Student Government talks diversity

Zach Clemens

Student Government has faced issues with diversity and inclusion throughout the last year, with accusations that students with diverse, international and female backgrounds are underrepresented becoming inflamed recently.

Students at Iowa State are varied and multicultural, coming from every state in the nation and more than 100 countries around the world. International students and underrepresented groups comprise more than 23 percent of the student population. Women comprise 43 percent.

Student Government’s goal is to be the voice of the students, and there is evidence that it is difficult for students from diverse backgrounds to feel represented.

The Senate did not have representative demographics of the student population during the 2015-16 school year, and the new Senate is even less diverse.

Of the 35 senators sworn in on Monday, 62 percent are white men, and only 14 percent of the senators are women. More multicultural men are on the Senate than women, six senators to five.

While the Senate is not exactly gender equal, the Student Government Diversity Committee for the 2015-16 session is 100 percent women. Representing different races, cultures and abilities, the Diversity Committee plans events and reaches out to different multicultural groups to create understanding and inclusion.

Jazmin Murguia, director of student diversity under former President Dan Breitbarth, said she believed Student Government demographic numbers probably reflect campus population, but some members of the committee disagreed.

Sen. Jane Kersch said she feels like most groups are underrepresented. 

“Definitely the disabled [are underrepresented],” said Laura Wiederholt, junior in biology and member of the Diversity Committee.

More than a decade ago, however, there was representation for the disabled population at Iowa State. Student Government — then known as GSB — had four specialty seats for specific groups on campus. American ethnic minority, disabled, non-traditional and international students all had a specific seat.

In 2001, a referendum was placed before the student population to remove the specialty seats from the Senate. The referendum failed, but through the challenging of the election results to the GSB Supreme Court the next year, the failure of the referendum was overturned, and the specialty seats were effectively erased from the Senate.

Emily Tosoni, junior in political science and member of the Diversity Committee, said specialty seats might be a good idea to bring back, but it would require “balance when determining when to add new seats.”

Shortly after that Supreme Court decision in 2002, the Daily reported that the international senator, Rafael Fernandez, who had his seat stripped from him, said he worried it would remove the voice of international students from the governing body.

“If there’s something this college needs, its diversity,” he said 14 years ago.

Fast forward more than a decade to this Wednesday. A group of students, men and women of different ethnicities, clearly frustrated, demanded their voices be heard and action be taken by the Student Government and university administration they feel have been under-representing them.

Students identifying as members of Leaders United for Change, commonly known as LUCHA, shared strong words and sentiments at the Senate meeting Wednesday, saying, “diversity and inclusion are lies Iowa State sells.”

They can point to the fact that there is only one multicultural woman and four multicultural men in the entire Senate.

A movement earlier in the year called for the addition of a specialty Senate seat for international students, especially in the face of the international student tuition increase. A bill was brought forth by graduate Sen. George Weston.

International students comprise more than 11 percent of the student population, but only three are in the newly elected Senate. They are elected from different constituencies such as engineering and the United Residents of Off-Campus and are not in the Senate to be solely concerned with issues facing international students.

The referendum to add a new senate seat, which would have been voted on during the election, failed to pass with a majority vote.

Although Weston was re-elected as a graduate senator, he decided to give up his seat in Student Government and GPSS in the hope it will be filled by a person from a more diverse background.

“I just feel there needs to be more diversity [and viewpoints] throughout student leadership,” Weston said.

Weston said he would have felt hypocritical to say “we need diversity,” then still take his Senate seat.

“It was tough because I want to be involved, but one year down the line, would I feel good about it?” Weston said. “Probably not. It’s just something I had to do.”

Issues with race, diversity and inclusion have boiled over throughout the school year. From the CyHawk game to the latest Student Government meeting, diversity issues have come to the forefront of the campus conscience.

Even before the incidents of this past year, university administration saw a need to address diversity in the ISU community, and they picked Reginald Stewart to be the first vice president for diversity and inclusion at Iowa State.

“I interviewed on a Monday, and the CyHawk game happened on [that] Saturday,” Stewart said.

One reason Stewart was brought on is because the world is more diverse, and campuses need someone who can support diversity, he said. Bringing someone on to do that is a growing trend across the country that Iowa State is leading, he added.

“This is representative of a two-year initiative by [President Steven Leath],” Stewart said.

Stewart cautions that the lack of diversity in Student Government is not a product of intentional exclusion, but may be a symptom of a larger issue.

“If students don’t feel connected to the institution at large, they’re certainly not going to connect with the [Student Government],” Stewart said. “There won’t be a connection until they feel their ‘voice’ matters because no one wants to spend additional time [on something they feel excluded during].”

Stewart also said participating in Student Government could be a driver for people in certain degree programs and is a tool along the path of their own success.

“The average person might not see themselves in this type of leadership position,” Stewart said.

A number of reasons could be responsible for groups being underrepresented in Student Government. 

A very real feeling that the Senate does not represent diverse and different viewpoints exists among some students. It’s a challenge that Student Government and the university as a whole will face for years to come.