During fall term, a student demonstration sparked a debate that would challenge the student conduct code, the power of administrators, and institutionalized racism on campus. The issue even gained national media attention when the New York Times published an op-ed from President Michael Schill criticizing the protest.
After the University of Oregon Student Collective interrupted Schill’s “State of the University” address on Oct. 6 to protest several issues – including rising tuition and white supremacy on campus – they were faced with “confusing” student conduct charges and little support from the administration, according to student collective member Caroline Crisp.
Following the protest, the student collective worked with the University Senate to propose changes to the student conduct code. In response to demands from the collective, the Senate denounced white supremacy on campus and created a task force to educate the community on UO’s racist history.
The student collective, a group of student activists, was established on campus in fall 2016 to improve the student experience at the university through substantial systematic changes.
“We all noticed that a lot of our demands weren’t being met and things weren’t getting done. Tuition kept rising, the issue of white supremacy was still not being addressed,” said Crisp.
The student collective published a list of 22 demands following their demonstration that called on the administration to address tuition prices, make the university more eco-friendly and embrace the diversity of students on campus.
Following the protest, 13 members of the collective were charged with student conduct violations — “disruption of the university” and “failure to comply.”
Students were able to appeal their charges or accept them by pleading guilty. If a student plead guilty, the charges would not show up on their university record. If they appealed and lost, the charges would show up on their record permanently.
Some students choose to plead guilty, while others, like Crisp, chose to fight their charges.
However, members of the collective had grievances with the student conduct code and the disciplinary review process they underwent following the protests. The collective challenged these processes through a resolution to the senate.
Since the protest, the collective has passed two resolutions through the senate. One established solidarity between the senate and the collective as the students navigated their conduct charges and the second denounced white supremacy on campus.
The collective presented a resolution to the university senate on Nov. 15 that called the senate to support the collective and urge administration to drop the conduct charges. Additionally, the resolution asked the senate to denounce white supremacy on campus.
On Nov. 28, President Schill and Provost Banavar sent a letter to the senate urging them not to support the student collective’s resolutions.
The letter states, “The proposed resolution makes some sweeping generalizations about the university’s priorities that are not consistent with our actions.”
Schill claimed that the collective was aware of the consequences they would receive before the protest. The letter also states that the university cannot legally deny any white supremacist groups from coming to the university under free speech laws.
On Nov. 29 the resolution was split in two. The first resolution addressed the student conduct charges and established the Senate’s support of the collective as they navigated their charges. The second focused on denouncing white supremacy on campus.
Despite Schill’s letter, on Nov. 29, the Senate passed the first resolution supporting the collective.
On Dec. 1, President Schill wrote a letter to the senate standing by his previous statement denouncing the collective’s resolution.
“Even though there was no formal policy change from that resolution, I think the administration maybe learned a lesson on how to go about these sorts of conversations,” Senate President Chris Sinclair said.
He said it was significant that the senate supported the collective despite opposing views from administration.
The second resolution, which denounced white supremacy on campus, was discussed at the University Senate meetings in early January. The senate debated the legality of denying white supremacist groups on campus under the first amendment right of freedom of speech.
The senate executive board, with the help of students and faculty, reviewed and rewrote parts of the resolution to be more compatible with freedom of speech laws.
The senate passed the collective’s second resolution to denounce white supremacy on Jan. 31. This resolution created a task force within the senate to combat racism on campus. The task force will be comprised of President Michael Schill, senate president Chris Sinclair, and student leaders. The task force will recruit its first members later in the term when the other senate committees are slated.
This group is set to educate the student body about possible plaques to add to the monuments and statues around campus that have been considered racist in recent months.
Institutionalized racism on campus
Institutionalized racism is a form of racism that can exist in institutions such as universities due to systematic tendencies that alienate or disadvantage minorities. For example, the university raising its tuition creates a financial barrier for students of color who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
One of the main factors in the collective’s protests was the feeling that the university is not a safe place for minorities on campus.
“People are literally fighting for their lives,” Crisp said.
UO has white supremacy embedded in its history, represented through buildings memorializing members of the KKK and a mural in the library that represents white superiority.
Last April, a white nationalist group came to campus near the EMU. The collective wanted to recognize that these groups pose a threat to students and ensure the university does not welcome them to campus.
The collective referenced this event in their proposed resolutions to the senate. Additionally, members of the collective said the investigation to identify the members at the protest targeted minorities on campus.
The student collective is not the only student group to call out the administration on institutionalized racism.
The Black Student Task Force, made up of the UO Black Women of Achievement and the Black Student Union on campus, protested institutional racism on campus in the fall of 2015. The group emphasized systemic issues with UO and presented a list of demands to address these issues.
One year after the protest in 2016, the BSTF held a second rally on Nov. 11 to acknowledge the fact that less than half of their 12 demands had been fulfilled. They continued to fight for more changes after their protest.
Most recently, the university is working to change the multicultural requirement to educate students about the racial history of the United States.
Issues with the conduct code
Members of the collective also expressed their disappointment with the student conduct process at the senate meeting, and included their criticisms in its resolution. They said that the administration’s investigation targeted minorities and the student conduct disciplinary process was confusing.
Administration could not provide a comment on a specific disciplinary case out of privacy of the students.
Crisp said she feels the student conduct process at the UO treated students as though they were guilty until proven innocent rather than innocent until proven guilty.
When a student receives student conduct charges they are notified of the charges and have seven days to respond before administration will proceed with the process. Students then attend an administrative conference to discuss the incident in question. Following the conference the student will receive a written decision finding them “responsible” or “not responsible.”
The administration used Facebook to identify the students at the protest to file the charges against them. This process led to false charges against Lola Loustaunau who did not attend the protest. She was charged after she marked that she was going to the protest though the Facebook event page.
In many cases, the students who were charged with conduct violations had to seek their own legal counsel, according to Crisp. The students were told by the student conduct office to talk to the Office for Student Advocacy. However, according to Crisp, they cannot take multiple cases at once with the same charges, leaving many students to seek their own legal counsel or plead guilty to their charges.
“I let the system tire me out,” Crisp said.
Following their experience navigating the process, the collective proposed changes to the student conduct code that have been discussed in the Student Conduct Committee.
These include the addition of student peers in the judgement process in cases involving free speech. The peers could be present during the administrative conference to advocate for the student being charged during the disciplinary process.
Sandy Weintraub, director of student conduct and community standards, said the committee is slated to propose changes to the Board of Trustees in June. The possible changes to the conduct code would be presented there and must be approved by the Board of Trustees before final changes are made.
“The idea behind the student conduct code is to create a set of community standards that allows everyone at the university to have a positive experience in their education that is free from being harmed by others,” Weintraub said.
According to Weintraub, it is too soon to say if any changes the collective proposed will be presented to the Board of Trustees.