ISU says it's responding to LGBTQIA+ student concerns
An Illinois State University administrator says the institution is reviewing what it can do better to support its LGBTQIA+ community after student outcry last month.
Chief Equity and Inclusion officer Doris Houston said in the weeks since critiques were first raised, ISU leaders have had a "number of dialogues" about "where we need to go so that every student feels supported, protected, etc."
"We absolutely want the campus community to know that Illinois State University stands with the LGBTQIA community and we're deeply sorry that anyone had to experience anti-LGBTQ hate in any form," Houston said in an interview with WGLT. "That's right off the bat."
Houston's comments and details of what administrators plan to do come after weeks of student criticism of the university's response to a string of reported homophobic incidents.
First came bigoted vandalism on campus in late-September. Then, in mid-October, ISU junior Jakai Martin took to social media to say that LGBTQ+ students "are not safe" on campus and describing his own assault during homecoming weekend. Martin called for meetings with president Terri Goss Kinzy, led a protest on campus that stopped in front of Hovey Hall, and spoke at multiple student government meetings.
Now, after finally obtaining the requested meetings with administrators, Martin told WGLT the institutional response has been a mixed bag.
"I know that Dr. Doris Houston has been assembling a team of people to specifically address the issues that queer students have been advocating for, so that's a really great thing I saw happen," Martin said. "I have (also) been really displeased with some student groups I've been working with ... that nothing has been accomplished. I guess it really depends: Some things are happening and some things aren't."
Houston told WGLT it will likely take some time before working groups are fully assembled and demonstrable results produced — but things are in the works. And from the meetings administrators have already had, she said, there have been some tangible takeaways.
"We heard loud and clear from our meeting with Jakai, as well as students from ISU Pride, that some of our resources — students didn't even know about them," Houston said. "So, as we're looking at short-term and long-term actions to take ... One of the first things on the list is to be able to revisit the resources we currently have."
Houston said the university will likely create an awareness campaign to let people know what ISU already is doing, ranging from where to report incidents of discrimination, available training, and events at Multicultural Center.
Some student critique of administration stemmed from how "tight-lipped" (as Martin previously described it) the university had been regarding its potential disciplinary process for any students who may have been involved in the anti-LGBTQ acts of vandalism or violence. At the time, Vice President of Student Affairs Levester Johnson said the university was obligated to withhold comments that could be construed as bias while internal investigations remained ongoing.
Houston underscored that same point, but also noted that many people didn't understand that approach — and also didn't know how the process works.
"We can do a better job, again, of educating the community about what that whole process involves — what are the steps to an investigation, the fact that people have a right to appeals, etc.," said Houston.
Houston said it's also possible that president Kinzy will issue an additional statement on the university's stance against homophobia — a direct byproduct of meetings with Martin.
Last month, Kinzy delivered a short statement in a video that was meant to show institutional support for LGBTQIA+ students; some felt the attempt fell short and Martin, in particular, called for a public apology from the president.
"He asked president Kinzy and then also myself to put out an updated statement affirming that Illinois State University stands with the LGBTQ community and supports that community; I've talked with president Kinzy and she is absolutely supportive of that," said Houston, adding it may take some time to release since "we want to be able to provide some more details about what we having going on, or in the works."
Martin said their personal activism will continue, including writing, speaking at meetings and trying to push for tangible change, despite mental health challenges that have followed.
"I have not been doing well, but I still know that there needs to be a change and until other organizations step up and take responsibility, I still have a job to do, for sure," Martin said.
Houston said it's been difficult for administration to hear some of the issues students had brought up, but noted the activism provided an opportunity for leaders to reflect on what was being done right — and what wasn't.
"My philosophy is we should never turn away from criticisms or feedback because that is the only way we can grow as a campus," she said. "No one wants to be criticized, but particularly if it's constructive feedback — 'Here's what we need, here's what hurt, here's what harmed us' — I feel like we should never turn away from that; we have to be able to face it."