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About the AuthorRich Robinson is the CEO and publisher of Rise News. He is also a journalist and a native of Miami. Robinson graduated from the University of Alabama and can be followed on Twitter @RichRobMiami.
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By Courtney Anderson
Students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have had a whirlwind of a academic year.
In between talks of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s outsourcing plans and the sexual assault lawsuit that was filed against the university, the school has also been dealing with Tennessee legislators and their feelings about the diversity programs.
It is a conflict that lasted throughout the entire 2015-2016 academic year and finally came to a head this May.
The conflict began on August 26, 2015 when the Office of Diversity and Inclusion posted an article written by the director of the Pride Center, Donna Braquet, on its website.
In the article, Braquet talked about gender identity and gender-neutral pronouns students, faculty and staff could incorporate into their everyday language. And while the post was innocent enough, many conservatives did not find it helpful.
On August 28, 2015, Fox News commentator Todd Starnes posted a piece about the article on his opinion blog. Starnes discouraged the use of gender-neutral pronouns and made fun of the University for having the post on one of its websites.
“Anything goes for the sake of inclusivity, right?” Starnes wrote.
The post then got the attention of Tennessee lawmakers who, like Starnes, felt that the post was unnecessary and posed a threat to “traditional” values.
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The Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion, Rickey Hall, was heavily criticized, as was Braquet and the Pride Center.
Soon after, the post was removed from the website while Hall was on vacation.
Fast forward to December 2015.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion posted a notice on its website reminding faculty and staff to keep holiday parties non-religious.
Specifically, they were asked to make sure “your holiday parties aren’t just Christmas parties in disguise.”
They were discouraged from incorporating religious symbols and encouraged to bear in mind that Christmas is not the only holiday to occur in the month of December.
Tennessee lawmakers did not like this advice at all.
Many of them, such as Rep. Jimmy Duncan and Rep. Martin Daniel, called them an attack on Christmas and Christianity. Duncan was one of the lawmakers to demand that Hall be fired and Cheek resign.
“Chancellor Cheek called me today and he was very apologetic over this matter. He told me that he is planning to take action within the next week,” Duncan wrote in a Facebook post. “I think the one who should be fired is the one responsible for this, Rickey Hall, the Vice Chancellor brought in here from Minnesota to run this office.”
Students at UT Knoxville fought back.
They rallied in support of Hall and demanded that Tennessee lawmakers recognize that diversity is a major aspect of successful colleges and universities.
Thus, the hashtag #UTDiversityMatters was born.
On December 8, 2015: a disastrous press conference was held.
Students held a sit-in in Cheek’s office to show their support for Hall.
Cheek and Hall were to meet students in Cheek’s office at 3:30 p.m. to address them and the press. Instead, they gave an exclusive interview to only a couple local Knoxville news stations on the third floor of Andy Holt Tower, the building where both of their offices are located. Students discovered this and rushed to meet their administrators.
Afterwards, Cheek and Hall walked to the Communications building, room 321, to finally address the rest of the press and the students who had been waiting. I
n the meantime, it was revealed by the Knoxville News Sentinel that Hall had been “counseled” and that he would no longer have control of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion website. Control of the site was given to the Vice Chancellor for Communications, Margie Nichols.
Winter break came and news died down.
On January 20, 2016, a few weeks after the start of the spring semester, a bill that would strip the Office of Diversity and Inclusion of state funding was introduced. Students immediately began taking action.
The UT Diversity Matters Coalition was officially formed and began having meetings with administration, including Cheek and Hall, about the future of the diversity programs at the school. Meanwhile, in early February, Nichols announced that she was retiring.
Things took a sour turn for diversity at UT Knoxville on March 2, when the senate voted to strip state funding.
Three days later, nearly 150 students wore black and staged a walkout of a basketball game. Throughout the month of March, the coalition continued to meet with administration.
And in April, the Tennessee House also voted to strip state funding.
On April 19, the coalition and nearly 500 students staged a mass class exit in protest of the funding cuts. During the protest, students staged a die-in on the Pedestrian Walkway, one of the busiest pathways on campus.
The following day, the coalition had their final meeting with administration. And while some of the demands were met or otherwise discussed, many of the demands were met with “No’s” from the administration.
A month later, on May 19, the University of Washington announced that Hall accepted a position as its new vice president of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity and chief diversity officer. Hall will start his position on August 1, 2016.
The following day, on May 20, Governor Bill Haslam allowed the bill to become law without his signature. The Pride Center was immediately shut down, Braquet was fired and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion was disbanded.
Thomas Tran, UT student and a member of the coalition, was one of the students to speak at the rally. Since the end of the semester, he has consistently spoken out against Tennessee lawmakers’ actions and administrations’ lack of action.
“We have been doing everything ‘the right way,’” Tran said in an interview with RISE NEWS. “We’ve voted. We’ve called legislators. We’ve had meetings with admin. We’ve built broad base support with the student body. And this is how admin pays us back.”
The Pride Center, which administration announced will be converted into “student organization” is being run by students known as “Pride Ambassadors.” Without administrative support or funding, they are on their own.
“We have been told that we have to fend for ourselves,” a post on the Pride Center Facebook page reads. “We, who have been targeted, and harassed, and scapegoated for an entire year, have been cast aside. We have been offered up as sacrifice.”
