Something is wrong in Hawkeye heaven, and advocates and community leaders are crying foul.
From the appearance of a Ku Klux Klan-esque sculpture on the Pentacrest, to an increased number of sexual assault reports and a viral video featuring the arrest of a seemingly harmless—if not perhaps intoxicated—pedestrian: Students and locals have plenty of reasons to voice concern over campus safety.
“I think you have to be willfully ignorant not to see there are serious problems,” said Chelsea Bacon, a University of Iowa graduate and local activist.
For Bacon, one of those problems includes a lack of understanding surrounding the experiences of black residents. She notes that it took the UI four hours to remove the divisive art installation, created by visiting professor Serhat Tanyolacar, from the Pentacrest.
While Tanyolacar has said publicly that the sculpture, a seven-foot Klansman statue decked in newspaper articles depicting race riots and hate crimes, was intended to promote awareness of racism and prejudice, many black students expressed feelings of terror—fearing an actual KKK presence on campus. That, says Bacon, was the result of what she and others dub “impact over intention.”
She explains that though the artist wanted to allude to racism, his actual impact was to invoke fear.
“Say you run a red light and accidentally hit someone,” Bacon said. “Your intention was to get to work faster, not cause harm, but the victim’s legs are just as broken.”
While some debate whether the UI recognized the inherent complexities of such an issue, it did respond to backlash by organizing a dialogue regarding the statue, and the Office of Strategic Communication condemned the display as “offensive” and “intolerant.” Yet questions remain about the competency of university officials when it comes to cross-cultural interactions.
Many of those questions are directed toward the University of Iowa Police Department (UIPD). UI undergraduate Yasmin Elgaali notes that when the group of black students marched peacefully to Sally Mason’s office and gathered in the corridor; they were seeking answers to why the KKK statue had appeared on campus. Instead, she says, they were met by five to seven armed officers.
“When you go to the president of your university to peacefully ask a few questions regarding a situation that made you uncomfortable and the response is armed police, it contributes to the feeling that as a minority, your status as a student is reduced,” Elgaali said. “Instead of the UIPD being here to protect you, they’re here to protect others from you.”
But the college sophomore says that the UIPD is only one component of a much broader issue. She and others believe that when it comes to the campus community at large, there is a dearth of “cultural competency,” an ability to interact effectively with persons from different cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“The administration wants to gloss over the problem,” Elgaali said. “More often than not, we are silenced, and our feelings are invalidated because the campus is a ‘welcoming environment’ or ‘racism does not exist anymore.’”
Compare her sentiments to President Mason’s response to student grievances, and one can sense the cogency of her argument. In December 2014, Mason—who earlier this month announced that she plans to retire on Aug. 1—said, “All of us need to work together to take preventive action and do everything we can to be sure that everyone feels welcome, respected and protected on our campus and in our community.”
While there may not be anything inherently wrong in fostering such a campus milieu, it doesn’t address the many differences that make the UI diverse—and divisive.
“Racism is real. Sexism is real,” said Kendra Malone, Diversity Resources Coordinator at the University of Iowa. “We need to be able to name those things. We need to have people in leadership recognize them and seek input from persons affected by those forms of oppression.”
And while many parts of the university seem a long way from fostering this type of communication, small efforts are being made. David Visin, Interim Director of UI Department of Public Safety, noted via email that officers receive “annual training to address bias in policing, cultural diversity and LGBTQ issues,” a fact of which he says most constituents are unaware.
Visin, who took his position on Jan. 9 following the retirement of longtime director Chuck Green, also says that an immediate goal is enhancing communications to the community through social media and multimedia. A start perhaps, that one hopes can eventually lead to a more productive dialogue.
“It is our responsibility as individuals to tell our leaders what we want in ways that are respectful and that build bridges,” Malone said.
Of course, reaching those leaders and other influential persons is the first, and arguably hardest, step. But according to Malone, there are measures everyone can take to create a safer, more thriving community.
“People need to turn their anger into righteous action,” Malone said. “You can write a check, make phone calls, send letters to the editor. Support folks that do equity work, and find resources so those efforts can be expanded.”
Malone points to organizations and collectives such as the Dream Center, the Center for Worker Justice, the Black Voices Project and the UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment as examples of the many opportunities for involvement in Iowa City.
“If people are aware of issues and don’t do anything about them, they are perpetuating the problem,” said Bacon. “There is always more work to do.”
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 169.