Racial confrontations on Indiana college campuses 

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Racial tensions in the United States are rising to a fever pitch.

Over the last few years the questionable deaths of minorities at the hands of police has captured the attentions of news media and the public with the latest name — Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota — added to the list just last week. The next day several police officers in Dallas, Texas were shot — five were killed and seven were wounded. These deaths are only a few of the latest big incidents fueling the fire of racial tension and aggression in America.

But the smaller non-violent incidents — the microaggressions, the racially laced parade floats, the social media insults aimed at the President of the United States and his family — deserve just as much, if not more, attention if we are to understand our societal problems.

Racial tensions at colleges and universities are more common than one might think.

Example: Payton Head's Facebook post voicing his frustrations with microaggressions at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) last fall may have led to protests and demonstrations, vandalism, national media attention and the ultimate resignation of university president Tim Wolfe.

But Head's original complaint is not specific to Mizzou. That complaint has been voiced and microaggressions behind that complaint have been experienced on college campuses everywhere, including Indiana.

Purdue University

It wasn't long after the dust had settled at Mizzou when a group of students known as "Concerned Purdue Student Body Members" at Purdue University held a rally of their own on the West Lafayette campus and presented the university administration with a list of demanded actions and multiple examples of microaggressions on campus. The 105-page book, How Many More Fires, included 73 pages of screenshots of various social media sites featuring racially insensitive language aimed at Purdue's minority population.

"Essentially, the idea is that we saw what was going on at Mizzou and we wanted to show them that we were in support of what they were doing, and we also kind of sought a connection between our experiences here at Purdue and the things they were talking about," said Kirsten Holston, an undergraduate student who spoke to NUVO at the time of the protests.

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University president Mitch Daniels had addressed the campus in an email praising the university for being in "proud contrast to the environments that appear to prevail at places like Missouri or Yale." Daniels had implied that Purdue did not have any racial issues in his communication with the campus and students like Holston sought to change that assumption.

The book of complaints, examples and demanded actions was delivered to Daniels in November, and a meeting took place at that time.

"[The meeting] was tense," Holston said. "There were things that we agreed on, and there were things that weren't agreed on and then there were things he said he had to look into."

Among the other 13 actions demanded was that Purdue create a required racial awareness curriculum for all members of the Purdue student body and staff.

In early May the Provost's Advisory Committee on Diversity released a 10-goal report that aims to recruit and retain underrepresented students, faculty and staff as well as a concentrated effort to change the campus climate to one that values and embraces diversity. Provost Debra Dutta created the committee in October to address diversity issues on campus — just a few weeks before the students presented their complaints to the president. The committee met with several campus and student groups throughout the year to determine the diversity needs of the campus.

Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI)

IUPUI may be a part of Indiana University and Purdue University, but the school carries its own set of unique challenges due to its location. As an institution located in a major metropolitan area, IUPUI has a more diverse student body than Purdue and has a higher percentage of Blacks and African Americans than IU.

In January members of the Black Student Union (BSU) organized a protest to call attention to a 10-year-old demand for a Black Cultural Center. The announcement that the university would invest in an LGBT center was viewed as a slight against the demands of the black student population. In 2006 the university created the Multicultural Center, which houses the BSU, the Latino Student Association, Native American Student Alliance, Asian Student Union and the then-Gay Straight Alliance of IUPUI, now known as LGBTQ Student Alliance.

All of the minority organizations shared building space as well as resources. BSU members say a Black Cultural Center is still needed on the urban campus outside of the Multicultural Center. The students also called for a budget specifically set aside for cultural programming and professional development for African-American students, cultural competency training for faculty and transparent communication with the administration.

In an open online letter to the university's administration the BSU leadership stated:

"To be a black student in 2015 it is difficult to be whole when you still have to work twice as hard to be appreciated half as much. When your life isn't valued as a student or a citizen. When you only need to turn on the news to see another black life taken at the hands of law enforcement every 28 hours, then hear your fellow students tell you that we should be more concerned about black-on-black crime if we truly believe that black lives matter. It is the consistent bombardment with macroaggressions and a lack of cultural competency by fellow students and even faculty, staff and administrators which makes a Black Cultural Center a necessity that has been ignored for far too long."

The goal of the protest was to encourage the boycott of on-campus businesses and to march to the administrative offices on campus to draw attention to their calls for action. IUPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar agreed to meet in good faith with the students and listen to their demands. The protest was cancelled out of respect of the meeting.

