OGDEN — Dressed in all black, Black students at Weber State University held a sometimes tearful, other times heated public meeting Thursday in which they shared stories of discrimination and demanded change from school administrators in attendance.
Organized by Black student leaders from throughout campus, the forum was part of a movement called "Black at Weber," which is meant to counteract racial injustices Black students experience at the university, the Ogden Standard-Examiner reported.
"I speak for the students when I say that we don't trust the administration's words of wisdom because we feel as though personal harms have threatened our well-being intellectually, emotionally and physically," said Jordan Stephens, one of the six Black students who sat on a panel at the event.
School officials in the audience included President Brad Mortensen, Vice President of Academic Affairs Ravi Krovi, Chief Diversity Officer Adrienne Andrews and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Enrique Romo. Others watched over Zoom, and Student Association President Ben Ferney also sat in on the discussion.
The conversation comes as the university holds gatherings to help students process the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. Stephens said it is encouraging that these meetings are taking place but that the university needs to back up what it says with action.
"There is a specific injustice that happens to Black people when white supremacists are given space to work with the tools of the oppressor, with an understanding — that is corrupt — that freedom of speech is granted for hate speech, and Weber State University needs to address their stance on how they will protect students from racial trauma imbued in rhetoric," he said.
Stephens was referring to the school's response to racist stickers and flyers posted on campus two years ago. A week and a half after they appeared, Mortensen released a statement which said, "At Weber State, we vigorously protect free speech and the diversity of ideas. Nonetheless, we call out racist and hateful speech aimed at intimidating and frightening individuals and communities."
As he spoke, Stephens also alleged that university police officers laughed at students as they protested the killing of Floyd last summer. Numerous students went on to describe specific instances of racism they have experienced at school from faculty, staff, police officers, coaches and students.
Shawnica Sanders, the president of Black Scholars United, said she decided to join the group as a freshman after one of her professors compared herself jumping off a bed after giving birth to a slave leaving a plantation.
"Due to the uncomfortable energy that statement created, imagine how I felt as the only Black student in the lecture, not to mention I'm a Black female," Sanders said. "While the entire lecture and my professor were laughing, I was wishing I was invisible and hadn't heard or witnessed such unpleasant events."
Of the 24,105 students enrolled at Weber State this semester, 336 — approximately 1.4% — are Black. And while enrollment among most ethnicities has generally increased at the school over the last five years, the number of Black students at Weber State has stayed constant or decreased, according to state data.
Students at the meeting said they knew other Black students who left the school due to the racism they have experienced, as well as feelings of marginalization and isolation. Although organizations like BSU and a new chapter of the NAACP at the university provide some sense of community, Sanders said those groups have had their influence stifled by the university.
Many accusations presented at the forum were leveled at the Center for Multicultural Excellence. On its website, the center does not list BSU or the NAACP as one of its area councils, "student-run organizations that advocate for minority groups by providing students with opportunities to become inspiring leaders." It does, however, list the African American Heritage Initiative.
Since she refused to allow CME to govern BSU, Sanders said no students from the organization have been awarded the Byron-Warfield Graham Scholarship. The scholarship's description says preference is typically given to BSU members. BSU and the NAACP also have been turned down when applying for funding from CME, students said.
Another student on the panel, Terri Hughes, said there have been multiple instances when she was in the CME with other Black students and she felt pushed out as they were told to "keep it down" and looked at with "deathly stares."
"We felt as though we didn't have the space to be Black," she said. "So when we asked for that space, when we asked for that sense of belonging, to come somewhere and fit in and be Black, and be unapologetically Black, we were denied it."
When the panel of students opened up the floor for comment, Andrews stood up to defend the school at which she oversees diversity efforts before she had to leave early to moderate a conversation on excessive force with Roy and Ogden chiefs of police, as well as the Weber County Sheriff.
"I'm always willing to show up, do whatever I can, however I can to support you," she said. "And I see some head shaking that's saying no, but I'm willing to listen to what you think I'm not doing when we have more time, and to help you see the things that I am doing, even if they're not the things that you think are the most important in this moment."
Andrews has worked at Weber State for 16 years, she said. In that time, she told students, Mortensen's administration has been the most proactive in addressing race issues.
She then went on to begin telling students why she has stayed at a university that "hasn't had the change that you would like to see here" for so long, before being cut off by one of the students who organized the event.
"With the utmost respect, I would like to allow this space to be for what we designed it for, which was an opportunity for Black students to speak, because every student in here has gone to town halls and heard you speak, heard your fellow administrators speak, and we have never felt like we've been heard," the student said.
After other Black students, including two track athletes, shared their experiences at the school, panelist Demitrius Sanders listed a series of changes Black at Weber is requesting from the university.
Those include the provision of a Black cultural center and reparations for harm caused by racism toward Black students. Sanders said those reparations may be financial, but would also include emotional health, physical health and academic remedies, like assistance for students who failed classes while experiencing racial trauma. Financial reparations would likely be in the form of scholarships, which he said should be governed by a primarily Black committee and not CME.
Black at Weber would also like to see ethnic studies curriculum become part of general studies requirements, as well as the hiring of more Black faculty and staff. "We want the removal, accountability and consequences for administrators, faculty and staff who participated in discriminatory, conspiring and illegal acts toward Black students," Sanders said.
To that end, the group would like to see an internal audit and a review of equity and inclusion policies, as well as the budgets of groups engaged in that work, like CME.
Mortensen said he took notes on students' concerns, and "we look forward to continuing working on the issues that have been discussed."
Weber State in March adopted a new strategic plan — a practice that typically happens every five years — which puts greater focus on equity. It lists five equity-minded practices, including "Recognition that the elimination of structural racism in institutions of higher education requires intentional critical deconstruction of structures, policies, practices, norms and values assumed to be race neutral."