University of Wyoming President Dick McGinity, student senators and roughly 100 concerned faculty and students listened in respectful silence to the young woman in the front.
“Whatever the reasons that brought you here tonight, I just want to emphasize the importance of having this conversation,” Associated Students of the University of Wyoming Vice President Emily Kath told the packed room Tuesday night. “… This is what the University of Wyoming needs to be. It needs to be a place of love and opportunity.”
The forum, organized by ASUW and ASUW’s United Multicultural Council, was about to be turned over to the students. Many hoped the meeting would give marginalized students a chance to air concerns about discrimination, diversity and inclusion with UW President Dick McGinity, who sat at the front of the hall.
Kath thanked everyone for coming and stressed how important it is for students to educate one another and that she, personally, hoped to learn from marginalized students how to make the university a better place for all.
But half of the students Kath was speaking to would not be staying for such an education, preferring instead to relocate to the Gardens in the basement of the Wyoming Union for a meeting of their own, led by a new student group called Break ThrUWYO.
Kath’s call for education would be answered just minutes later by one of Break ThrUWYO’s founding members, Natawsha Mitchell, as she and her fellow student activists took the floor.
“I want to challenge you to educate yourself,” Mitchell told Kath. “It is not the responsibility of marginalized students to educate you or to educate President McGinity on these issues.”
Break ThrUWYO, represented by its four founding members, launched into an explanation of their discontent.
“In the past 20 years, there have been multiple diversity analyses, surveys and committees, multiple directives, suggestions and plans of action,” she said. “Yet still, all levels of administration, ASUW and the United Multicultural Council have failed to protect the interests of marginalized students.”
The group’s demands included a call for individual town hall meetings for specific marginalized identities and communities, an independent evaluation of university retention and recruitment efforts aimed at marginalized groups, more input from marginalized students in the presidential search, a freshman year requirement to take a cultural awareness or social justice course, and a revision to the student code of conduct to hold students more accountable for hate crimes and hate speech.
They said these conditions must be met before they and other marginalized students they represent would be willing to sit down and talk with McGinity, ASUW or the United Multicultural Center.
And then they left, with about half the faculty, students and community members following them out of the lecture hall.
Despite so many leaving, Kath said the event, planned with the intention of listening to the concerns of marginalized students, was still worthwhile for those who stayed and shared their stories.
“I thought the opportunity to get together and have conversations that were necessary really made an impact,” Kath said after the forum. “I know the president made a lot of notes by the end of it, and I think the biggest thing that was stressed was accountability on the issues.”
McGinity and ASUW discussed plans for this kind of meeting for more than a month.
“President McGinity expressed to me that he wanted to start getting involved with students, wanted to talk with students and wanted to hear from them,” ASUW President Brian Schueler said at the outset of the meeting.
McGinity gave a short speech before forum organizers invited students to share their concerns. He talked about the history of diversity efforts at UW and his recently announced plans to create a Diversity Strategic Planning Committee and hire a coordinator of diversity.
“The more closely we work together, the better we will all be,” he said.
But some students said they did not appreciate the manner in which the meeting was planned and took offense that it was organized by members of the UW institution, such as the president, ASUW and ASUW’s United Multicultural Council, rather than by marginalized groups.
Robert West, another founding member of Break ThrUWYO, said this lack of involvement, in addition to frustration regarding the school’s recent handling of incidents involving discrimination, were why Break ThrUWYO co-founder Robert West said he and about half the room left close to the beginning of the meeting.
“If the administration and if this institution is truly taking this seriously and truly wants to engage all, they will truly engage all of us, not just the ones that stay at that meeting but the ones who left — and left for very valid reasons,” he said after the walk-out.