‘I’m the role model I needed when I was younger’: Students speak out against Student Government statement

After Iowa State student body President Morgan Fritz and Vice President Jacob Schrader issued a statement regarding a professor’s recent tweets, students expressed their anger at the weekly Student Government meeting.

Kylee Haueter

Students spoke at an in-person open forum to express outrage against a statement made by Iowa State’s Student Government on Wednesday morning. 

The statement, made by student body president and senior political science major Morgan Fritz and student body vice president and senior economics major Jacob Schrader, was in response to tweets made throughout the year by women’s and gender studies assistant teaching professor Rita Mookerjee.

The Iowa State Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) retweeted Mookerjee’s tweets and posted screenshots, calling her comments “racist.”

Angie Hunt, strategic relations and communications for Iowa State, released a statement on behalf of the university Wednesday evening. 

“Iowa State University condemns racism of any kind as being abhorrent and inconsistent with the university’s Principles of Community and the values we expect on our campus,” the statement read. “The university fully embraces its role as a First Amendment campus and is deeply committed to constitutional protections of free expression.

“When speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern, a public employee’s speech is protected by the First Amendment and employees cannot be disciplined by the university for exercising their First Amendment rights. Employees are, however, subject to discipline if they commit acts of discrimination against students or their fellow employees in their role as an employee,” it finished. 

The statement issued by Fritz and Schrader condemned the content of Mookerjee’s posts, but stated that Mookerjee would still be allowed to remain as a panelist for a Women’s Week event. 

“Recently, tweets from one of our Women’s Week Diversity and Inclusion panelists were publicized for containing disparaging comments about people on the basis of race,” the statement said. “Student Government does not agree with the content of the comments that were made — no one should be reduced to the color of their skin.

“The tweets from the panelist do not reflect the views of Student Government: we believe that prejudice based on race or the color of someone’s skin is wrong in all contexts. We have decided that the professor will still be invited to participate in the panel; it is important to allow ideas to be shared, even if we find the comments to be wrong,” Fritz and Schrader said in their statement. 

Chuck Klapatauskas, United Residents of Off-Campus senator, junior in mechanical engineering and president of the Iowa State Young Americans for Freedom also issued an official statement on behalf of his organization.

“YAF was not supportive of the decision to not remove Dr. Mookerjee from the women’s panel,” the statement said. “Dr. Mookerjee has a troubled history of making comments that degrade another individual on the basis of race, and that is simply below Iowa State values. While Dr. Mookerjee has every right to exercise these beliefs, YAF does not believe it is in the best interest of the Student Government to promote these ideals.”

The statement also addressed Mookerjee’s comments in general.

“In regards to her statements as a whole, it is just unfortunate that people continue to belittle each other on the basis of race. One would think that in 2021 we would have more productive conversations or be smarter in the way we try to joke or poke fun at other individuals,” it said. “However, YAF might disagree with the content of the tweets, we firmly stand behind her ability to tweet out such things. Students and professors have the right to express themselves however they may please, and that right does not vary with content.” 

During Wednesday’s Student Government meeting open forum time, students, including student senators and other members of Student Government, took the podium to express their frustration with the statement that was released. 

Leslie Lona, senior in biological systems engineering and senator for the College of Engineering, was the first individual to speak.

“It is appalling, disappointing and foolish that the president and vice president of the student body decided to release a statement condemning the free speech of certain individuals, but not that of others,” Lona said. “ When a senator of the Student Government incited violence on their organization’s page were those comments condemned? No they were not. They sit amongst us today.”

The senator Lona referred to was Ryan Hurley, junior marketing major, Inter-Residence Hall Association (IRHA) senator and president of Iowa State’s College Republicans student organization. 

In November, the College Republicans Twitter account posted a tweet in response to the results of the 2020 election, calling for individuals to “arm up.”

Iowa State University released a statement in response to that post, then later released a statement saying no action was taken against the group after a free speech group got involved

The Iowa State Student Government did not release a statement regarding the post. 

The account has also posted disparaging statements regarding the Black, Indigenous and people of color and LGBTQIA+ communities, saying “you must speak English” and “if you have pronouns in bio, I assume you’re either a social reject or mentally ill.” 

A post speaking out against the Ames Community School District for holding a week to teach students about Black Lives Matter can also be seen on the page. 

Lona continued to say that after the comment about arming up was made, she sat through a meeting where Schrader encouraged speech while two police officers attended the meeting “to protect the Senate from the threats that were made by said senator.”

