Frustrations about racism and autonomy reached a tipping point in University of Colorado Boulder’s United Student Government this week, leading one branch to go on strike and campus administrators to step in while sparking conversations about rethinking how student government operates.
Members of CU Boulder’s legislative council have raised concerns about racist microaggressions and not feeling heard by other student officials and campus leaders and called out changes to a policy that allows administrators to oust student government officials.
“At a certain point it became very clear to me that this is a systemic issue,” said legislative council President Sophia Khan. “It’s a system that works best when people of color are harming each other or being harmed.”
Changes to the policy known as the Chancellor’s Agreement has instilled fear in student leaders, Khan said.
The agreement in part states that a student can be removed from a CUSG position “if after intervention, their behavior constitutes a material and substantial disruption to the progress or continued work of CUSG.”
Khan said she’s worried that the updated policy could be used as a retaliatory tactic against student government members who criticize campus or system administration, as the legislative council did when it voted to censure former system President Mark Kennedy.
“The precedent that this is setting is that anything you say publicly that’s criticism, you can be fired for and lose your source of income,” she said.
Khan and other students voiced their concerns about racism in student government during meetings this summer and fall and haven’t felt heard, she said. And while harm has been done by all sides and all branches, there has not been accountability from other student government branches, Khan said.
Khan and other legislative council members cited an incident in which a nominee for a CUSG position made problematic racial comments and, when concerns were raised by legislative council members, other student officials dismissed the concerns.
In a statement, council Vice President Nikky Garaga said she has been yelled at for not voting favorably on certain issues and been asked to prove that things happened during meetings with video recordings “because my word is not good enough to trust.”
“I feel as though my identity as a woman of color has actively held me back in open- and closed-door situations where I should have been treated with the respect that I expect not only as a leader, but as a human,” Garaga wrote.
During public comment at a September legislative council meeting, graduate student Holly Oliverez spoke about sitting behind student officials during a previous meeting who interrupted, rolled their eyes, snickered and talked while Khan was talking.
The legislative council’s executive committee “is halting business-as-usual until there is a shift in behavior and institutional culture,” the committee said in a news release this week.
In a statement, CU Boulder student body presidents Kavya Kannan, Taylor Weinsz and Ben Capeloto said they are committed to helping the organization become an inclusive environment where marginalized communities feel heard and valued.
In a separate statement, Chief Justice Alessandra Wilson said the judicial branch is committed to being an anti-racist body and has actively tried to create change.
Kannan, Weinsz and Capeloto also defended the changes to the Chancellor’s Agreement, stating that revising it is under their purview and comparing the changes as similar to the student conflict resolution process that applies to the larger student body.
“It is of the utmost importance to note that this decision holds every member of CUSG to the same standards of accountability, including the Tri-Executives,” Kannan, Weinsz and Capeloto wrote.
The conflict among student government leaders led Chancellor Phil DiStefano and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Akirah Bradley-Armstrong to write a letter to Wilson, Khan, Capeloto, Weinsz and Kannan on Wednesday, acknowledging the pain and trauma they have experienced and resetting expectations.
“The escalation of discord this week is the outcome of growing levels of harm, frustration and distrust, both within the branches of student government and between members of CUSG and our campus administration,” DiStefano and Bradley-Armstrong wrote. “As many of you have noted recently and through the experiences of previous groups of CUSG leaders, it is also symptomatic of a dated governance structure in need of re-envisioning.”
But the campus also has immediate needs that must be addressed, DiStefano and Bradley-Armstrong wrote, such as healing harm and reestablishing civility; restarting critical functions like ratifying appointments and hiring staff; coming together to discuss the Chancellor’s Agreement; and coming to the table to re-envision student government.
“As student and campus leaders, we are in this together, and we have to find a way forward,” DiStefano and Bradley-Armstrong wrote. “As your administrative partners, we are eager to work with you to turn the challenges you are facing today into the progress you will make moving forward.”
On Thursday, Kannan and Weinsz said the letter from DiStefano and Bradley-Armstrong provides an opportunity for progress and a safe place to come to the table and rethink how student government works.
“All the students who are a part of student government have the potential and are doing work that creates change,” Kannan said. “We all have the same goals at heart to create a better CU for ourselves and future generations.”
The issues facing CU Boulder’s student government are not new, Kannan said, and she and other students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color or from marginalized groups all deserve to have their stories heard and validated.
“We all have a duty to look into ourselves to actively try to combat these issues together,” she said. “We can only make changes within this organization if we work together.”
(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)