I am disappointed in my university for allowing a “protected class” of students, faculty, and staff to feel as though their safety on campus is compromised. Almost a month ago, the EKU community was made aware by the Lexington Herald-Leader and then by the university that President Donald J. Trump would set foot on EKU’s campus for a rally to endorse Andy Barr.
The week before the rally was met with a monstrosity of emotions, from survivors who already felt unheard as a result of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, to minorities who are already exhausted from the micro and macroaggressions they face on a daily basis. The feeling on campus was that of a de-aligned community, made up of Trump supporters, Trump dissenters, and those who mistakenly believe this doesn’t affect them. To combat the uneasiness felt by several students on campus, President Michael T. Benson and a few of the Board of Regents members held a forum to address any concerns regarding Trump’s debut on campus.
While this forum was originally intended for a select number of students who the university deemed as representative of the population concerned with the upcoming events, almost 100 dissenting students, faculty, and staff came to voice their opinions. The president’s office sent this email to a select group of concerned faculty members who spread the word to students and the office supposedly sent it to the students themselves.
It is unclear whether the original email from the President’s office was ever sent directly to any students. I personally, was only made aware of this event because a member of SGA forwarded an original email from a faculty member to an officer of International Student Association, who then placed it in the group’s chat.
This open forum began with praise from President Benson regarding the success the university has had with diversity. This praise of success was followed by Regent Lewis Diaz, an immigrant from Cuba, who spoke about his journey to the U.S., the challenges he’s faced as an immigrant, and the measures that the university has taken to attract diverse students from around the country. A few of the implementations that Regent Diaz discussed included the various scholarships for diversity or out of state students.
Although I agree with Regent Diaz that the university has implemented factors that make EKU accessible to diverse students, I feel that accessibility to the university for those students is not the only factor involved regarding any university or institution’s claim to success with diversity. President Benson also spoke of the many things that EKU has done on campus to support minorities, the latest being the Bobby Verdugo Bilingual Peer Mentor and Tutor Center.
After the praise of success from President Benson and Regent Diaz, some of the students’ concerns about safety on and off campus during and around the time of the rally were addressed. However, this concern for safety turned into a hurricane of emotions and drove students at the forum to express their feelings and experiences of specific aggressions they have experienced on campus, of which many felt were reported and were not dealt with properly by the university.
Many students described the feeling of uneasiness on campus surrounding the 2016 Presidential Election and compared it to their feelings leading up to the rally. At least two African-American students recounted times when they had been walking across campus and were called “n****r” by some young men in a pick-up truck. Other students recalled having nooses hung on their dorm room doors. Latino students described seeing the words ‘Build that wall’ written in chalk on the sidewalk, many of whom were either born in the U.S. or have lived here for most of their lives. It has never been more pertinent than now, for students to feel and believe that their university, Eastern Kentucky University, has their backs.
However, time and again through email and in person President Benson and the Board of Regents have said, “We hear you.” But we don’t feel heard. We can’t beleive you until you show it. We appreciate the things that the university has done to make EKU attractive and accessible to minorities as well as the centers on campus that are meant to assist minorities, but success with diversity doesn’t just come from implementing those changes. Success with diversity comes from the atmosphere on campus, the students’ feeling of safety, the freedom to be who they are, and the safety of knowing that even though society may not accept them for who they are, the community of EKU does.
Success with diversity comes from the atmosphere on campus, the students’ feeling of safety, the freedom to be who they are, and the safety of knowing that even though society may not accept them for who they are, the community of EKU does. When you allow a man, even the president of the United States to set foot on campus, a man who honestly and truly believes it is okay to say such hateful things about people, it changes the atmosphere. When President Trump says things such as, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”. It is so blatantly hurtful to the 1,000 Latinx students who call EKU their home. Regent Diaz challenges the university to double that number, but that possibility seems to be fading into oblivion.
