Op-Ed: An open letter to President Leath, the ISU community

President Leath and ISU community:

As a collective of concerned staff and faculty on campus, we are compelled to raise our unified voices as an outcry to the oppressive and marginalizing behaviors and practices in the ISU community and beyond.

To be clear, we are not only referring to the events occurring the weekend of the 2015 Cy-Hawk football game; rather, we include the daily oppressive behaviors that go ignored by many at Iowa State and the unacceptable responses, and lack thereof, to such endemic occurrences from leaders of this institution. The purpose of this letter is multifarious and outlined below.

Standing in solidarity

We stand in solidarity with the Latino students who organized the demonstration at the Cy-Hawk tailgate and game. We condemn the racist and xenophobic behaviors enacted against them and their allies in the name of free speech, alcohol use and political rhetoric. To say it is saddening or disturbing is an understatement. Many staff and faculty have shown up daily to support students who have been affected by this particular showing of overt marginalization, and we will continue to do so.

Acknowledging systemic oppression in our communities

The racist and xenophobic behaviors exhibited at the Cy-Hawk tailgate are microscopic moments embedded in a macroscopic array of marginalization that occurs on this campus daily. This treatment is not new to students, staff and faculty members of marginalized communities, e.g., people of color; women; members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex community; international students, faculty and staff; those who are differently abled; first-generation students; members of the working poor; non-Christians; et cetera. Students, staff and faculty across the aforementioned communities experience racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, genderism, classism, transphobia, nativism and more on a daily basis.

The tailgate situation is but but an instance highlighting the daily assaults on these communities. Despite these daily aggressions, the events of the tailgate have served as a catalyst that has the potential to spark a movement not a moment, a critical collective consciousness instead of a comfortable acceptance of oppression and a dialogue around the issues of race and marginalization in our community rather than a continued silence that condones inhumane behaviors and ideologies.

Leading by example

President Leath, many look to presidents of universities for leadership, direction, vision and inspiration. After waiting three days, we found your response to the tailgate incident apathetic, condescending and untimely.

Your public response lacked empathy, demonstrating callousness about the daily traumatic experiences of the many communities present at Iowa State. The defensive nature of your response suggests that you are greatly disconnected from and apathetic to the experiences of multiple communities on this campus. Further, your lack of empathy condones marginalizing ideologies and practices enacted daily throughout Iowa State. Your lack of empathy validates the police officers’ decision to not stay and protect the students, staff and faculty who were being verbally and physically assaulted in the tailgate area.

Your lack of empathy supported the lackluster apology from the white woman who damaged an ISU student’s property. Your lack of empathy allowed you to respond to student, faculty and staff’s personal emails to you with a form letter rather than a personalized one that acknowledged their experiences at this university.

Your lack of empathy led you to believe that it was acceptable — because of our policies and traditions as a land-grant institution — to give a tour of Jack Trice Stadium to and be photographed with a political candidate who has blatantly promoted racism, sexism and classism. The lack of empathy from this administration is a problem that cannot and must not be tolerated.

Leading an institution such as Iowa State requires humility rather than arrogance. The leadership team that crafted the official institutional response failed to exhibit humility by attempting to use the tearing of a sign by one person as a scapegoat. To our previous point, her actions as well as the actions of hundreds of people of all ages and affiliations, who verbally assaulted silent demonstrators with racist and xenophobic statements and physically assaulted students and staff by grabbing their faces and throwing bottle caps at them for nearly four hours, are examples in a lengthy list of occurrences that people face daily. Your condescending response only validated assailants in the ISU community.

Speaking directly about the Cy-Hawk tailgate situation, the timeliness of the university’s response was problematic. While we understand time is needed to gather facts, videos went viral and national media outlets began reporting stories the following day. At that point, empathy could have been expressed. A statement reinforcing the espoused values of Iowa State could have been reiterated by the administration while simultaneously acknowledging that time would be taken to more fully address any and all issues — therefore enacting said values of the institution.

Any and all acts of — physical, verbal or psychological — should have been acknowledged and condemned immediately.