“Conversations around free speech are always surrounded on protecting the individuals who weaponize free speech to hurt others and never around the individuals or group of people that are affected by said speech,” Lona said.

Eliana Crabb, Student Government director of outreach and senior in hospitality management, said that along with Anna Olson, Student Government senior director of communications and junior journalism and mass communications major, and Lauryn Perk, Student Government director of diversity and inclusion and senior animal science major, she advised Fritz and Schrader to keep Mookerjee on the panel without releasing a statement.

“We came to this conclusion based on the recent events in which statements were not released regarding comments made toward marginalized groups on our campus by a senator,” Crabb said. “In addition, upon communication with Iowa State University’s First Amendment specialist, we confirm that our recommendations and opinions of allowing this panelist’s views to be heard were protected by the First Amendment.”

The decision to post a statement also drew criticism from Iowa State’s sorority and fraternity community. 

Scott Nguyen, senior in aerospace engineering and Multicultural Greek Council president, posed a question to Fritz and Schrader.

“I just want to continue this conversation without me saying so much,” Nguyen said. “I just want to ask the president, vice president, like when you guys campaigned, you guys promoted this campaign of trying to promote, like, cultural competency — campaigning that and teaching that to the students, do you guys feel like you guys are competent in that area and how so?”

“So that’s something I feel that we can always continually get better in,” Fritz responded. “There’s always ways to improve. That’s something I try and stay educated on, but there are, as I said, always improvements can be made and I will continue to work on those.”

Schrader also responded and said cultural competency is a continuous thing to improve on.

“I’m here at a university to learn and to get better,” Schrader said. “And I hope next year I’ll be better than where I’m at today and I hope two years from now, I’ll be better than I am next year and in three years I’m better than the year before that. So, thank you for coming and speaking, and I’m paying attention.”

Nguyen also addressed the senators in the room.

“I think that this conversation has been going way too long, so since you guys are in these positions of power and hold these positions of authority, how you guys can keep each other accountable so that you make sure that you guys promote diversity, inclusion, but also building up that cultural competency as well,” he said.

“As a woman of color, there’s been many moments where I could have walked away from this organization and given up on the various incidents where we’ve failed our students, but I’m committed to making this organization better and to continually have those conversations and bring awareness when issues like this happen and support,” Mariana Gonzalez, vice speaker of the Senate and sophomore political science and public relations major, said.

Kay McClelland, senior psychology major and president of the Collegiate Panhellenic Council (CPC), expressed her council’s disagreement with the statement.

“I just want to make it clear that I don’t condone the statement that was made today,” McClelland said. “It was basically like a professional way of saying ‘we don’t see color, all lives matter’ and that’s not something that my council supports.

“I just wanted to make it clear that it was embarrassing. It’s evidence of a problem that our council really needs to work on, and I just wanted to let everyone know that that’s not CPC’s value of social justice and that’s not what we can do,” she finished. 

Another CPC and Student Government member, Bret Clark, said it shouldn’t be up to the marginalized communities in Student Government to be making the change and other people need to make change as well. Clark, a senior marketing major, serves as the director of student services for Student Government and the vice president of social justice for the CPC.

“As Eliana said, there’s a lot of people missing from this room and I think we all know why,” Clark said. “It makes me appalled to be a part of this organization if I’m being quite honest, like seeing that statement today did not make me a proud member of Student Government and it’s honestly making me reconsider whether I want to be in this space or not.”

Breanna Diaz, vice president of community outreach for the Multicultural Greek Council and junior in child, adult and family services, said she was in this position a year ago and was disappointed changes were not made. 

Diaz also mentioned the tweets from the College Republicans account and the lack of action from Student Government during that time. 

Fritz said she and Schrader released the statement after receiving concerns from students about Mookerjee’s posts. 

“This statement was not meant to discredit the individual’s experience or expertise, but rather to acknowledge that the personal tweets in question were concerning to some students, but in doing so still allowing her the platform to share about her knowledge and fulfill her freedom of expression,” she said. 

“The intention of the statement was to acknowledge the concern of the students while still promoting the Women’s Week event and the insight that this professor can offer in the realm of diversity, inclusion and women’s and gender studies, being a good expert in that realm.”

Fritz apologized for “detracting from any of the information or excitement surrounding the diversity and inclusion panel,” and added that student concerns about Mookerjee’s posts were valid.

“[Mookerjee] said that white men are higher, there’s a hierarchy and white men will always be at top and she was not wrong,” Diaz said. “So you’re going to tell me that what she said was wrong and that she shouldn’t have said that? But it’s true, and there’s plenty of studies to back that up.”

