A sign reads "Western Oregon University, Founded 1856."

Western Oregon University

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Students of color at Western Oregon University are pushing for a space of their own and looking to use money that was previously earmarked to support students. But they say they have run into roadblocks trying to get their proposal for a center and other services reviewed by leaders at the university in Monmouth.

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People in and outside of the campus community say students of color should not face such problems, especially at a university where students of color make up more than 30% of enrollment.

At the heart of the proposal is the Freedom Center — a space that would be housed on a mostly vacant floor in an existing campus building. It would include areas to study, offer access to technology and resources as well as provide designated office space for multicultural organizations to meet.

“It’s a place for BIPOC students by BIPOC students that allows them to have safe spaces, accessibility [and] resources,” Makana Waikiki said.

Waikiki chairs the student government’s Incidental Fee Committee and is the proposal’s lead advocate.

Waikiki and her classmates are also requesting funding for new gear for student-athletes and the creation of a Director of Equity and Inclusion position. The students see a need to influence administrative policy at the university, as well, and are asking to include students, faculty and staff of color in hiring processes.

Students, supporters frustrated by process barriers

Waikiki had planned to present the proposal to the board on April 21, but she was told that she had submitted her request too late and that the meeting agenda was already full.

“I was unaware that was something that could happen,” Waikiki said.

Waikiki has been working with the student government for nearly two years and said she has done a lot of work with the administration and board in her role. She said her understanding was that any presentations to the board needed to be submitted eight days prior to a meeting, which she had done.

The university said the meeting docket went to the trustees a week ahead of time, but setting the agenda took far longer.

“Part of the vetting process includes determining if the board meeting is the appropriate venue for something, or if there are other campus groups or processes that must be involved, such as for budget proposals,” WOU said.

Now, Waikiki will be giving the presentation by borrowing time from the student government and the faculty and staff senates.

But, those time slots are designated for reports and are not a space for the board to take any action.

The university said there is another avenue: Waikiki could share the proposal with a task force that university executives are forming related to spending to improve campus climate, diversity and inclusion. So, Waikiki can also present her proposal through that process.

But supporters on campus, and even elected leaders, feel administrators are cutting off students of color from interacting with board leadership.

Oregon Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, is a WOU alum and is a former instructor at the university. He said he suspects that this situation is the result of “a bad case of internal staffing and miscommunication.”

“I believe the WOU Board of Trustees agenda is most likely ‘full,’” Evans said. “However, good staff finds a way. Good staff ensures the board members are not ‘captured’ by administrative priorities. Good staff ensure the board has open, transparent and trusting relationships with faculty, staff and students.”

Evans suggested, “perhaps even a special meeting, for the purpose of strengthening the relationship with the WOU campus BIPOC community.”

Waikiki presented the proposal to WOU’s Faculty Senate last week where Faculty Senate President Leigh Graziano said it got a positive response.

“I am disheartened to hear that this exceptional presentation isn’t being heard by the board,” Graziano said in an email addressed to WOU leadership.

“It is a problem when we ask students of color to jump through more hoops to try to get their ideas heard and valued,” Graziano wrote. “When we make decisions to not create space for voices of color, we only underscore our lack of genuine commitment as a university to antiracist practices that actually make our campus culture more inclusive. No agenda is too busy to make time for this.”

Waikiki has also created a petition in support of the proposal. More than 200 people had signed it by late Saturday afternoon.

Students say these requests are a long time coming

A group of students has been putting together the proposal for months, setting priorities and tabulating costs.

“It’s very devastating as a student, as a student of color, to see that we have to fight for these things,” said Arlette Tapia, Director of Multicultural Advocacy with the student government and another student who worked on the proposal.

In their proposal, the students are asking for about $360,000 for the Freedom Center — the primary financial request. Along with the study spaces and resources, student government offices would also occupy a portion of the center.

“That’s another thing we want to start closing the gap on — BIPOC students interacting with student government,” Waikiki said. “There’s a lack there.”

A proposed layout of the Freedom Center, a space for students of color at WOU.

A proposed layout of the Freedom Center, a space for students of color at WOU.

Ruben Ramirez

The center would be housed on a floor of WOU’s Academics Program and Support Center building. Waikiki noted the building has vacant space, since offices, such as the university’s admissions, moved to the university’s new Welcome Center.

“As a Latinx student who has been here for four years — a lot of the support I’ve received is through the incidental fee clubs that students pay into and students run,” ASWOU Senate President Liz Marquez said.

Marquez said the student union building is rarely a place where students come together and study, and it’s hard for student clubs to rent spaces in there for meetings.

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“That’s why this center is really important; we’re trying to put together all of those resources like academic advising, counseling, providing support for the multicultural clubs … all in that area,” she said.

The proposal would also distribute $122,000 to student sports, specifically for student athletes’ uniforms and gear. Waikiki said some student-athletes have told her that they have to share uniforms and shoes with teammates, and “that needs to be addressed.”