Interpreting the land-grant mission 

The land-grant status of this institution is something that is acknowledged often. However, the interpretation of the land-grant mission as an open invitation for bigotry and hate and an excuse to not address very real issues throughout the ISU academic and social environment must be challenged. We recognize the necessity for political capital if Iowa State is going to be a leader locally, nationally and globally.

But without the intellectual and social capital of minority communities that vision is null. Political capital cannot come at the expense of people — individually or collectively. We must acknowledge exclusion and marginalization is ingrained in everything we do, including the ways we enact our land-grant mission. We must immediately acknowledge this reality and co-construct a community that excludes bigotry. And, although the notion of reducing people to budgetary items is crass, if the only motivating factor for this reinterpretation is the realization that many students, staff and faculty of color are considering leaving, then the notion deserves credence.

Recruitment and retention

We recognize that Iowa State has put forth efforts to increase certain aspects of diversity, namely recruiting diverse bodies. While we see this as an important step in greater campus diversity and inclusion, we also recognize that we are not able to retain many who come. The racist and xenophobic actions at the Cy-Hawk tailgate, the half-hearted response and the continued ignorance toward deep-seated issues of equity in this community highlight why retention of highly skilled and qualified faculty, staff and students will continue to prove problematic. Not only is there now heightened discussion among some employees who feel Iowa State is not conducive to the attainment of their professional and personal goals, many minority students have reported feeling unsafe and are looking at other educational opportunities and institutions. These discussions are completely justified.

Over the last couple of weeks, students have spent long hours in meetings and discussions determining just action related to the events of the Cy-Hawk tailgate rather than spending time mastering their disciplines. Faculty and staff have spent copious time supporting, acknowledging, mentoring and comforting students and educating administrators and fellow campus colleagues as opposed to spending time on activities that warrant promotion in our institution.

The majority of these students, faculty and staff are from minority communities, and this additional workload illustrates the onerous tax placed upon these communities daily to attempt the creation of an inclusive and equitable campus.

Call to conscious action

In conclusion, President Leath, the leadership of this institution has a gargantuan amount of work to do in order to rebuild trust and confidence in your abilities to lead the multiple communities at Iowa State.

More explicitly we request the following at a minimum:

We must have opportunities for open dialogue that fosters healthy collectivism, introspection and critical thought regarding issues of diversity, inclusion and equity at Iowa State. Institutional leadership and administration must be present for these opportunities.

An authentic showing of empathy from the administration of this institution is requisite. A sincere apology for unconsciously condoning racism and xenophobic acts of physical, psychological and verbal violence on campus is owed to the students, faculty and staff you serve.

Those serving in administrative, and particularly decision-making, positions must be required to engage in learning opportunities related to power and privilege. This includes the regents, president, provost, vice presidents, academic deans, directors, assistant directors, faculty and all others who have control and oversight of resources, e.g. fiscal, curricular, et cetera. 

Administrators must strategize, adopt and enact a campus-wide plan to foster an authentic sense of equity, diversity and inclusion on this campus. The position of vice president for diversity and inclusion is but one small piece of a complex cultural puzzle that requires the time, energy and efforts of all people at Iowa State if it is to change. As a part of developing a campus-wide plan, we ask that you reference Iowa State University’s Diversity Audit and Assent Inventory, published in 2014. Page six enumerates eight recommendations that should be carried out. 

Two years later, we are nearing the completion of one recommendation — the hiring of a chief diversity officer. We ask that the other seven points be specifically and proactively addressed. Additionally, there are books, conferences and experts in the field of equity and inclusion that would all serve as helpful references. We would be happy to provide these resources upon request.

Finally, we supplicate the entirety of our community to cast off the shackles of ignorance and delusion that create a toxic environment in which others must live. We implore all to live the high ideals of respect, consideration and inclusion. We ask that each individual take ownership of our community and never again permit a group of students, enacting their constitutional right to peaceful assembly, to be further marginalized through hateful speech and acts.

Gloria Anzaldúa, a scholar on feminist, queer and cultural theory, said, “Do work that matters. Vale la pena.”