UM students clash over space for students of color

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A University of Michigan student group demanding a campus space for students of color is under fire by some who are calling the request racist.

However, the group, Students4Justice, says its intentions are being misinterpreted.

Students4Justice at the University of Michigan — a group that launched in September in the wake of a racist fliers on campus and has since been vocal about university response to bias incidents on campus — submitted a list of five demands to President Mark Schlissel last year that include a space for students of color to organize and do social justice work. The space was to be separate from the $10 million Trotter Multicultural Center under construction in the heart of campus.

Some publications have interpreted Students4Justice’s demand to mean a space on campus where white students are not allowed. UM junior Cole Carnick didn’t go that far but he blasted the group in a widely read media report in the Michigan Review, a publication at UM with alternative views.

“The same organization that criticizes the university for failing to create ‘an environment that engages in diversity, equality and inclusion’ is calling upon the university to undermine these ideals by facilitating a sort of de facto segregation?” wrote Carnick.

Vikrant Garg, a core organizer of Students4Justice, said Monday the demand only specified it would be a space for students of color. “That does not mean no white people would be allowed,” Garg said.

As to why the space would be separate from the new multicultural center, Garg said there are plenty of spaces across campus for different groups. “Why is it that all activities of color must be relegated to one building?” Garg said.

UM spokesman Rick Fitgerald said Students4Justice presented the demands months ago with the premise the space would only be for students of color.

“The university has been clear with the students that the university will not create such a space, accessible only to some students,” according to a statement. “The request also violates the university non-discrimination policy.”

Garg said it was never the intent of Students4Justice to exclude students.

“We’re working with them on a whole range of their concerns and their request,” Fitzgerald said.

Carnick said he reached out to Students4Justice before his article published Feb. 13 for clarification but was unable to reach the group. Carnick said Monday that he is glad the intent is not to exclude anyone from a proposed student space on campus.

“It’s a great thing they don’t want the space to be exclusionary,” Carnick said.

Racist incidents on college campuses have been widespread in recent months, from graffiti on the campuses of Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University to racist messages left on whiteboards hanging outside dorm rooms at Michigan State University.

There have been other alleged racial incidents, including a Muslim man who said someone urinated on his prayer rug and emails sent to UM engineering students disparaging black and Jewish students.

Students4Justice students have met with university administrators, trying to get them to respond more aggressively to the campus incidents.

Garg said the space would serve as a place to document past and current student activism.

“We want something that is a breathing living center that creates an avenue for students to create this work and make the university a better place,” Garg said.