Carrying signs protesting bigotry and promoting tolerance, a group of Western Carolina University students, faculty and staff gathered around the fountain area in the center of campus at noon Tuesday, March 27, to show support for the university’s students of color and other underrepresented communities on campus.
With chants of support for making WCU a “hate-free zone,” the crowd estimated at several hundred turned out for the faculty-sponsored gathering that was titled “Whee Stand With Our Students: March for Equity.”
The event was preceded by several incidents earlier in WCU’s spring semester in which African-American students were subjected to anonymous shouts of racial slurs, including one situation that occurred during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March across campus.
Amy Murphy-Nugen, assistant professor of social work and a member of WCU’s Faculty Senate, provided opening remarks for the March 27 event, which also included a musical performance by Brian Claflin, a songwriter and vocalist from Asheville.
Brian Railsback, chair of the Faculty Senate, spoke to the crowd about a then-proposed resolution that was subsequently approved by that faculty group during its regular business meeting the following day. The “Resolution in Support of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at WCU” states that WCU’s Faculty Senate “condemns in the strongest possible terms acts of bigotry and racism to intimidate members of our campus community.”
The resolution continues: “We respect our students’ response to address racial insensitivity throughout the university and honor their commitment to create a more respectful and inclusive campus. We value the leadership demonstrated by students of color and underrepresented communities and will continue to empower them to pursue change; however, we recognize it is our responsibility, as faculty, to cultivate an environment of diversity, inclusion and equity.”
The resolution also includes a pledge of support for “significant infrastructural changes necessary to eradicate systematic racism and bigotry,” including revisions to the university’s curriculum to promote cultural awareness. A second resolution approved by the Faculty Senate on March 28, “Faculty Senate Resolution to Embed Inclusive Excellence in the Curriculum,” calls on the university’s Liberal Studies Committee to develop an “inclusive excellence” requirement across the liberal studies curriculum “to reach the greatest number of undergraduates at WCU.”
After a march across campus with signs and chants, participants in the March 27 event returned to the fountain area to hear remarks by Antonio Oakley and Tenae Turner, two student leaders involved in organizing a Feb. 20 “Whee Matter Forum” that drew approximately 350 people to A.K. Hinds University Center to discuss the state of race relations at WCU. During that meeting, minority students, who have united under the hashtag #WheeMatter, also presented their list of “firm expectations” for improving the climate for diversity and inclusion on campus to a panel of university administrators.
Murphy-Nugen said the idea of holding the “March for Equity” was the brainchild of her social work student Alyssa Luna. Murphy-Nugen and her fellow faculty senator Charmion Rush, assistant professor of inclusive and special education, took on lead roles in working with other members of the faculty to organize the event.
Murphy-Nugen said she hopes the march achieved its stated purpose, but also that the effort “moved beyond a moment to a movement.” “I think we, as faculty, must act, and many faculty are already taking action to ensure equity, inclusion and diversity are not simply aspirational statements and empty words, but are foundational, authentic commitments we make to one another – we make to our students – everyday on our campus, which is also our students’ home,” she said.
Murphy-Nugen said Oakley and Turner are “amazing, incredible campus leaders.” “From my perspective, they are modeling to all of us what courageous leadership looks like,” she said. “I hope we can challenge ourselves to rise to their example.”
Rush said hearing about the incident that took place during the MLK march and what she heard about the experiences of African-American students on campus during the Feb. 20 meeting at the University Center inspired her to become involved in the effort. As an African-American, member of the WCU faculty and faculty senator, Rush said she felt a personal and professional commitment to serve on the Faculty Senate committee that worked on the many drafts of the “Resolution in Support of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at WCU.”
“The main thing Amy and I wanted to convey [in the resolution] is that we heard our students and we care,” Rush said. “More importantly, we realize the gravity of the situation, and change will occur.”
Reflecting back a week after the “March for Equity,” both Oakley and Turner said they are encouraged by the demonstration of support for students of color and other underrepresented students that they witnessed.
Oakley, a senior from Charlotte majoring in computer information systems, said the spring semester has been “rough and long” for him, as he has been worried about the safety of his fellow minority students, faculty and staff. “I think we have reached a foundation on which real growth and change can be started and perpetuated into the future,” he said. “The moral march showed what we can do when we treat each other as human beings and understand other humans’ experiences.”
Turner, a junior political science major from Burlington, said she believes the Faculty Senate resolution outlined during the event “will drive us in the right direction” and she is grateful for the faculty group’s work in that area, and also appreciative to the faculty involved in organizing the “March for Equity.”
Both Oakley and Turner said they have been encouraged by the university administration’s response to the “firm expectations” outlined at the Feb. 20 meeting, but said there is more progress that needs to be made to make WCU the welcoming place it should be.
Oakley characterized the response of university administration to the expectations as “swift and fair,” but said the job isn’t finished. “There is still more work to be done and more conversations to be had,” he said. “It is imperative that this reform and change for the minority students on campus does not fade away in the coming years, but continues to evolve to make this place safer for all students who attend this institution.”
Turner echoed that sentiment about the need to focus on long-term improvement. “As long as future minority students feel Western is a safe, diverse and inclusive campus, then that’s what really matters,” she said.
Ricardo Nazario-Colon, WCU’s chief diversity officer, said most of the students’ expectations for improving the climate for diversity and inclusion on campus “are very reasonable,” and that several of the recommendations already had been in process.
Over the past weeks, several senior campus leaders have met collectively and individually with student leaders and shared their commitment to an ongoing dialogue to promote a more diverse and inclusive campus, Nazario-Colon said.
In response to the students’ concerns, WCU Acting Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar sent a March 12 email to the campus community to reiterate the university’s stand against bigotry and intolerance. “The university condemns in the strongest possible terms acts of bigotry and racism to intimidate members of our campus community,” Morrison-Shetlar wrote. “To ensure that our campus is the welcoming and inclusive place to which we aspire, the university encourages all members of its community to be active and positive participants in advancing and promoting a campus climate where diversity and open-mindedness are expected and valued.”
In another email sent March 22, Morrison-Shetlar touched on the March 2 groundbreaking ceremony held on campus for WCU’s new Tom Apodaca Science Building, at which a group of students representing #WheeMatter held signs and chanted. “I was very proud of the way these students represented themselves by letting us hear what they had to say about intolerance on campus, while also being respectful of the speakers during the event,” she wrote.
Among the actions that have been completed by university administration in response to the students’ concerns include development of plans for diversity and inclusive excellence by several WCU colleges and units; a leadership meeting in Residential Living that included discussion of the department’s commitment to diversity, bias reporting and accountability; the posting of a bias report summary for February on the website bias.wcu.edu, with plans to post monthly summaries going forward; and meetings involving Orientation and Intercultural Affairs staff to discuss changes to orientation.
Some of the actions still in process include the development of a bias response committee on campus; revisions to the Community Creed; a revision to the university’s strategic plan that includes a new and extensive strategic direction focused on diversity and inclusive excellence; development of an African-American studies minor; and consideration of an ethics statement for incoming students.