Arts & Features Editor
A crowd decked in blue gathers in front of Ramsey Library, beneath the warming spring sun they hold signs with phrases written in red; ‘prioritize students, not paychecks,’ ‘protect victims, not abusers,’ ‘Am I a valid black student or a number on a diversity report?’ and ‘Rocky is rolling in his grave.’ Meanwhile, admitted students stroll past the protest, curiously eyeing the crowd of nearly 200 and signs they hold.
Students organize to enact change on campus
The protest, put on by a student made group known as Occupy The Quad, gained traction through their instagram account and flyers posted around campus.
According to their mission statement posted on their account, they are a collective of students who want to bring to light the issues of Title IX mishaps, poor administration practices, the culture of racism, lack of resources for people dealing with mental health and disabilities, policy hypocrisy and malpractices of campus police.
“We’re a student led organization who is frustrated with some of the ways that administration has handled certain things that have been brought to light and it’s based on the student body as a whole,” said freshman Alex Mbuthia, one of the three organizers behind Occupy the Quad. “We take input from all of the students that we talk to and meet and we just want to peacefully and as eloquently as we can kind of bring to light these issues and try to find solutions within the student body to bring forward to administration.”
Mbuthia, Mariana Kuehn and Sofia Falasco are all freshmen who decided to create Occupy the Quad after hearing different stories about students’ experiences with Title IX, campus police, the health and counseling center, as well as witnessing a lack of diversity, which they said UNCA had promised and advertised itself as during their orientations.
In Occupy the Quad’s mission statement, they state that while UNCA’s campus preaches diversity, the facts show 78.4 percent of the student body is made up of white students, while the remainder is broken down as 4.3 percent black students, 5.8 percent hispanic students, 1.9 percent Asian students and 10 percent other or unknown gathered from UNCA’s 2016 statistics.
“We were doing a lot of research on the athletics department and there’s only about 160 black students on this campus, which is a disgustingly small number, but we were looking more in depth at the sports rosters. So of those roughly 160 students, 25% of them are connected to the athletics department in some way. But of those 25%, only four of those students don’t play basketball and track,” Kuehn said.
Since creating their Instagram account, the three women said they have been receiving countless stories about students experiences with Title IX, administration, the health and counseling center and expressing their overall disappointment in the school.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned the past four days of organizing it is that these issues are a lot bigger than we once thought and there’s a lot more that needs to be brought to attention that they’re actually sharing with us in confidentiality and saying, ‘Hey, here’s my story, here’s what happened to me, do something about it. Help us,’” Kuehn said.
Leading up to the Friday event, the three freshmen made sure to learn their rights, where they could practice their rights to free speech and did their best to spread the word of the protest and Occupy the Quad’s mission through tablings at Highsmith and a poster making event on Wednesday.
Their goal is to push the agenda past more than just Friday’s protest, Kuehn said.
“We don’t want everyone to just come out on Friday and show their support and then think that the job is done after that because it’s not all Friday really is;” Falasco said. “The actual mission of Occupy the Quad is to get physical changes within the community and within the school.”
The protest fell on Admitted Students Day, something the three freshmen said they did not intend at first but worked out in their favor.
“We just feel like the school kind of put these things on a pedestal and created these illusions of grandeur and we all got here and one month in we were like ‘Oh, this isn’t what we thought this school was,’” Kuehn said. “We’re trying to help them and show them what they need to change so that they don’t have another generation of freshmen coming in who are just as mad and want to do the same.”
They said they want the protest to be peaceful and their goal is to get administration to listen. They want the student body to know they have a voice and the best way to have it heard is by coming together.
“We’re not asking them to go and uproot administration completely and rewrite everything. We’re just asking for them to go about explaining themselves in a different way. Don’t say we’re diverse, don’t say we have a great Title IX administration, don’t put Title IX on every single syllabus if it means nothing, you know, don’t pride ourselves on being diverse and tokenize minority students,” Kuehn said.
Vice chancellor for student affairs supports administration and its practices
Bill Haggard, vice chancellor for student affairs at UNCA, said it is important that members of the campus community, like those who created Occupy the Quad, come together and bring light to the issues they have concerns about.
