Student demands ignite campus debate
Outside the Office of Residential Life and Student Engagement and Leadership, a group of students waited for doors to be opened the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 5. A few minutes after 8 a.m., Office Coordinator Elise Bottensek opened the doors, muttering “good morning.” The group entered swiftly, and arranged themselves on the floor between the desks of Bottensek and Secretary of Student Engagement and Leadership Kim Larsen.
The students were members or allies of Students for an Inclusive Campus, which organized an occupation of the Office of Residential Life. This was the third and last day of an occupation of the office on the second floor of Pearsons to put pressure on administration to address a set of demands released on Monday, Oct. 3. On Wednesday, Oct. 5 the administration officially agreed to meet the demands.
The demands were drafted in response to a discussion about inclusivity and racism held the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 28 at an all-staff residential life meeting with all forty-seven Residential Assistants and three hall directors. Discussions about inclusivity had been instituted into the residential life program starting the previous school year.
Three RAs had volunteered to get extra training to lead these discussions. The week’s discussion “involved reflecting on a short portion of the presidential debate and aimed to identify bias by both candidates. The idea was to experience, and then later be able to model, civil discourse in areas where disagreement is likely,” as Dean of Students Christina Klawitter wrote in the all-campus email addressing the demands. “This conversation turned from a productive exploration to one that was hurtful to many minority RAs, particularly when some suggested RAs should adopt a neutral stance on questions involving race and privilege, for the latter claim dismissed the reality of their lived experiences,” the email continued.
Several students walked out of the meeting, and one, Angela Castrillo-Vilches’19, quit her job immediately. She has since been reinstated.
Director of Residential Life John Winkelmann, who is on the RA hiring committee, regretted what happened in the meeting. “I missed an opportunity to jump in and help out. Could have happened differently,” he said. “Lots of stuff was said and we can’t take it back once things are said.”
He was “not surprised” at the demands, as many students expressed concern following the meeting.
“I felt for the students that were sitting here. I appreciated their gumption to be here and make that happen,” he said.
The day after the incident on Sept. 28, SIC executive members drafted seven demands and planned the occupation. The demands address a variety of residential life issues including calling for anti-bias trainings, immediate bias incident responses, including the definition of inclusivity in syllabi, ensuring that student RAs and OLs are placed and represented appropriately by identity such as hiring more trans and gender non-binary RAs, requiring student groups using student fees to provide inclusivity events, and requiring future incoming students, faculty and staff to receive information about race and other marginalized identities.
“These demands are not ridiculous. These demands are fairly simple. We use the language of the college,” Devin Anderson’18, a Residential Assistant on SIC executive board, said. “This college says it’s an anti-racist institution. This college has drafted a definition of the word inclusivity. We’re using that to hold the college accountable.”
Anderson also addressed the notion, expressed by some around campus, that the demands and sit-in were unnecessary.
“What is wrong with a group of students trying to make this campus a better place?” he asked. “What is wrong with a group of students saying this campus has treated marginalized bodies poorly for too long? That’s what we’re doing. And if students can’t handle that, or they’re pissed off about it, we’re pissed about this happening every day. This is lived experience.”
Some students had mixed feelings about the occupation and the impetus for it being initiated. A student, who wishes to be anonymous, and who identifies as “a person of several marginalized identities”, saw it as an “unearned win.”
“None of the demands are going to change any of the systemic or institutional problems that are at the core of the problem,” the student said. “We barely inconvenienced anybody. It’s a good thing that better inclusivity policy was put in writing, but to me it just seemed like everyone was playing the role of radical, just to pat themselves on the back for being good activists.”
“My biggest issue was that everyone was outwardly mislead by SIC,” they added. “From the information that was given to me, I believed that when the issue arose at the RAs meeting the concerns of the RAs were ignored immediately. This is not what happened.
“I’ve spoken with RAs who supported the sit-in,” the student continued, “and they said that is a very inaccurate portrayal of what happened. There was discussion, and some people’s opinions were heard even if no consensus was come to. Good things came of this sit-in, but there is no denying that facts were twisted and portrayed in a way that was misleading.”
For those three days, from 8 a.m. until the office closed at 4:30 p.m., students trickled in when they could, sitting silently, reading or working on laptops surrounded by signs reading “you can’t be neutral when it comes to race.” Some slept. In the hallway, a poster covers the office signs with a quote from Dante Alighieri, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality,” and the hashtag #OccupyResLife.
