An estimated crowd of about 350 members of the Western Carolina University campus community, most of them students, gathered Tuesday, Feb. 20, in the Grandroom of A.K. Hinds University Center to meet with university officials and continue an on-going dialogue on issues surrounding race, diversity and inclusion.
Attendees at the event, billed by student organizers as the “Whee Matter Forum,” shared thoughts, concerns and criticisms over the course of about three hours with a panel of WCU administrators about the current state of race relations on and around the campus.
The gathering was spawned by a series of recent incidents in which students reported that racial slurs had been directed at them, including two anonymous shouts during the campus Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March on Jan. 15 and another slur yelled from a residence hall window Saturday, Feb. 17.
The university issued statements following both incidents, the first coming from Ricardo Nazario-Colon, WCU’s chief diversity officer, and co-signed by Carol Burton, acting provost; Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs; and Katherine Spalding, Student Government Association president. The second message to campus came from Burton and was co-signed by Nazario-Colon, Miller and Kevin Koett, WCU’s dean of students.
That second campus message read, in part: “WCU is a diverse community that values inclusion. The senior campus leadership condemns racism in the strongest possible terms. All members of the Catamount community are expected to treat others with dignity and respect. We also should hold ourselves and one another accountable for the climate of our community.” The first campus message called shouting a racial slur from a residence hall window “… a shameful act that is against our values as an educational community.”
A third incident was reported around midday Feb. 20 when a slur was directed from a truck driving on Central Drive toward students walking to campus near Hunter Library.
Burton, Miller, Spalding, Nazario-Colon and Koett were joined during the Tuesday panel by Melissa Wargo, WCU chief of staff, and Ron Shidemantle, director of Greek student engagement and development.
Students organized the “Whee Matter Forum” out of concerns that the university is not taking seriously the issue of racial insensitivity. The students provided a list of expectations to university administrators in an effort to improve the campus climate concerning racism and other issues of cultural sensitivity.
Koett met with a small group of the students near the Alumni Tower prior to the Tuesday evening forum to apologize and to try to reassure them that the administration does take their concerns seriously.
“You have my promise and assurance that I am going to work even harder to support the amazing students at WCU, address the specific concerns that have been shared and voice my thoughts when future opportunities arise,” he said. “I also vow to continue my willingness to meet, collaborate and partner with any person who would like to do so as we continue to identify and address student concerns in an effort to make WCU more inclusive, safer and more supportive of and for current and future Catamounts.”