The history of ISCORE and how it changed Iowa State culture


Students and staff gather for closing remarks during ISCORE, March 3 in the Memorial Union.

Jacey Goetzman

Thomas L. Hill had the idea for the Thomas L. Hill Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE) event long before it would come to fruition or bear his name.

Hill had been on the executive committee for the Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies for a number of years and at a number of different universities. The organization sponsors the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE).

With colleagues, he worked out the idea of a local conference that supports, and as Hill said, “dovetails into” the national conference.

The national conference is considered by many participants as transformative. Hill can attest to that.

“The national conference is such a rich experience that it started with me trying to figure out, ‘How do you bring a campus of 35,000-plus students to a national conference?’” Hill said.

Hill knew this was unrealistic. It was when he pushed past this that he unearthed the idea ISCORE is centered on.

Hill asked himself, “What’s the next best thing?”

The idea of a local conference was first attempted to launch at the University of Florida, but ultimately flopped. A year later, Hill would find himself at Iowa State.

“If you try and you fail a couple of times, you know what works and what doesn’t,” Hill said. “So by the time I got here, I had some good stuff.”

Iowa State, at that time, was starting to celebrate what it called theme years. It would choose a theme, begin it at the start of the year, and all of the colleges would support that theme until the end of that academic year.

The first theme year was in honor of George Washington Carver.

During that theme year, the administration was trying to figure out what kind of things it could do, Hill said. Because he already had the experience, he knew precisely what he wanted to do.

Hill proposed that they start ISCORE.

“It was a result of the experiences I’d had at other institutions, and by the time I got to Iowa State, I had ironed out most of the kinks,” Hill said.

Hill said he knew exactly what to do, exactly how to jumpstart it, and after that, they got it going. Whether it would continue a second year was never a question to Hill.

“There was clearly a need to address issues dealing with race and ethnicity in higher education. Clearly. There was a need here on this campus,” Hill said. “When we started, we knew that it might not be the most popular thing.”

The first ISCORE, held in 2000, had roughly 150 participants. As race and ethnicity can be difficult topics to discuss, Hill said, he anticipated this.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. And that’s not good,” Japannah Kellogg, director of the NCORE-ISCORE project, said. “If you’re able to have a conversation and you’re exploring terminology and understanding, you’re headed in the right direction.”

Hill agreed.

“Most people are also unwilling to talk about it because it’s not a ‘feel good’ topic at first,” Hill said.

Until it got its own start, Hill held the flame himself.

“There was never really a conversation about [ISCORE happening again the next year],” Hill said, “because I was going to do it next year. … If it had been me and one other person, it was going to happen the following year.”

While participants may have been at numbers around 150 in the first year, and 200 in the subsequent starter years, Hill said ISCORE was right on time for the students of Iowa State.

“They were the ones that really participated and kept it going until others could actually see that while it doesn’t feel good at first, it is a topic that will contribute to making our environment a better environment for everybody,” Hill said.

Staff and the division of student affairs, from the beginning, also rallied around the idea of ISCORE and supported it.

Hill said this was vital, as students respect and have relationships with staff. They brought students from “all corners of the university” that they had influence over – and that, Hill said, is what made ISCORE happen.

The continuation of the NCORE-ISCORE project brought about conversations that may not have otherwise happened, Hill said.

“There was an – incident with using the terminology and the connotation that goes with using ‘squinty’ in a racial context, and it was used to disparage individuals with Asian descent,” Hill said.

The incident had to do with a former Iowa State Daily column called “Just Sayin.’” People could submit whatever statements they wanted to without attribution, and in 2012, a designer mistook the term squintey for an Iowan colloquialism for ground squirrels, squinny.

A group of students, the vast majority those who had been involved with the NCORE-ISCORE project, took offense to the column. They let their feelings known and decided to meet with the editor of the Daily at the time.

“The Daily’s editorial student staff, they sat and listened to the students talk about how they felt when their student newspaper published [those disparaging remarks,]” Hill said. “The group that challenged the students were not only Asian-American students … it was a good mix of students, and that did me good, because when it started, the students of color would be the ones to challenge those things.”

As a result of the conversation, the Daily discontinued the column.

“It brought the editor at the time to tears, listening to how those students felt — that their newspaper thought so little of them that they would print that stuff,” Hill said.

Perhaps as a result of the NCORE-ISCORE project, racist actions are being questioned and called out on their actions. This year alone, Iowa State President Steven Leath was challenged by an NCORE-ISCORE scholar, Itzel Zuniga.

Zuniga stood up as Leath took the podium and held a megaphone to make her statement. In her statement, she criticized Leath’s usage of university planes as well as who he was hanging out with.

“By allowing Donald Trump on this campus and refusing to shut down white supremacy, you have put our safety at risk,” Zuniga said. “You hang out and spend time and spend our tax money with racists.”

Zuniga continued on.

“You sir, are a racist,” Zuniga said. “You do not deserve the brilliance of a single student of color in this room.”

At the end of her statement, Zuniga asked others to join her in solidarity as she left the room until Leath was finished speaking. A group of 40 to 50 people were reported leaving with her.

They returned after Leath finished speaking, and the conference and subsequent sessions went on as usual.

Later, Leath issued a statement.

“I value the feelings and concerns of all members of the Iowa State community, including this student and those who walked out in protest,” Leath said. “It is unfortunate that this student decided to express her feelings through personal attacks on me and in a way that disrupted a program that aims to bring our university community together.”

Malik Newson, a two-time attendee, said that ISCORE allows you to grow no matter when, or how often, you go.

“There’s still going to be changing that happens,” Newson said. “As times are progressing and different things are happening within our society as a whole … these topics are becoming more brought to light, and I feel like we should try to expand it.”

The idea of expanding is something currently being explored by Martino Harmon, senior vice president for student affairs.

“We’re, right now, in the exploration phase to see about feasibility,” Harmon said.

Harmon continued on to say that it is not 100 percent certain, but the idea of opening up a permanent office is underway.

“It has grown way beyond what I started,” Hill said.