Students have not given up.
Members of the UT Diversity Matters Coalition have promised to continue fighting for diversity at UT Knoxville. Johnathan DeWitt Clayton, a UT student and member of the coalition, said it best in a Facebook status.
“This isn’t any one issue, but rather an issue of systematic oppression and erasure, one that the university as a whole is refusing to acknowledge, let alone combat,” Clayton wrote. “But we’re here. We’re not leaving. And we won’t let you silence us anymore.”
Cover Photo Credit: Courtney AndersonPost Views: 46
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Bryce Swerhun had spent most of his time in Johannesburg safely away from the sounds of explosions near the University Of The Witwatersrand (Wits).
But something drew him to the campus on October 10 as scores of angry students gathered in a large protest for the elimination of college fees across the country.
What Swerhun, a Canadian who is in South Africa doing field work for his PhD program at City University of Hong Kong, saw there was nothing short of government sanctioned violence against young people on a scale rarely seen in liberal democracies.
Student organizers of the so called #FeesMustFall movement warned private security gathered on the steps of the Great Hall at the center of Wits’ campus that some among their number may start hurling stones at them unless they opened the doors to the building.
By the time Swerhun entered through the visitor gate and walked upon the scene, some protestors were indeed throwing stones at the security guards.
Then the police got involved.
“I saw the water cannon truck shoot up and spray the students below,” Swerhun said in an interview with RISE NEWS.
Swerhun said that “several hundred” student protestors were in the area around the Great Hall at the height of the clashes and that police were being very heavy-handed in the way in which they were breaking up the group.
Tear gas canisters leaving trails of smoke as they hit the ground. Rubber bullets thumping through the air. People yelling. People running.
Through the chaos in front of the Great Hall, Swerhun said that he saw one scene that reminded him of the troubling racist past of South Africa.
A white police officer had a group of black protestors cornered while allowing other students to freely pass. When a group of white students walked behind the officer without being stopped, the cornered black students started to argue how unfair it was.
This is what has become of Wits, one of the world’s top universities. Sad no? pic.twitter.com/3ja1OfCV0g
— Sure Kamhunga (@SureKamhunga) October 11, 2016
At a certain point, Swerhun decided that he had seen enough and that he wanted to get back to the safety of his hotel room.
He walked behind the Great Hall, where he spotted a church where some students seemed to be gathered.
He thought that he could escape from the campus by going through the church.
“The priest then slumped over and then the blood was pouring out. They shot him because he defied them.”
What follows sounds like it is straight out of movie.
“There was a significant moment that reminded me of Tiananmen Square,” Swerhun said.
When he reached the church, most of the students in the area where gathered in a parking lot. There he saw a priest in white robes standing in the entrance.
“He [the priest] seemed to be making a statement, that he was there and it was a place of refuge,” Swerhun said.
But then a massive armored police vehicle started racing towards the church.
“It was moving at quite a speed and everyone is running away,” Swerhun said. “When I get behind a parked car, I see the priest put his arm and the vehicle backed up and left.”
Joy swept through the crowd but it was a short-lived feeling.
“Another armored vehicle came and started shooting rubber bullets at random, Swerhun said. “The priest then slumped over and then the blood was pouring out. They shot him because he defied them.”
Swerhun said that the shooting of the priest had a profound impact on the people who witnessed it.
“Some people got really angry and I saw someone say ‘call up the people with the petrol bombs.'”
“This was nothing but a brutal show of state force,” Swerhun said. “Those police in the vehicle were not in any danger.”
The priest was then brought into the church were he was tended to by private paramedics.
Despite being shot in the face with at least one rubber bullet, he was able to walk out of the church to a waiting car.
While the violence has largely been ignored by the world’s media, it shouldn’t be.
The issue is unlikely to go away even though things are starting to calm down on the streets.
Sure Kamhunga, a political commentator who has a large Twitter following said in an interview with RISE NEWS that the government should do more to end the clashes.
“Meet the student body. Listen to their demands. Offer a solution that paves way for mutual understanding,” Kamhunga said in way of advice to President Jacob Zuma’s government. “Students have already proposed a funding model and that is a good start to reach a common understanding and solution.”
RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in the world. You can write for us.Post Views: 37
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By Staff Report
The University of Mississippi took down the state flag from its campus early Monday morning after the student senate approved a resolution calling for the action last week.
“University of Mississippi Police Department officers lowered and furled the state flag in a Lyceum Circle ceremony as the campus opened Monday morning,” a statement from the University said. “The flag will be preserved in the University Archives along with resolutions from students, faculty and staff calling for its removal.”
Ole Miss student senators voted to remove the flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag after a campus wide movement developed.
Interim Ole Miss Chancellor Morris Stocks first joined other state and university leaders calling for a change in the state flag in a statement last June according to the press release.
“The University of Mississippi community came to the realization years ago that the Confederate battle flag did not represent many of our core values, such as civility and respect for others,” Stocks said in a statement. “Since that time, we have become a stronger and better university. We join other leaders in our state who are calling for a change in the state flag.”
Student media first reported the story.
Breaking: University of Mississippi takes down state flag
— Daily Mississippian (@thedm_news) October 26, 2015
Cover Photo Credit: /\ \/\/ /\/ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)Post Views: 36
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