Willamette administrators held a town hall on Wednesday, April 24 to offer the community a response to STEAM’s demands, a list of nine grievances concerning what some believe to be institutional injustices within the University.
In February, a group known as Students for Transparency, Equity and Accountability through Mobilization, or the STEAM Collective, held a town hall in which they announced their grievances and a list of actions for administrators to take before the end of the academic year. The purpose of Wednesday’s town hall was for the University to share the progress that has been made to meet these demands; however, STEAM remains dissatisfied with this response.
STEAM requested that, by the end of the semester, the University release a document outlining progress that has been made to address the demands and to outline actions the University plans to take in the future.
Last Tuesday, Executive Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs Tori Ruiz, sent an email to the Willamette community on behalf of Dean of Students, Domanic Thomas. This email announced that the town hall would be held on Wednesday, and included a link to a STEAM update page on Willamette’s website.
This update page explains each demand and describes the policies and protections that had been in place prior to STEAM’s town hall. In the last two months, administrators have met frequently with STEAM and various University committees to discuss the demands. The update page describes the progress that has been made in these meetings, as well as plans for future progress and ways in which the student body can get involved.
Wednesday’s forum was led by Thomas, Vice President for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion , Jade Aguilar and College of Liberal Arts Dean, Ruth Feingold. Administrators Don Thomson, Karen Wood and Sarah Kirk were also present. Kirk stood in for Lisa Holliday, Associate Dean of Students.
With the aid of a PowerPoint slideshow, the administrators summarized the information on the STEAM update page. They discussed the demands one at a time.
For example, STEAM’s first demand called for “an official institutional Land Acknowledgement to recognize the Kalapuya land that the University occupies” and for the reinstitution of “the full-time Director of Native American Programs.” At Wednesday’s town hall, Aguilar announced that a Land Acknowledgement should be ready in time for next month’s Commencement ceremony, and would continue to be used at future University events.
For each demand, administrators emphasized that all students are encouraged to get involved with the committees and task forces that are addressing these institutional problems. A list of these committees, as well as the University’s full response to STEAM, can be found at willamette.edu/go/steamupdate.
After administrators spoke, Ericka Bryan (‘21), a member of STEAM, stood to read a brief Land Acknowledgement and a statement from the Collective.
“We want to clarify that this was not a collaborative event between admin and STEAM. This was their own response,” Bryan said.
“We are not emotionally or intellectually satisfied with this response,” she continued, before announcing that STEAM would release its own statement of response in the days to follow.
Students in the audience then had the opportunity to ask questions and make statements of their own. Several minutes were spent discussing the accessibility of committees. Students noted that, in the past, committee meetings have been scheduled at times that are convenient for administrators and faculty members, which are often when students are in class or have other conflicts, such as club meetings or sports practices. Many students claimed that this inaccessibility has resulted in the low rates of student involvement in these committees.
Amarit Ubhi (‘20) is the incoming ASWU president for the 2019-2020 academic year. It is the responsibility of the president to appoint students to serve on these kinds of committees. During the town hall, Ubhi addressed students’ concerns about accessibility.
“If you’re interested in any of the various committees, I’m trying to get a comprehensive list out to students about the various committees we have, what they do, how often they meet,” Ubhi said. “One thing I’m trying to work on is making sure we have better processes for getting students involved and setting meeting times.”
Other students in the audience raised concerns about the tone some administrators have used when addressing or discussing STEAM.
Michelle Hicks (‘19), a member of STEAM, described the administration’s response webpage as “passive-aggressive.” “It didn’t take responsibility for a lot of things that happened. It was two months of labor that didn’t get manifested correctly.”
Adrian Uphoff (‘19) made a similar point. “I’ve been frustrated watching this process go down and reading and hearing almost every response to a student grievance be invalidating,” Uphoff said, as students in the audience snapped their fingers in support. “The response has been, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, we care about students, we’ve done this before.’ Mind you, we know that this has been done before. It happens because students take action. That’s when things get done.”
On Monday, April 29, STEAM posted a link to its response statement on Facebook. This statement reiterated many of the sentiments expressed at Wednesday’s town hall.
“The so called ‘comprehensive document,’” reads the statement, referencing WU’s STEAM update page, “was not comprehensive and fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented many aspects of our demands.”
For example, STEAM’s first demand included that a new full-time Director of Native American Programs be hired, and for the University to release a timeline describing when that position would be reinstituted. “However, this cannot be found anywhere within their ‘comprehensive’ document,” says STEAM’s statement.
The statement also addresses Dean Feingold’s guest piece in Issue 24 of The Collegian, in which Feingold disputed several claims made in an opinions article from the week before. The opinions article, written by Collegian contributor Jonathan Louangrath (‘19) addressed the downsizing of the American Ethnic Studies Department. STEAM’s statement says, “In the meeting between Admin and STEAM, Dean Feingold apologized to STEAM for how their article ‘was received.’ We do not think we should be the only recipients of this apology.”
STEAM’s statement concludes with a description of the “emotional abuse” members of the Collective have faced since February’s town hall.
“Students are consistently gaslit at almost every meeting into questioning their lived experiences and histories,” says the statement. STEAM claims that the University’s response misrepresented what STEAM believed were “shared understandings” regarding the demands, despite these “shared understandings” being “conveyed through students crying in meetings, having to explain and re-explain [their] life traumas and experiences, and compile thorough packets of what has happened to [them].”
STEAM’s full statement can be accessed on the Collective’s Facebook page, @STEAMCollective. STEAM can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vice President Jade Aguilar addresses the audience during last Wednesday’s town hall.
Daniel Garcia King