Effects of reparations resolution felt outside SGA

Executive Vice President Nolan Miles addresses attendees at the Student Government Association meeting in the newly constructed SGA senate chambers in the Downing Student Union on on Sept. 23, 2014. Prior to this year, SGA meetings were held in Cravens Library. William Kolb/HERALD

Jamie Williams

The Student Government Association passed a resolution at its meeting Tuesday night calling for reparations for black students, triggering controversy on campus and across the state.

The resolution aimed to send a message to the university it should acknowledge slavery is “a debt that will never be paid.” The resolution called for a special task force be established by the WKU to research test-optional admissions, meaning ways to apply without using an ACT or SAT score, and geographically-weighted admissions. The resolution also called for all black people to have full and free access to WKU.

The authors of the legislation, senators Andrea Ambam and Brian Anderson, noted the language used in the resolution was largely symbolic, and they did not expect free tuition for WKU’s black students in the near future.

“This is something that I think is more importantly about sending a clear message than it is about actually trying to strive for the institution to actually give out free tuition to everybody,” Anderson said.

The resolution was heavily based on similar legislation passed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in February. The original petition was presented to the Associated Students of Madison by a student activist group called The Blackout Movement.

Tyriek Mack, one author of the petition, said in an opinion piece that despite UW-Madison’s diversity rhetoric, the school is not actually inclusive or accessible to black students in Wisconsin. Mack pointed out only two percent of UW-Madison’s students were African American as of fall 2015 — seven percent less than WKU, though UW-Madison has nearly twice the undergraduate population.

According to WORT Madison, UW-Madison experienced a large student racial divide last year after a black student was arrested in connection with anti-racist graffiti on campus. The arrest sparked a protest of hundreds of students and faculty.

WKU has had its own share of racial incidents in the past year, including a black student whose car was vandalized with a racial slur and an associate professor who received threatening notes that used racist language.

In a letter to the editor, Anderson said the legislation was an important step in creating dialogue about grievances black students face at WKU. He reiterated the authors do not expect free tuition for black students any time soon and instead hope the university will examine how it can better provide for students who don’t benefit from systems that traditionally benefit white students.

“Our hope is that as a result of this resolution, power structures that have been upheld to privilege a select few can be changed for the greater benefit of all,” Anderson said in the letter.

In the WKU SGA, a passed resolution acts as a petitioning agent to the administration, meaning any resolutions passed are not automatically made university policy. Following the resolution, however, many WKU students and alumni expressed their disagreement with the legislation — especially its free tuition clause.

“How is this system fair to other disadvantaged students, including poor whites, Native American students (who come from some of the highest poverty stricken regions in the nation), as well as immigrant families who are also struggling to send their children to school?” Tyler Muse, a former WKU employee, said on Facebook.

“[T]his really makes me think twice about sending my money to this school. I support people of all race and religion,” WKU alumni Shelley Haynes Heile said on Twitter.

Controversy over the resolution has continued throughout the week, making its way to national media outlets such as the Associated Press, The Rush Limbaugh Show, and The New York Post. Ambam also participated in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News.

On Thursday, WKU President Gary Ransdell released a statement saying while he understands the SGA was trying to send a message, the university will not be adopting any free tuition reparation policy any time soon.

“As we continue to work through elements of the campus diversity plan and on our recruitment and student success initiatives, we will focus on those things that help all students succeed,” Ransdell said in the statement.

SGA President Jay Todd Richey posted a statement on Facebook in support of the resolution, saying the SGA wants to begin a conversation about how to make college more affordable for underrepresented groups. He added, however, that the SGA does not expect free tuition for black students or any other group of students anytime soon.

“The response to this resolution has, more than anything, revealed how many people genuinely believe that racial inequality does not exist or persist,” Richey said. 

Reporter Jamie Williams can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].