University President Michael Roth attended a portion of the Sunday, Nov. 22 Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) meeting to discuss student questions and concerns. All students were invited to attend the meeting to voice their concerns with Roth directly from 6:00 to 7:15 p.m. Many students came to the meeting seeking to clarify Roth’s response to the demands issued by the Is This Why movement.
The meeting itself, which began at 5:30 p.m., opened with an expedited vote on an untitled resolution that serves as the WSA’s statement of support to the Is This Why movement.
“[This resolution is] basically just affirming that we stand with the Is This Why movement…saying that we are actively ready and prepared to do what we can to see these demands come into play,” WSA President Kate Cullen ’16 said.
As the Resolution was introduced at this meeting and required quick consideration, a two-thirds vote was required in order to waive the one-week wait period between the introduction and official vote on legislation. With the two-thirds majority easily obtained, the Senate proceeded to approve the resolution with a vote of 18-0, with five members abstaining.
Upon Roth’s arrival, WSA members and student attendees joined in the fight song before jumping into the question-and-answer session. A majority of students’ questions focused on a few key issues, including the Is This Why campaign’s demand for the establishment of a multicultural center and the hiring of an equity advocate.
Hailey Broughton-Jones ’18 asked the first official question of the evening, inquiring about the details of a plan to establish the position of equity advocate. Though Roth touched on the topic in his campus-wide email, Broughton-Jones pressed for further details on a specific timeline to implement the position.
“Without a date we can’t hold the administration accountable,” she said.
In reply, Roth stated that he would need to better understand the role that the position of equity advocate would occupy on campus, particularly in relation to the already-established Office of Equity and Inclusion.
“I think those conversations are happening, and we should be able to present the plan, or the reason for making the decision, very early next semester,” Roth said.
Later in the discussion, students called attention to the fact that, currently, some staff and faculty members who identify as constituents of marginalized communities often fill the role of supporting students, overextending themselves beyond their already-demanding roles. Roth acknowledged this and noted that this is considered in the hiring process.
“One of the real pressures on the faculty and staff who are from underrepresented populations is that they play such a vital role for so many students that they get burned out,” Roth said.
Students called particular attention to the Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development (SALD) and New Student Orientation (NSO) Elisa Cardona and Assistant Director of SALD and NSO Bulaong Ramiz, who often step outside of their institutional roles to provide support and diversity training workshops.
“To have someone who’s very specifically given this task [is important],” said Evelysse Vargas ’17, WSA Student Budget Committee Chair.
WSA Senator and member of the Academic Affairs Committee Claudia Kahindi ’18 brought up an issue she found with the multicultural center: that there is not enough multiculturalism on campus to sustain one. As an international student from Kenya, she finds that the student body is not representative of the African continent or the world-at-large. As such, she feels that this should be considered during the planning stages for the multicultural center.
Roth addressed this by stating that it is the University’s intention to begin an endowed program for African students that is similar to the Freeman Asian Scholars Program.
“We’ve been trying to create the equivalent of the Freeman program for [African students], but we haven’t found the Freeman, so to speak,” Roth said.
The discussion also covered the University’s response to survivors of sexual assault. Vargas pointed out that some students feel silenced when coming forward as survivors.
“I’m just wondering if there’s anything in mind to ensure that [all] administrators are being trained,” Vargas said. “The hardest thing with sexual violence is finding the voice to realize what happened to you and to be able to speak on it…I see that some administrators are trying to discourage [survivors] or find other ways to voice their opinions.”
Roth acknowledged that if this dismissal by administrators is occurring, that it is wrong and he will follow up on it.
“There are these three pieces that work on sexual violence, [the first] is the most important, and that is to support the survivors,” Roth said.
The other two considerations are the fair and prompt adjudication of those accused of sexual assault—for which Roth stated that multiple students have been expelled in recent years—and prevention.
Cullen noted, as a Title IX process advisor, she has experienced unprofessional treatment from administrators. She has seen changes be made formulaically, as if administrators were just checking off boxes, as opposed to carrying the standards out in good faith.
Roth replied by taking a hard stance against unprofessionalism in the handling of Title IX and sexual assault cases.
“I can certainly meet with [the Title IX Task Force] and get a more granular understanding of what these issues are,” Roth said. “It’s a horrible process. I mean, it’s a personal, biological, social, political horror show. We try to mitigate the awful repercussions for the person who had been attacked, and when the person is found responsible, to give them the most stern, in my view, punishment that we can give.”
Attendees also questioned the University’s endowment and financial aid policies. Following the recession, Roth stated that more faculty positions have been added, though some administrative positions have been cut. He noted that endowing positions and programs frees up more money for financial aid, and as such it is one of the major goals of the University.
“Most endowments are budget-relieving,” Roth said. “The money that the department was spending to pay a certain position can now be spent on something else. You just don’t need as much tuition dollars to pay for the things you’re doing.”
He also noted how the University’s standards for need might not necessarily correlate to the actual need of a given family.
“We need to focus more on enhancing the financial aid package on the students that are here now, rather than creating new scholarships for more students,” Roth said.
One student asserted that as a low-income student, her work-study hours occupy far more time in her schedule than her coursework does.
Roth considers the number of work-study hours required of some students to be burdensome, as can be the additional requirement of a family contribution.
“There’s also a family contribution that sometimes a student has to earn his or herself,” he said. “I think one of the important interventions is to remove financial burdens in the financial aid package.”
Other topics addressed at the meeting included the campus minimum wage, transparency with the administration, the demographic makeup of the administration, and the new system of course evaluations demanded as part of the Is This Why movement.
At the next WSA Senate meeting, members will vote on Resolution X.37, which would create a WSA judiciary board.