The microaggressions on the urban campus were not limited to the racial divide this year. The religious divide and the growing xenophobia for Muslims and persons from the Middle East fueled a personal attack on a young Muslim woman. The president of the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was targeted with personal attacks labeling her as a terrorist, threatening her personally and defaming posters with her photo. The vandalism incident occurred when the IUPUI SJP chapter hosted a Midwest conference for college SJP chapters. But the slander and defamation continued online on various blogs and social media outlets.

With Haneen, who we are only identifying by first name, in fear for her safety, friends, fellow students and faculty did not believe Chancellor Paydar and the administration reacted strongly enough or fast enough in condemning the vandal's actions.

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"Recent events have underscored the need for me to remind the campus community that there is a place for all voices at IUPUI," said Paydar in a statement issued to the campus a few days following the vandalism incident. "IUPUI is committed to providing forums for the free expression and exchange of ideas, including those we may not condone. Even when we vehemently disagree, we must strive to do so with mutual respect and civility. Open dialogue is central to academic freedom and our educational mission."

Paydar did meet with Haneen personally as well as other faculty members on her behalf. The chancellor issued a second statement to the campus acknowledging Haneen as a person and a student who suffered in this violation as well as the university's role in removing the slanderous posts online and the investigation to the persons responsible.

Franklin College

In late winter and early spring, racially offensive Snapchats circulated around the Johnson County campus of Franklin College. Some of the images being shared included a photo of burnt toast with a Black History Month filter overlaid on top of the image. A poster from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion had handguns drawn into the students' hands and blunts (a type of marijuana cigar) were drawn onto their mouths. One of the most offensive images featured a group of minority students in the dining hall with monkey emoji images superimposed over their real faces with a caption that read, "It's a zoo in here."

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Another student reported the offensive images to campus officials.

The dean of students initially suspended the offending student indefinitely. But college president Thomas Minar reversed that penalty after the student's legal counsel pointed out that procedures were not followed in accordance with the school's student handbook. The student was allowed to return to classes and campus life while his case was properly adjudicated. Unfortunately the small nature of Franklin College made remaining weeks of the school year uncomfortable and difficult for all involved, including an alleged confrontation between the offending student and the student who "ratted him out" during a meal time in the campus cafeteria. After a long and rather complicated process, the offending student was officially suspended for an entire semester. That suspension begins this coming fall.

For Black Student Union president Zay Thornton, this was his first direct experience with blatant racial aggression on campus.

"I'm sure there's always stuff that goes on behind closed doors and we have incidents that happen off campus as well, but as far as on campus this was the first incident that we noticed for us," said Thornton. "There may have been other instances with other races, but as far as for me as an African-American this was the first experience for me."

Thornton will enter his senior year this fall at Franklin. Originally from Ocala, Florida, Thornton was recruited by Franklin College to play football. Although he didn't know that much about Indiana, Thornton visited the campus and made his choice to attend after that visit.

"A lot of people who come to Franklin may have never interacted with a Black person before or any person of color," said Thornton. "That's kind of mind-blowing for me because where I'm from there are people of every color."

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, but prior to the offending student's final disciplinary action, Thornton organized a campus gathering sponsored by the Black Student Union. Students, faculty and staff were invited to gather and discuss racial tension and diversity on the campus. However, the one person that Thornton and others on campus wanted to hear from, President Minar, was a no show.

"I was surprised. I actually reached out to the president and I had a meeting with him and he kind of talked to me about it and he was just saying how he couldn't really say a lot because of privacy issues," said Thornton. "I understand that there were a lot of things he couldn't really say and that it was still in the process, but it was something that it needed to be talked about."

Minar told The Franklin, the college's student-run newspaper, the same thing — that "due to federal regulations regarding student privacy issues, the college is unable to discuss individual student matters." Messages sent to the president's office and to the college's communications director Deidra Baumgardner from NUVO were left unanswered.

The fact that there has been no statement, address or communication from the administration does not sit well with recent graduate Caitlin Soard, who was a communications major and editor of The Franklin at the time the case and the story were being investigated. Soard believes there was an opportunity for Minar to say something without violating the "privacy issues" mentioned.

"I just feel like there is a lot more there and more that can be said," said Soard. Although she had crossed the bridge from student to alumna, this situation was something she could not let go. "I am grossly appalled at the actions that have been occurring on this campus, and I know I am not the only student who feels this way."

Although Thornton could not speak about the college's plans, he says he will continue to address the issue and work for improved student diversity and awareness throughout the summer and when school reconvenes in the fall.

