Students advocate for change on campus

Petition calls for administrators to stand with students of color and implement widespread initiatives

Isabella Gentile, Editor-in-Chief

Undergraduate students and alumni are demanding change in how the university handles and addresses issues of ignorance and injustice on campus.

A petition entitled “RWU: Black Lives Matter,” addressed to RWU Administration, Student Programs, Leadership and Orientation (SPLO) and the Board of Trustees, has been circulating in the community during the last several days. Posted through an anonymous account, the petition has gained almost 350 signatures.

“We, the undersigned Students and Alumni of RWU stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and refuse to tolerate the racism and anti-blackness that has plagued Roger Williams University through white privilege, ignorance and hate,” the opening statement of the petition said.

“We are the same students who have been called upon to have these discussions with our peers as a replacement for formal education. We are the students behind MSU, SAGA, the Intercultural Center, all the celebrated diversity intersections that RWU markets egregiously to prospective students and families.”

The Multicultural Student Union (MSU) and Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The students behind the petition want change in the way RWU addresses these issues. Creators of the petition want social justice at the university to be intersectional. They wrote that RWU commonly takes a stance on problems with one specific identity in mind, not considering how someone with multiple identities may experience something entirely different.

Six demands are listed in the petition. It asks the university to acknowledge the history of the land that the Bristol campus sits on and to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day on the academic calendar, which students have advocated for and protested in favor of in the past.

Students are also demanding that policies and training be implemented, including mandatory implicit bias testing for employees and available sensitivity training for students and staff. RWU does have a non-discrimination policy, but the petition pushes for a zero tolerance policy, saying university students are familiar with discriminatory bias incidents that only result in a conduct meeting and warning. The university prohibits all forms of sexual misconduct but the petition demands a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and assault as well.

The petition goes on to encourage non-paid students to refuse to plan campus events through SPLO and encourage alumni to stop donating any money to the university until these needs are met. Members of the Board of Trustees, staff within SPLO and other campus officials across departments were named and directly called on to help these efforts and stand with students of color at the university.

In the comments below the petition, students supported the changes advocated for within.

“I implore you to listen to the voices of your students. We are the ones who promote the university and keep the university going. We are the “faces” of this school. Our pictures are ones on the brochures you hand out, the ads you place online, the posts on your social media,” said junior Rachel Barrows. “Do not use our bodies to push a message of diversity without supporting the diverse students you have in the community.”

Student Body President Sam Avila said it was disheartening to read the concerns within the petition but that he was not surprised reading them. Avila said he has personally witnessed levels of white privilege, ignorance and hate from people in the RWU community.

“I think especially during these times in our society, it is time that people speak up and stand for change because I know as a student of color how frustrating it is to continuously speak about my negative experiences on campus without any change being brought to our community,” Avila said. “Students feel unheard and that their issues are being ignored, which is not acceptable in any form.”

He also acknowledged there is much work to be done, especially regarding the issue of students of color having to educate their peers on certain issues.

“I do suggest that students, faculty and staff find ways to educate themselves on these issues because it shouldn’t take students of color here at RWU to continuously share their experiences to get people to pay attention,” Avila said. “Students are being burnt out by all the education they are trying to provide for others when it takes the individual themselves to do the work and be educated on these issues.”

In terms of prior responses by the Student Senate on these issues, Avila said he thinks there has been a lack of a strong response against racism, anti-blackness and hatred when those situations were brought up to the organization. This year, Student Senate 47 released a statement of solidarity following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others in the Black community, along with sharing the history of land acknowledgement during their first meeting this fall. Avila is hopeful now that the Senate will be more prepared to be a support system for students of color and an advocate for change.

Though the university has not issued a response in regards to the petition, President Ioannis Miaoulis is aware of it and said he has personally heard stories of acts of racism and anti-blackness within the campus community. He said the university is respecting these student voices and has yet to make any kind of reply because “it is more a time for action than words.”

The last line of the petition calls for President Miaoulis to be better and do better, a point he acknowledged to The Hawks’ Herald.

“We can all do and be better and as president, I know that starts with me and the leadership of the university. I am trying to think of ways we can have some of the actions and meetings together and not just try to address equity and campus culture over Zoom,” Miaoulis said. “I know the work we have before us to have more action than words and we are ready for that work.”

Miaoulis said RWU is moving forward with its chief diversity officer search, which will be discussed at the Student Senate meeting on Sept. 14. He said much of the work needing to be done is built into the university’s Equity Action Plan, including the creation of a Bias Education Group to enhance the bias reporting system and mandated unconscious bias training for those involved in hiring processes. He said these steps must be urgently taken this year.

Many students agree change needs to happen now and that there are steps to do so in the right way.

“If there is going to be a proper way of improving campus life for students of color, then you must listen to what they have to say…” Avila said. “There will be a lot of suggestions given out, but the RWU administration needs to do something that isn’t performative in order to change things for the better.”