Student and staff employees in the office continued to work, with Larsen and Bottensek occasionally asking students “Can I help you?” Some were referred to services, while others sat down. One day when two students tried to sit on the chairs, Bottensek immediately told them “The chairs are for people who have meetings in offices so you’ll have to find a spot [somewhere else].”
Meanwhile, members of SIC negotiated with the administration throughout the day, finally reaching an agreement at 2 p.m. on Wednesday that the demands would be met in full.
For Desireé Amboree’18, an RA who attended the meeting of the incident and helped plan the occupation, “negotiations were hell. So emotionally draining.
“It was some of the worst things I’ve had to sit through,” she continued. “It may sound like I’m being dramatic but we read about institutionalized racism all day long in class, but midterms week I was face to face with it. I had to sit across people that I had respected, that I had thought respected me, that I thought valued me and my peers, and come to the realization that that just wasn’t true. At least not how I had envisioned.”
While the protest made Amboree feel “exhilaration,” it also added stress.
“I was afraid to walk alone, I was afraid of what someone who did not agree with the protest would do to me,” she continued. “I was afraid we would have to continue protesting because it was midterms week, but I was ready for that possibility. I was afraid the demands would not get met. I was afraid I would lose the respect of faculty and staff who did not agree with the protest. I was terrified the whole time,” she said, adding “but I would 100 percent do it again if I had to.”
Several faculty and staff members, such as Senior Director of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness and anthropology professor Dr. Nicole Truesdell, religious studies professor Debra Majeed, history professor and department chair Beatrice MacKenzie, Inclusive Success Coordinator Paul Dionne and anthropology professor Jennifer Esperanza, expressed solidarity with the effort. Faculty and staff stopped by to give encouragement and snacks. Dean of Students Christina Klawitter sat down to chat with students occupying the hallway.
After the demands were released over StuBoard and Facebook, and before an official response was released from the administration to students, Provost Ann Davies sent an email to faculty and staff Monday. A professor, who wishes to remain anonymous leaked the email, which reads, “I spent some time this morning reviewing the demands from the Residential Assistants in solidarity with Students for an Inclusive Campus and had a good conversation with the group this afternoon. Their demands are thoughtful, realistic, and concrete, and they remind us of our students’ lived experiences on this residential campus that have an inevitable impact on their learning. I encourage you to learn more about the demands and to engage them, whether in your classes or with your advisees. The students with whom I spoke are eager for that kind of discussion, and I, at least, learned a lot from listening to them.”
Following a meeting at 12:30 p.m. between SIC and administration, Klawitter sent out a campus-wide email with an apology and specific responses outlining how each demand has been or will be met.
Truesdell sent a reply praising the students participating in the protest. President Scott Bierman sent an email at claiming Beloit has a “brighter future” as a result of these actions.
The Monday following fall break, President Bierman sent a follow-up email outlining a draft of the inclusive living and learning goals, drafted independently of the occupation.
Per the third and fourth demands, Truesdell, Dionne and Youngblood led the all-staff residential life anti-bias training meeting last Wednesday. This week, it will be led by Amboree, Castrillo- Vilches, Anderson and Charlotte Mayeda’18.
While the demands are set to be met, both students and administration admit there are significant roadblocks to progress.
“We need to be learning about each other. That’s a part of what we all do in Res Life. And we have places where it works better than others,” Winkelmann said. “Part of how that works is how we social norm around here, but the norm is around anti-racist inclusivity and students drive the norm in many ways on campus just on how you drive the norms on all sorts of things.”
“I think our inability to truly see one another is a major hindrance to change regarding inclusivity on campus,” Amboree said. “I also think that the institution just fundamentally has different goals and values. Does financial gain or students’ safety and inclusion take priority?”
“As a community, we all must continue to learn, even if that learning is imperfect; and none of us can stand silently by, even when speaking up is uncomfortable,” Klawitter wrote in her all-campus email.
Amboree encourages students to get involved with SIC. The club meets Thursdays at 8 p.m. on the third floor of Pearsons.
Members of the administration did not provide further comment at the time of publication.
Nicholas Keller contributed reporting.