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Black students say Western Illinois University is not supporting them; administration responds

Demonstrators marched down Carroll St. on their way to Chandler Park in September, 2020 after issuing their demands at a rally outside Sherman Hall on the WIU campus.
Rich Egger/TSPR file photo
Demonstrators marched down Carroll St. on their way to Chandler Park in September, 2020 after issuing their demands at a rally outside Sherman Hall on the WIU campus.

Black students at Western Illinois University's Macomb campus say they are not seeing any progress on a list of demands they issued to the university more than a year ago. Several of them raised their concerns at the December 2 Board of Trustees meeting.

“Sorrow is not even the word that describes how I feel about being at this institution. I feel almost shameful wasting thousands of dollars for an institution that will never support me,” said Jalen Carlos, vice president of the Black Student Association.

He told the board the list includes:

  • Rebuild the African American Studies Department and allow students to major in the subject (note: African American Studies, Philosophy, Women’s Studies, and Religious Studies were eliminated as majors at WIU in 2016during the administration of Dr. Jack Thomas. All four are still offered as minors)
  • Include WIU’s Black students in the process of hiring teachers for the African American Studies Department
  • Require all WIU students to take two courses in the African American Studies Department: Intro to African American Studies and African American Literature
  • The institution should only support businesses in Macomb that support Black people and the Black Lives Matter movement
  • Hire more professors, staff, and student affairs professionals who are Black and increase the university’s ethnic diversity and racial makeup by 40%
  • Create a separate building for the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center, which currently shares the Multicultural Center with several other organizations.
  • Mandate professors to complete diversity training that includes history of the current campus climate at WIU.
  • Create a more inclusive environment for the Black community through a student-centered approach

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WIU President’s Response

Current WIU President Guiyou Huang told the students his administration has reviewed the list and has written a report that will let them know what has been done.

“It’s not totally accurate that nothing has been done. Some are more visible than others, but that report will give you a pretty good comprehensive idea of what it is,” said Dr. Huang.

He said the report, which he called a starting point, will be shared with students this week.

Huang said he has also encountered racism in his life. “I am Chinese. I speak with an accent,” Huang said. “I don’t like microaggression. I don’t like people ignoring me because I’m Asian. I don’t like anyone that harasses people.”

The president added he does not condone discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation. He said he fights against racism, and that the report will demonstrate some progress is being made.

And he assured students that African American Studies will be brought back as a major.

A Board Member’s Response

Board member Polly Radosh also said it’s not true that nothing has been done.  She said she participated in the September, 2020, march and rally where the list was issued, and met with university leaders the next day to start addressing the students’ concerns.

Radosh said during her time as a faculty member starting in 1984 (she is now retired from teaching), it was their highest priority to hire a diverse workforce.      

“And we worked very hard on that for a long period of time. It’s not obvious to people but it’s hard, it’s very hard to attract diversity to this region for a wide range of reasons,” she said.

Radosh said Western had built a diverse faculty, but then the two-year state budget impasse under former Governor Bruce Rauner damaged Western’s finances and caused the school to lose a high proportion of its diverse faculty.

Radosh told the students their demands are appropriate, but cautioned them that the wheels of the university turn very slowly.

“The faculty owns the curriculum. Curricular changes have to come from the faculty to us. We can’t take those demands and go to the faculty and say, ‘You need to do this.’ It comes from them to us,” Radosh said.

“And they have been working on it. They’ve been working on it from the day of the protest.”

She said WIU strives to give everyone at every level a say in the process, which is one reason why change takes so long.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Copyright 2021 Tri States Public Radio. To see more, visit Tri States Public Radio.

Rich Egger is the news director at Tri States Public Radio.