Another chunk of the $1 million would restore previous cuts to student government of roughly $200,000 and about $130,000 would go to a reserve fund.

Finally, the proposal includes about $183,000 to fund a Director of Equity and Inclusion position at the university for two years, ideally hired with input from a committee of students, faculty and staff of color.

Like the Freedom Center, Waikiki and the other students say that position is something that the campus community has been pushing for years.

“It would be a focal point for people to be able to know, ‘Ok, this is where I go if I need help on something regarding my race, systemic racism, something I experienced in class,’” Waikiki said. “Also for teachers and staff to be like, ‘I want to know how this affects certain communities. Is this culturally appropriate?’”

The students said this position and the Freedom Center are crucial as WOU works toward the goal of becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution — an institution with more than 25% Hispanic and/or Latinx students enrolled.

“I don’t think you can call yourself a Hispanic Serving Institution without that center, or more support,” Marquez said.

As of last November, Hispanic or Latino students made up 19.6% of the total student population at WOU.

More broadly, Marquez said, the elements in the proposal will help all students of color feel more welcome and more included at Western.

Marquez said following the shootings last month in Atlanta, members of the student government worked to send out resources to support students in the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, but she said, they were disheartened to realize that there were few resources available on-campus.

‘Here’s an opportunity to use the money you were going to give us anyway’

The bitter irony for some backers of the Freedom Center proposal, is that the money student government leaders are asking for is money they argue the university was prepared to give them anyway.

The funding at issue was identified last year by the university to potentially help student government, Waikiki said.

Before the pandemic, all students taking in-person courses at WOU paid an “incidental fee.” That term-by-term fee was then allocated to various student organizations and programs by WOU’s student government.

The pandemic upended that process.

With a switch to about 95% of classes being taught online last fall, the majority of students did not pay that fee for fall term, and various clubs and programs funded by that fee were set to shutter.

ASWOU’s Incidental Fee Committee, chaired by Waikiki, pushed for all students to pay the incidental fee regardless of course modality. But instead of the fee, the university gave a $1 million subsidy to the student government to cover the cost of those programs last fall. It also set aside another $1 million for potential ongoing support in the winter and spring terms in lieu of the student incidental fee.

But the student government reinstated the incidental fee to all students, online and in-person, for the winter and spring, leading the university to withdraw the offer of an additional $1 million.

Waikiki argues that even though they didn’t use the money at the time, it was initially set aside for the student government and the students of color needs proposal would be the perfect place for it to go.

“What we’re doing is saying, ‘Hey, here’s this opportunity to use the money you were going to give us anyway to make all of these amazing changes on campus that [will] make this place more inclusive,’” Waikiki said.

If the proposal is approved, planning for the Freedom Center, the Director of Equity and Inclusion and the new uniforms for student-athletes could begin as soon as this summer.

On top of the funding, the students are asking the board to consider key “re-evaluation” needs: make sure hiring committees include at least one student, faculty and staff member of color; allow more student input on the university’s reopening plan for the upcoming fall; and hold forums about topics like campus public safety, systemic racism and the COVID-19 response.

Working through next steps

University leaders say that rather than present to the board, they created a new task force, led by President Fuller, to vet proposals like the one students of color have put together. But student leaders have had conflicts over fees with Fuller, dating back to last year. And with Fuller retiring in a few months, students want to work directly with the board of trustees.

WOU said that Fuller’s cabinet began forming the task force after looking over the students’ proposal Thursday. The task force will be focused on developing guidelines for budget proposals that are related specifically to issues regarding campus climate, diversity, equity and inclusion, according to the university.

“The task force will vet the proposals and send qualified proposals to the University Budget Advisory Committee for final review, as we work to finalize the budget for FY 2021-22,” WOU said.

The university said the budget won’t be finalized until June, allowing time for Waikiki to still submit the proposal for next year through that new process.

“It seems like our administration is creating more and more loopholes everyday,” Waikiki said. “They had enough time to review my entire presentation, to work with their cabinet to create a task force … but they don’t have enough time to allow me 10 minutes to speak at their board meeting?”

Even if Waikiki did get an allotted time to speak at Wednesday’s board meeting, the university said, it would be unusual for the board to take action on any such proposal.

The university said the specific action items that the board chooses to vote on are typically suggested through board committees, and they usually follow consideration from the president’s cabinet or other formal campus groups.

But student leaders want to avoid the filter of the university administration. Waikiki says ultimately, the board has the authority to approve the students’ requests. And she has included action items the board could choose to vote on.

“Our action items are specifically designed for the board to allocate and dedicate specific funds to student need,” Waikiki said. “Essentially, what we’re saying is that we would like the board to agree to allocate this money, recommend the allocation and have President Fuller actually allocate it.”

Waikiki said the trustees are often hearing from President Fuller and the board chair, but it’s crucial that students are allowed to share their proposals as well.

“I feel like they do care and they really do want to hear what we want to say,” Waikiki said of the board. “But, no one is allowing us in the room, so we’ll break down the door if we have to.”

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