About 30 University of Wisconsin students and allies staged a silent protest after they were refused a chance to speak Friday at a meeting where the UW System Board of Regents adopted a resolution supporting free speech.
Holding signs with such slogans as “Racism is on our campus” and “Ignoring racism won’t make it go away” they sat silently Friday in a meeting room at the Gordon Event Center on the UW-Madison campus.
Later, UW-Madison police officers prevented the students from approaching the regents and handing them a slate of demands.
The students’ seats in the meeting room had been reserved for them, however, after they were denied an opportunity to address regents earlier this week.
Regent president Regina Millner and UW System president Ray Cross agreed to meet with students later in the day, said Nneka Akubeze, executive director of United Council of UW Students, Inc.
A UW spokesperson said later the meeting was canceled because of students’ insistence that media be allowed in. Students said the disagreement was over whether they could make an audio recording of the session.
A meeting would have been good, Akubeze said, but a chance to present the groups’ demands publicly to the board would have been better.
“It’s always pleasant to have a system-wide request honored, especially in light of what’s happening nationally where students of color are expressing the need for a space to express themselves,’ she said. “To be denied that is never great.”
A list of student demands provided by Akubeze includes:
- That Cross and Millner” politically address” the lack of diversity within the UW System, and reassess and recommit to the goals of a 2008 UW-Madison diversity plan.
- That the UW System create comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum and training through all 26 institutions, to be mandatory for all students, faculty, staff and administrators, including regents.
- Creation of a systemwide task force to evaluate the experiences of students of color on each campus, diversity curriculums, funding of diversity initiatives and allocation of student fees, as well as to create mandatory diversity training sessions.
- Increased funding for mental health services and outreach across system institutions.
As regents adopted a resolution to reaffirm a commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression, its sponsors said it was not connected to recent unrest on college campuses across the country over institutions’ handling of racist incidents and black students' demands that offensive speech end.
It is merely a restatement of the university’s long commitment to freedom of expression, Millner said. That is especially important since the academic freedom protections of tenure and shared governance were removed from state law as part of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-2017 budget bill, she added.
UW-Madison student Kenneth Cole was skeptical that the resolution's adoption was not connected to a march last month where 600 students rallied in solidarity with students at University of Missouri, who ousted two top administrators over their handling of racial incidents.
"They can frame it however they want," Cole remarked. "We knew they would shut us down. It is our duty to say what we think."
The regents’ statement on academic freedom and free expression was drafted over several months by several faculty members and regent Tim Higgins, political science professor emeritus Donald Downs, long a free speech activist on the UW-Madison campus, told reporters Thursday.
“In recent times, the commitment of other colleges and universities to academic freedom and freedom of expression has been publicly called into question,” Higgins said Thursday as the education committee voted to recommend approval of the resolution.
The resolution was an attempt to weigh in on an ongoing debate over how universities should regulate speech about controversial issues, Downs said.
Downs cited examples nationally where unreasonable restrictions on free speech, like rescinding invitations to controversial speakers and “overly aggressive” attempts to eliminate micro-aggressions, subtle slights toward marginalized people that make them feel unwelcome.
Akubeze said Friday that hate speech and micro-aggressions affect students’ academic experience.
“Maybe I can’t pay attention in class because someone calls me the N-word on my way to school. Micro-aggressions happen continually, so any effort to decrease those increase opportunity for students of color, women, queer folks to have space that is not oppressive to learn in,” she said.
“I don’t think limiting micro-aggressions is limiting free speech or limiting the opportunity to have an equitable education,” Akubeze said.
No micro-aggressions should become the standard on campus, she said.
At the close of the meeting, Millner spoke to the group, saying "thank you for sharing your concerns. Please be assured we welcome your input."
Millner added: "We can do a better job of serving all students and in particular listening to the voices of the underrepresented students at our campuses.”
Regents then spoke over students attempting to make statements from the audience, as the board members voted to go into closed session to consider other matters.