“Students have a voice that they can speak to their experience here at UNC Asheville, because if we don’t hear their concerns, there’s no way we can address those concerns. I have a great deal of respect for the passion that those student leaders have on these issues,” Haggard said.
One of Occupy the Quad’s main concerns are the dealings and alleged mishaps of Title IX. Haggard said there have not been any Title IX mishaps to his knowledge and that any student who comes forward with a Title IX complaint is heard.
“That’s where we start, is listening to the student who has the courage to bring forward a complaint of that nature that is not trivial. That’s something that has taken a great deal of courage on the part of someone to bring a complaint forward. So first and foremost, they are heard,” Haggard said.
Haggard went on to explain that students who have come forward are offered support and accommodations by Title IX as their complaint is thoroughly investigated. Title IX then makes recommendations for action based on the facts and truth collected from the investigation.
Title IX faces a wide range of severity in cases, and the facts for each case are different, Haggard said. He also explained that when dealing with any Title IX case, it’s rare that either party will end up happy with the results.
“If there is a complaint against another student, like a sexual assault, if that person is found responsible that person’s not happy. If the person is found not responsible based on the facts and the evidence and the processes then obviously, that person who brought forward the complaint is not happy and does not feel that there has been justice in that,” Haggard said. “And that’s very difficult when that happens, but that is the nature of the work we take. We take all complaints very seriously. We never dismiss a complaint.”
Haggard reiterates that the facts for each case are unique and how sometimes the evidence that presents itself is enough to take action while in others, they cannot. He goes on to say that it is not that they don’t believe the person who stepped forward, but they have the obligation to protect the rights of all parties involved under federal, state and Title IX law.
“We’re obligated to provide care and services for the person who has come forward, we’re obligated to give them a fair and impartial process to pursue the accusation they have against another individual, but then that other student who has been accused, they have due process rights as well,” Haggard said.
In response to Occupy the Quad’s concern with the culture of racism on campus, Haggard said that it has something that’s impacted the country for over 400 years and still affects culture today, as well as impacting higher education in general.
Haggard, who has worked at UNCA for 13 years, acknowledges the fact that the campus is predominantly white, in a predominantly white area of the country.
“So, what can we do at UNC Asheville? We must listen, we must respond, we must, in our listening, recognize any structures that might contribute to the regeneration of a culture of racism when we must address those things and we must break them down and we must fix them. And that is everyone’s responsibility at the academy,” Haggard said.
Haggard stressed that we must work together as a campus community to end any cultural racism that may exist at UNCA.
“But I know that the Occupy the Quad folks have lifted up some data. The good news about that data is over the last 10 years our both raw numbers and percentage of students of color has doubled. The bad news is it was a doubling of a small number, that was doubling of a small percentage, so that progress is not good enough. So we have to continue to work harder,” Haggard said.
Haggard said they do have strategies to continue to recruit students of color and the school’s priority remains making their students feel comfortable once they get to UNCA.
When addressing Occupy the Quad’s concern for lack of resources when it comes to students with mental health, Haggard said it is not a lack of resources, but perhaps a lack of understanding of resources that the university can provide.
Haggard said the university provides what they call a brief therapy model when dealing with mental health. This brief therapy model has counselors meet and work with students for a particular period of time. If, after this period of time, the mental health problem requires more attention, they encourage the students to seek further care outside of the university.
“In other words, we do not have the resources, no, nor will we ever have the have the resources to provide the full range of mental health care just as we don’t provide the full range of physical health care,” Haggard said. “So our health services component of health and counseling is more of an urgent care center to try to get students in and get students out and get them well and getting them back to class and that type of thing.”
Overall, Haggard said that the students of UNCA are the university’s greatest strength. While no administrator possess a magic wand that will immediately fix the issues at hand, he said they do have the power to influence and make the right decisions, as well as use their power to do good.
“I also am confident that overall we have a safe campus, with a safe culture. But I recognize and believe that there are individual experiences that are inconsistent with that. So we have to listen and we have to work together to do better. And it’s a marathon that we’re working on, that we’re not going to give up on and we’re going to continue to work on,” Haggard said.