When prospective minority students Google search our university, they’re going to see that Donald Trump came here, and for some prospective students, that’s going to be their deciding factor on whether they will even apply here. There are some current students who have already considered transferring because of Trump’s appearance and their lack of perceived feeling of safety on campus. Doesn’t that trouble you, President Benson? It damn well troubles me.
By the end of the forum, students had vented a lot of their feelings and were trying their best to accept that Trump would inevitably set foot on campus that Saturday. Students came up with several ideas regarding ways in which the university could help students to heal from the anxiety, sadness, and fear they have experienced from the events surrounding Trump’s rally at EKU. President Benson agreed, during the forum, that he would consider or follow through with many of these ideas. However, no further actions have been seen from the President’s Office or the Board of Regents to put these ideas into effect. Some of these ideas included a post-rally forum for students to express their opinions and reflections from the rally.
As well as a forum to bring the whole campus together, not just a select group of students, here, President Benson specifically states that the university would follow through with this idea. Another idea was for a speaker just as big as President Trump to come to the university with a positive message about community. President Benson also said that he would consider making a public statement saying that the university does not condone the hate and disrespect that President Trump legitimizes. We hope the promises made during the forum are kept.
It is also important to note that it’s not just the students at Eastern Kentucky University who have felt the same disappointment with their university and fear surrounding Mr. Trump’s debut on a campus.
On September 21, 2018, President Trump held a rally at Missouri State University (MSU), renting out their arena to endorse U.S. Senate Candidate Josh Hawley. After reaching out to a student organization at MSU, called MoState Advocates – an organization similar to our Alphabet Center – it was clear that students on their campus were just as upset. One of the members of their organization stated, “I know that students of color took the campus shuttle, rather than walking around because they didn’t feel safe on the day of the visit.” And all too similarly the President of MSU held a forum to address concerns.
Likewise, this forum also had issues with the university publicly broadcasting it, “Yeah, our discussion wasn’t even publicly broadcast. I don’t think many people even knew about it. I didn’t find out until the last minute…I had a test at the same time as it, so I didn’t go, but I definitely recall hearing that it was pretty fruitless.” Since the events surrounding Trump’s appearance on campus, I am sadly no longer able to trust that EKU’s intentions are what they say they are when it comes to statements about the university’s support for minorities, women, immigrants, sexual assault survivors, and the LGBTQ+ community.
The week leading up to the rally was exhausting and difficult. I found myself incredibly distracted by an array of emotions which affected my ability to focus on studying for upcoming midterms, my desire to eat, and my feelings of safety on campus. Many other students and even some faculty that I talked with experienced similar distractions and anxieties.
A month or two back, I wrote an article for the Eastern Progress titled, “The Minority Experience at EKU.” This article outlined some of the success that I have seen on campus regarding diversity as well as a challenge to President Benson and the rest of the university to not only celebrate the success, but to also recognize the need for improvement. However, the university’s decision to allow the renting of Alumni Coliseum to President Trump, feels like a slap in the face. I am not only disappointed in my university for allowing Trump on campus, but I’m also extremely embarrassed that they placed the safety of their students second to someone with sexual assault allegations regardless of his status as President. I understand that the university believes their hands were tied and the arguments about whether turning him down or accepting him here constitutes a political statement. I understand that EKU is a public university who holistically believes in the freedom of speech. I understand…we’ve heard it all. Over. And over. Again. But, when students no longer feel safe on campus, that’s a problem and “It’s on you.”
Although I personally believe that you, President Benson, are a truly decent man who is tasked with the unfortunate job of making hard decisions, I challenge you to be the decent man who is tasked with the fortunate ability of making decisions that are right and just for your community. I challenge you to follow through with the numerous promises you made during the forum, to exercise your right to freedom of speech and make the decision to issue a public statement saying that the university does not condone or stand by the disrespect to minorities, immigrants, and women that President Trump has so publicly stated and that EKU does not accept hate in our state.
Is it so hard to say that you disagree with the verbal hatred of a man who can’t even say that Nazis are bad? As Elie Wiesel says, “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”