MADISON, Wis. – University of Wisconsin graduate student Michael Davis says he feels isolated, excluded and afraid as a black student on the predominantly white campus, where he's been called a racial slur multiple times.
"It hasn't been a positive experience at all," Davis said.
Davis is among an increasing number of students at the flagship Madison campus demanding the administration make changes for inclusivity's sake. They also join college students around the U.S. who've expressed growing frustration with discrimination and racism on predominantly white campuses, especially in the wake of protests at the University of Missouri in November and the growing Black Lives Matter movement.
In response, UW administrators have agreed to cultural competency training, have added student support hours and are asking students how to improve the climate, but activists say the response is inadequate and intend to get some outside help.
"That's going to be our focal point, is organizing people in the city of Madison to help bring outside pressure to hold the university accountable," said Davis, who's pushing for community control of university police.
Universities nationwide have conceded to various demands from protesters, including resignations of administrators at the University of Missouri. But it's still unclear how many of the requested changes will be carried out. At the University of Kansas, plans for a multicultural student government are in doubt after the chancellor recently vetoed a proposed student fee meant for it.
There is usually no accountability for delivery on the promises administrators make, said Shaun Harper, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I've seen college presidents and other senior leaders skillfully sort of get students to calm down," Harper said. "Students are starting to see that some of the assurances made to them are not real."
At the University of Wisconsin, a series of racially charged incidents fueled the students' pressure for change: photos of swastikas posted on a dorm room door, stereotypical war cry sounds shouted at a Ho-Chunk tribal elder and graffiti using other Nazi symbols.
For many students of color, though, it's the smaller instances. Betty Nen, a freshman whose father is from Papua New Guinea, said a guy started touching her hair at a party to see what it would feel like. Nima Cheraghi, also a freshman, said a girl called him Aladdin because of his Iranian descent.
"I believe that many, especially white, students just don't understand the privileges they're given," said Cheraghi, a spokesman for Associated Students of Madison, the student government.
About 76 percent of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's undergraduate population is white, making it the second-whitest campus among the 14 universities in the Big 10 conference. It also has the smallest percentage of black undergraduate students, at just over 2 percent.
Sergio Gonzalez, co-president of the Teaching Assistants' Association and a doctoral student in history, said people are realizing they don't have to put up with discrimination just because they're in the minority.
"I think that what's happened is students have just gotten fed up," said Gonzalez, whose parents are from Mexico.
UW students have interrupted Board of Regents meetings with lists of demands and have aired grievances and stories of discrimination on social media using #TheRealUW hashtag.
Hundreds also protested the in-class arrest of a 21-year-old senior for anti-racist graffiti, such as "White supremacy iz a disease," painted around campus.
UW administrators say they are trying to be responsive to student needs and demands, and a university committee consisting of students and staff is evaluating more than 100 proposals from the community to improve the campus climate.
"My hope is that we are a campus that is really trying to do it differently," said Lori Berquam, vice provost for student life. "We're not perfect, but we're trying to do it in a way that manifests the ideas of our students."
The conversation includes a broader range of people than it has in the past, Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Patrick Sims said. He said "majority" students — in other words, white students — are just now finding out about issues he's been hearing about for twelve years.
"The burden cannot be on black and brown students and faculty," Berquam said.
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