More than 150 students packed into seats at the quarterly University of North Texas System Board of Regents meeting on Thursday afternoon in protest after students made clear demands to improve cultural competence at UNT.
The students, through the Student Government Association, NAACP and the Black Student Union, publicly announced the sit-in Thursday, urging students to wear black in solidarity during the meeting inside the student union. Many had green duct tape across their mouths and carried signs with messages like “#notmyUNT” and “Diversity without inclusion means NOTHING!”
The sit-in comes one week after Assistant General Counsel Caitlin Sewell, who is white, said a racial slur during an event on campus. She resigned last Friday. Yolian Ogbu, the president of SGA, worked to organize the sit-in and is leading efforts on campus to voice student concerns.
“Today is the day they’re discussing certain action items that directly affect students, and because of that I think it’s important for us to be all present to listen and be present,” she said. “I’m really glad the turnout was so great and that people were genuinely interested. There’s a lot of tension with everything that’s happened in the last week, and even the last few years, and so people want to see something change.”
In a letter posted online and signed by the Student Government Association, students demand the following: Required diversity training for all university employees, a mandatory cultural competency course for students, a strategic plan for increased diversity and inclusion, an increase in black and brown staff and faculty members next academic year, and additional financial resources for the multicultural center.
“A lot of this we’ve been asking for a while now,” Ogbu said. “We’ve had conversations about the multicultural center and cultural competence before, but I think what happened [last] Thursday really was the tip of the iceberg and it’s now the time to be talking about it. I never anticipated making a fuss like I did today, but I felt it was important.”
The students couldn’t address the board today because of the meeting structure, but Ogbu said she plans to address the board during full session Friday to discuss the demands. Earlier this week, she and other student leaders met with UNT President Neal Smatresk about their concerns, but because Sewell was a UNT System employee, students wanted to address the system officials as well.
Smatresk briefly remarked about the group in open session, looking out to students sitting and leaning against walls because all seating in the meeting room was full.
“First, I don’t think there’s ever been so many people to witness an audit hearing before,” he said. “It’s remarkable — but quite seriously, I admire the commitment and passion of the students that are here today who are seeking equity and an inclusive campus.”
Students stayed in the meeting for nearly an hour before filtering out to the hallway, where Smatresk had stepped away to speak to students one-on-one. More than a dozen students crowded around him, many taking video, and some asking him questions and describing their experiences being black on campus.
Samsudeen Iyamah, a senior who is actively interviewing to get into medical school, told Smatresk about when a teaching assistant was treating him unfairly. The normally straight-A student who has a 3.9 grade-point average says he experienced discriminatory treatment repeatedly during a class last fall, from being marked late when he arrived early to being marked down on presentations without explanation. He reported it up the chain of command, but nothing ever happened. He made a 78 in the lab.
He wanted to relay his story to Smatresk so he could know there are microaggressions from other staff members too — Iyamah said Sewell’s comment wasn’t an isolated incident, and he quoted Martin Luther King as inspiration for speaking out.
“‘Our lives begin to end when we stop talking about things that matter,’ so this was a prime example to put my own experience at the forefront and let it be known that there is injustice at UNT, there is oppression at UNT, there is racism at UNT and we need to stop making excuses and take action,” Iyamah said.
After about 20 minutes of talking to students, Smatresk left the group to attend executive session and promised to do a town hall with students to continue hearing concerns. He also issued an email about inclusivity Thursday afternoon, noting he’s asked all vice presidents to talk to employees about culture and climate.
Smatresk said continuing the conversation face-to-face with students is important.
“I think anytime there is a group this concerned and passionate about issues that they deserve to have someone from leadership listen to them and what they have to say,” he said. “Students want action — that was one of the major comments that was made to me. They want to see concrete change.”
“I felt like we were a really robust and good community and very inclusive community, and I think there’s a lot of places that aren’t — this is the best place I’ve ever been,” Smatresk continued. “While I feel like we do a good job, it’s clear that there’s still issues and challenges we face, and we need to figure out how to do better as a community.”