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Press Clipping: After Protests Over Race, Kansas Experiments With a Multicultural Student Government

After Protests Over Race, Kansas Experiments With a Multicultural Student Government

By Rio Fernandes
April 14, 2016

Last fall Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk, a student-protest group at the University of Kansas, released a list of 15 demands that it said would improve the campus racial climate. Item No. 14 put the university in uncharted territory: It called for the creation of a "multicultural student government," an entirely new body that would function independent of the Student Senate.

That demand took a giant step toward becoming a reality last month, when the Senate voted to create and fund what some student-affairs experts say will be the first independent, minority-based student government in the country.

The Senate approved a $2-per-student increase in annual fees to give the multicultural government a budget of roughly $90,000. The Senate also awarded control of its $90,000 Multicultural Education Fund to the new body and gave it 12 seats on the Senate's campus-fee committee.

The new government's goal is to give a seat at the table to students who have long felt they've been denied one. Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk's frustration with the traditional student government was highlighted during the fall protests, when its members demanded the resignation of three student-government leaders. Two of those leaders — the president, Jessie Pringle, and the vice president, Zach George — were criticized as insufficiently supportive of protesters' demands. None of the three officers stepped down.

In a season of activism over colleges' racial climate, multicultural student governments could offer a path to easing tensions. But can an idea whose critics claim it only enhances a racial divide really be an effective solution?

For Jameelah Jones, a member of Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk who is leading the creation of the multicultural student government, the answer is an emphatic yes.

"Student government should be a place where we can reimagine what change looks like," she said. "If in that space, there can't be room for reimagining what social justice and inclusivity look like, then we really have to think about what it is we are teaching our students about diversity and inclusion."

As of now, the multicultural student government has only a few concrete plans, she said. It falls to Ms. Jones and Katherine Rainey, another member of Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk, to determine how to turn a body that is as yet largely theoretical into one that can bring tangible change to the campus.

‘Their Own Thing'

The multicultural student government's $180,000 budget is eclipsed by the Student Senate's allocation of roughly $880,000. However, the Senate voted to expand its campus-fee committee to 24 seats and to designate half of those positions for the multicultural student government, giving the new body significant influence over the allocation of student money.

It remains unclear, though, how the group will lobby university leaders, whether it will have a physical location, and what its specific rules and regulations will be. Also undetermined: who will head the organization. The first elections probably will not take place until next fall at the earliest.

The government has one more hurdle to clear before it becomes official. Bernadette Gray-Little, chancellor of the university system, could still decide not to approve the government's formation, the student fee increase, or the allocation of budget control over the multicultural fund. The chancellor's office is aware of the plan but is awaiting a formal proposal from the Student Senate before making a decision, a university official said.

In the meantime, Ms. Jones and Ms. Rainey said they would use a portion of their budget to create paid executive positions to encourage qualified students to run. They also plan to develop programming, which would be part of standard freshman orientation, to help prepare underrepresented students for the challenges of college.

The orientation plan, Ms. Jones acknowledged, is susceptible to the same criticism that has dogged the multicultural student government in general — that it could discriminate against white students.

"That is a common misconception about the student government, that white students aren't allowed," Ms. Jones said. "Our goal is to make sure underrepresented identities are brought to the table. We are talking about veterans, we are talking students with children, nontraditional students, we are talking about students whose needs are not fully represented under the current Student Senate structure."

Ms. Jones said it's not uncommon for the majority to become upset when the minority tries to shake up the status quo by demanding greater representation.

"There is a reason why they want their own thing," said Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, of the students who pushed for a multicultural government. "For generations, they have not felt included in the main things. They just reached a breaking point where they are tired of waiting to feel included in a place that routinely fails to include them."

In Search of Authority

While Mr. Harper is optimistic that the new government will help marginalized students feel involved, he does have concerns. Allowing minority students to work exclusively with one another could hamper students' ability to work cooperatively with different groups, he said. Mr. Harper worries that Kansas could graduate leaders who get used to making decisions that affect diverse, multicultural groups without ever spending time learning about those groups.

That concern is valid, said Ms. Jones, but it misses the point of the multicultural student government.

"The central focus of underrepresented students being on campus is not just so that other students can have a learning experience," she said. "We want to make sure that underrepresented students are being centered because they are valuable, not just because they are useful to the majority group."

The multicultural student government should be able to provide students who feel excluded an opportunity to be involved, said Butch Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association. But the body will confront the same problem most student governments face in creating change.

Mr. Oxendine cited the low voter turnout for the university's Student Senate elections, around 20 percent, as reason to doubt that the Senate really represents what the campus wants. When even the traditional student government has struggled to fight apathy, he said, it's fair to wonder if the multicultural student government will have the sway it hopes for.

"I don't see any assurance in what I read that they are going to have more authority or influence or a better pulpit to get things done," said Mr. Oxendine.

Still, for Ms. Jones, the multicultural student government is a step in the right direction. At a campus where students had been demanding action, she said, the government offers a potential "reimagining of what change, diversity, and advocacy can look like."