandez asked. “Are we just supposed to be walking around with our tails between our legs?”

Gonzales said that since the sit-in, leaders of multicultural student groups have negotiated their demands with WSU President Kirk Schulz. These include stricter hate speech policies, cultural competency training, greater faculty and staff diversity, increased support for multicultural programs, expansion of gender-neutral facilities and free feminine hygiene products.

Gonzales said they are creating a committee to implement these changes, but that they aren’t always visible to the average person.

“Some of those things you will not see,” she said, “and that’s because we have to do it from a bureaucratic standpoint.”

She also noted the approximate $275,000 cost to recruit the new vice president, citing this as a sign of commitment to improving campus climate. She said the money is coming from reserve funds.

Others argued that Schulz should make himself a greater part of campus climate efforts. Alex Roberts, a GPSA staff coordinator, said the president should embody the push for greater diversity and inclusivity, rather than just Gonzales, a woman of color.

“Frankly, I’m concerned about you, Mary Jo, in terms of this tokenism issue,” Roberts said. “I want the white guy as the ally above you leading the charge.”

One man who did not give his name argued that without people to enforce diversity and inclusivity initiatives, they will have little effect. He said he still sees people smoking all around campus, though the university initiated a tobacco ban last fall.

“If you don’t have individuals who are complying, and enforcing this compliance,” he said, “all of this will be in vain.”

Villanueva replied that though they do need to find a way to make the university’s rules “real,” they must be “creative” in how they do this.

“I want to shove this down their throats,” he said, “but if we do it with any semblance of force, I think we end up always losing.”

Malik Dreher, president of Black Men Making a Difference, said many students would like to see updates on the university’s plans and initiatives, as well as more outreach for diversity efforts. He noted that he did not see many people of color at the forum, particularly black people.

Gonzales said administrators have encountered problems of communicating with students. They have not figured out how to share information effectively, she said, and they need to establish a structure for this.

Amir Gilmore, vice president of GPSA, said many international graduate students fear having their visas pulled, or having funding pulled from their professors. He said many are also apprehensive of retaliation from the administration if they speak out about issues they face. He wondered how to create a “bridge” between students and administrators.

Villanueva said many students do not understand how the bureaucracy of the university functions, leaving many feeling alienated. He said WSU’s workings and resources deserve more explicit education.

Other topics included how effective cultural competency training would be, the role of faculty, staff and administration in supporting students, and proper representation on committees. One student criticized the way the university treats victims of sexual assault, saying officials repeatedly mishandled her own case and blamed her.

Amid concerns of slow-going or nonexistent improvement, Villanueva quoted Malcolm X, who said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.” Villanueva disputes this idea.

“It is something of progress, it is the six inches,” he said. “We need better than six inches, we need the knife the hell out of our back. But in order to operate … you have to believe that the change is possible, and you have to know that the changes come way too slowly for most of us.”

Hernandez, who spoke at the sit-in and a previous forum, expressed frustration with how the bureaucratic system seems to weigh down campus climate efforts. However, he said, he has not given up.

“I’m still hopeful, and I know a lot of student leaders are too,” he said, “just a little tired.”