Diaz also brought up Mookerjee’s other tweets that had been mentioned as concerning.

“She goes ‘lastly I try to limit my interaction with white people as much as possible because of the self-importance and performance, especially during Black History Month,’ and I think that’s completely valid,” Diaz said. “I think that oftentimes, there is a thing called white guilt, and I think that it’s often performative is specifically around Black History Month, where there are white people who want to speak out and want to post things on social media because they want to be allies, but that’s not their genuine intention.”

One student senator spoke up in support of the statement from Fritz and Schrader. Daniel Pfeifer, IRHA senator and senior environmental engineering major, said what happened at the meeting was “disappointing.”

“A lot of people came in here and extremely rudely voiced their opinions,” Pfeifer said. “And I have nothing wrong with the second part. The first part is very concerning. If we can’t have a civil conversation, what are we doing? It’s ridiculous and absolutely unacceptable. I’m very disappointed.

“I for one, think that this was not a bad statement. It condemns racism, which is, I think, something that every single one of us should and does agree with. It says right here. ‘No one should be reduced to the color of their skin.’ That sounds right. I don’t know if anyone disagrees with that,” he said.

“In any event, this is the exact right response. We say respectfully, we do not agree with this, we do not approve this behavior, but you can come and speak your opinion anyway,” Pfeifer said. “We should let all opinions be heard, no matter how racist or potentially dangerous. In the case of a senator, it doesn’t matter. We should let them speak. And we should be able to voice our concern with their speech.”

Gonzalez ended the meeting by speaking again about her experience as a woman of color. 

“I have faced many microaggressions as a woman of color, and me being present in Student Government has been my defiant way of being in spaces that weren’t made for me,” she said.

“A lot of you talk about being involved in having marginalized communities run for Student Government or be a senator, get on a committee,” Gonzalez said. “But Eliana and I are involved. Lauryn was involved. And even when we were involved, we were dragged down.”

Gonzalez choked up while giving her final statements.

“When we do get involved, it’s so mentally exhausting existing in these spaces. I thought I had a friend in Morgan and Jacob. After today’s statements, I realized that they didn’t see me as a person of color. They didn’t see that — my oppression as a woman of color. And unfortunately, we’re seeing a year of frustration coming out tonight from our marginalized communities, because our students do care about these issues,” she said. 

“I just wanted to say that, you know, tonight, they said that it was not to discredit the professor who was on the panel, the doctor who was on the panel, and it’s tried to become a matter of free speech,” Gonzalez said. “Honestly, it isn’t about that. It’s about, as Senator Zastrow said, catering to a specific set of students. And so unfortunately when the tweets regarding violence against marginalized communities were brought up those concerns didn’t meet a necessity for a statement, those concerns didn’t meet the need to be to be outspoken but these were.”

Gonzalez asked Fritz and Schrader why they felt the need to make a statement in this instance, but not before. 

“I think the last one should have been a statement,” Schrader said, regarding the College Republicans tweets. 

“Honestly, I don’t want to get — we were in the same meeting together about Senator Hurley, trying to plan what we were going to do. We decided to wait till IRHA had decided, until the appeal option had expired,” he said. “We didn’t want to make a First Amendment statement — or a statement condemning speech, and have Senator Hurley removed and sue Student Government for having speech to be the reason as to why.

“But that isn’t really a good answer. So, I know it’s not a good answer. I’m sorry,” Schrader said. 

Fritz agreed that they should have made a statement condemning the tweets about arming up. 

“We should have made a statement following, you know, understanding that he wasn’t going to be removed and that we found the tweets about arming up to be, you know, something that we don’t agree with,” she said. “Yeah, that should have been done so I apologize, you know, for the pain that you’re feeling right now. We should have also made a statement regarding that incident, I agree.”

Gonzalez said she wants to give Fritz and Schrader “benefit of the doubt.”

“But my entire life, I’ve had to forgive white people and allow them to improve after I’ve been hurt. I’m exhausted. I am 20 years old, and I’m exhausted of allowing white people to improve while I continue to be mentally challenged and hurt emotionally,” she said.

“The opportunity to improve was presented, because Eliana and Lauryn and Anna presented it,” Gonzalez said. “They had it there. But unfortunately, both of you chose to ignore it. And I will remember that you guys made that choice.”

Gonzalez said she considered many in that room to be her colleagues and her friends, but the way some reacted to the events will cause her perspective to be altered. 

“I’m proud to be a woman of color,” she said. “I don’t shy away from challenges and I don’t shy away from leadership experiences, because I know that I am the role model I needed when I was younger.”