Protestors gather for Occupy the Quad protest
A group of 200 students gather among a patch of green grass, the designated free speech space at UNCA. Before them towers two black speakers and a microphone itching to be picked up sits atop the grass. Across the sidewalk stands a line of administrators and curious students, waiting for the protest to begin.
Kuehn, one of the three young women who organized the protest, takes her place between the speakers, picks the microphone up and addresses the crowd.
“I am so proud to call myself a UNCA student. This pride does not spawn from our administrative practices or infrastructure behind our community. It spawns from all of you, all of us coming together today as a united front to stand in solidarity with the victims and to demand administration to stop making excuses and start making changes,” Kuehn said, her voice echoing against the white columns of Ramsey Library.
Kuehn turns to face administration, explaining to them how the students who have gathered on the quad are not there as the enemy, or to pose a threat, or to make the school look bad. She said they are there because of all the students that have been left behind, because they feel they have been taken advantage of and do not feel safe on their own campus.
“Administration, we need you to understand something. There is nobody, absolutely nobody who is more disappointed that this had to occur on our Admitted Students Day than us,” Kuehn said. “If you spent only a fraction of the time and energy you put into covering up these injustices as you did into protecting us and fulfilling those promises you made us, then maybe we wouldn’t have to be here today.”
Kuehn finishes her opening speech with the crowd gathered roaring in response. Once their cheers die down, she asks everyone be respectful for the speakers they have lined up to share their stories that day.
The nearly two hour long protest begins with organized speakers who were asked to share their stories with the crowd and be heard by administration. The crowd remains receptive the entire time, often cheering to show their support or agreement. The line of administration claps after every story and remain attentive.
Once all organized speakers have told their stories, the microphone opens up for anyone in the crowd who wish to share their stories. Soon, a line filled with people of every grade level, gender identity and race wait patiently for their turn to address administration.
Corey Smith, vice president for the 2019-2020 school year, was one of the 200 students in the crowd.
Smith found out about the protest through word of mouth and social media. He decided to come out to show his support for students’ right to free speech and the stories they have decided to share.
“Administration is here, so administration is able to listen and they have to listen, which is the best part, to what students have to say. I would, metaphorically, like to think that they all have their pen and papers back there is what I’m really hoping. So honestly, I just wanted to witness the action,” Smith said.
Smith said the protest is the first step to starting a conversation with administration and hopes there will be follow up meetings to continue addressing the issues.
Smith explained how the Green-Smith Administration plans on focusing on the education of Title IX and continuing to educate the campus community about how Title IX functions.
“Obviously I’m very new to the position so I still have to set up meetings with Dr. Moffitt about what Title IX is able to do, what they’re not able to do. And from what I have heard, changing Title IX policy takes a very long time. But I’ve also heard it’s not impossible. So in cases where Title IX policy can be changed, as far as this campus is concerned, I think it’s absolutely possible. There’s no reason it’s not possible if all the students want it,” Smith said.
As students step up to the microphone, many of their stories are filled with pain or sorrow, bringing some to tears or leading others to anger. Some only address the crowd of protestors, while others turn to face administration head on. Many encourage fellow students that they are not alone and to never be afraid to speak up.
As the protest wraps to a close, Mbuthia, another organizer for Occupy the Quad, takes the microphone and addresses the crowd, thanking them again for their time and support.
“Over the past week, we have strived to start a conversation amongst our peers and have been committed to engaging our student body in a discourse, that hopefully will shift the culture of our school,” Mbuthia said.
Mbuthia goes on to explain how a large part of the conversation has been interacting with administration such as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Haggard, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Safety Eric Boyce and many others.
“We do not want, we need to see more student representatives for Title IX and sexual assault survivors. We do not want, we need to ensure that people of power who have been countlessly reported for acts of assault or dealt with accordingly. We do not want, we need better training for our administration, our professors and university staff on dealing with the care of victims of assault as well as students with disabilities. We do not want, we need to severely reexamine the way we tokenize our minority students and use them as a pillar of diversity,” Mbuthia said.
Mbuthia said in order to see change, there needs to be better communication between administration and students and when the student body comes together, they can achieve everything. She finishes her speech with a “Go Bulldogs!” and places the microphone back on the ground.
The crowd begins to chant towards administration, “Do something!” and echoes across the quad for the whole university to hear.