Hanover College

Indianapolis resident Sierra Cosby has always been an advocate for all people and has been surrounded by diversity. So when she began her sophomore year as a residential assistant (RA) at Hanover College, Cosby took her new leadership position seriously and thought it could be a way to help her fellow students think about the world we live in and their place in it. Makes perfect sense considering she is an anthropology major.

Cosby created a "privilege board" — a large display with details on what privilege is, who has it and how to help along with empty space and sticky notes for other students to make comments. The board detailed not only racial or "white" privilege, but gender, sex, economic and able-bodied privilege as well.

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According to The Triangle — Hanover's independent student newspaper — the board generated positive and negative comments before it was shredded and shoved under her dorm room door.

"A lot of positive comments were in reaction to the negative comments. Which I thought was interesting," Cosby told Ivonne Mora of The Triangle. "Then after all those negative comments, the board started being vandalized. People started drawing swastikas. Someone crossed out the section that talked about white privilege. People were drawing lines on the board and saying 'nope, that's not true.' There was a Nazi chant and I tore it off and gave it to [Campus Safety]."

Cosby's other boards about alcoholism and Black History Month were also vandalized.

The anonymous vandalism to Cosby's bulletin boards isn't the only instance of microaggressions on Hanover's campus. Racial slurs have been found written on structures in permanent marker, the school rock painted by the feminist club was re-painted with the words "Build The Wall" on it and students participating in a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest about police brutality were met with vulgarities and gestures from one student.

Hanover president Lake Lambert recognizes that the diversity issues on the campus, but also acknowledges that change will not come easy or overnight.

"The most important thing that I need to say is that I know that Hanover is not the inclusive community that it needs to be. We can do better, and I am committed to making that happen," said Lambert in an email response to the campus regarding diversity issues. "But it will take time. Saying this is not meant to be an evasion. Rather, it is a recognition that Hanover exists within a racist, sexist and homophobic American culture, and even more, I fear that even the little 'filters' that have suppressed intolerant speech in our society are coming off with the coarsening of political rhetoric."

What do we do?

Why are college campuses a hotbed of racial tension and aggression?

Universities are a microcosm of society at large. In a small — compared to the rest of the world — space, people from all races, faiths, backgrounds etc. exist together. In many ways the only common link is their relationship with the university, whatever that relationship may be. And by the very nature of a college's purpose students, faculty and staff are exploring the world in which we live.

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For University of Indianapolis president Rob Manuel, the dialogue that occurs at colleges and universities is essential to a school's fundamental mission.

"There aren't many places anymore where real dialogue happens, " says Manuel. "In the traditions I grew up in — NYU [New York University] and Georgetown — were all about making the university the place where dialogue happens. Not shouting matches or where sides are taken, but where true dialogues could occur."

Manuel's ideology is evident in how he manages the southside campus. Since taking office, Manuel has led over 37 campus meetings with students, faculty, staff and community leaders about diversity.

"I see that as the most important and most difficult part of my job," says Manuel. "To preserve the university as the place where dialogue happens and the balancing act between freedom of speech and divisiveness and hatred, etc."

The difficulty of dialogue is evident in society today. From the state and federal political platforms to the everyday cultural silence created by technology and social media, people are not opening themselves up to discussion.

"I also feel that if we don't prepare our students to be engaged in the most difficult questions of our time, then we haven't done our job," says Manuel.

So how does a university create an atmosphere where dialogue is open and encouraged with the knowledge that not everyone will agree yet with the expectation that all will agree to disagree with respect when warranted?

According to Manuel there is no simple answer and no end, but rather a series of beginnings.

"The greatest challenge and the greatest need in higher education at the moment is to figure out that question," says Manuel. "I think that people push us to have an end point, to know when it's done or to know when we are successful. But the truth is the dynamics change each year when a new student population comes in or each time another issue in society is being talked about."

Manuel says there is no magic curriculum that teaches "how-to" and suddenly a person simply is enlightened for the rest of their lives. Each new experience in life comes with a new set of challenges and a new set of rules creating an ongoing process.

"All you can do is have an environment that accepts the fact that you are both good and discerning at the same time," says Manuel. "You can be a great institution and have a problem on your campus. I think people think the great institutions are the ones that don't have problems on campus when it's probably the opposite. I can't think of a place that isn't affected by these social issues that we've all dealt with over the past four or five years. And if the conversation is not there, then that's when I think we begin to get in trouble."


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Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns

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Amber Stearns was born, raised, and educated right here in Indianapolis. She holds a B.S. in Communications from the University of Indianapolis (1995). Following a 20-year career in radio news in Indiana, Amber joined NUVO as News Editor in 2014.

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