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Demand Letter 

UA minority students have united against an alleged culture of impunity toward racism, homophobia and sexism at the university

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MarÍa Inés Taracena

Kat Hermanson says she's had o drop out of several classes at the UA because her teachers acted homophobic.

"I am pretty tough, I [grew up in a military family], I have thick skin, but I am not going to be repeatedly discriminated against [by] my professor, whom I am supposed to be learning from," says Hermanson, graphic designer and marketing coordinator at the UA's LGBTQ Affairs. "I don't want to be outed in the classroom. We are expected to leave our identities at the door, leave so much of ourselves outside of the classroom or the university, become empty vessels but that is not how education works."

Hermanson alone knows at least four people in LGBTQ Affairs who've abandoned the UA entirely over similar circumstances. The environment is especially tough for transgender students. Hermanson says there have been cases where the professor has refused to refer to trans students by their preferred name and pronoun, and others have been kicked out from the bathroom of the gender they identify with.

Last month, members of LGBTQ Affairs and other university minority groups—African American Student Affairs, Asian Pacific Student Affairs, Native American Student Affairs, the Women's Resource Center and the Adalberto and Ana Guerrero Center—approached the UA administration with a nearly 20-page demand letter where they accuse the university of delegitimizing safety and other concerns minority students have. The letter was also published publicly.

"We find it insulting that the University of Arizona has not acknowledged marginalized student experiences or provided meaningful resources to address our concerns," the letter begins. There is "a lack of campus wide cultural competency, explicit and implicit racism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, ableism, sexism and rape culture that run rampant throughout our campus."

Also in the letter is a request for more funding dedicated to "diversity inclusion," which includes the retention of minority students; a demand to require all students and staff take mandatory cultural competency curriculum that would train them to be more aware of the challenges faced by minorities; and a request that more minorities are hired in upper administrative positions and faculty to better represent the close to 16,000 minority students who attend the UA and make up about 40 percent of the student body.

There's also a need for more mental health resources; a reliable process to report issues like a faculty member or fellow classmates calling a black student the N-word, for instance, as well as sexual assaults; and increased support for students living in poverty, such as scholarships, meal options and even free tampons.

The letter was signed by "The Marginalized Students of the University of Arizona."

Before spring break, there were two protests in front of the Old Main, not just over the list of demands but also news that UA President Ann Weaver Hart had accepted a board position worth $70,000 a year (on top of Hart's $665,500 compensation package as of this year) with the for-profit college firm DeVry Education Group—currently being sued by the Federal Trade Commission and in trouble with the U.S. Department of Veterans.

Before the letter came out, Hart met with each minority group on separate occasions. When Hart met with LGBTQ Affairs, Hermanson says she "did a lot more talking that listening." The group got 30 minutes with Hart, "and in our meeting she interrupted us 41 times, this is while we were telling her our stories."

From the listening sessions and demand letter came the new diversity task force, which is supposed to address the groups' concerns about the way the UA administration is handling these issues. On March 30, Hart announced UA Confluence Center for Creativity Director Javier Duran; Bryan Carter, associate professor of Africana studies; and Tannya Gaxiola, UA assistant vice president for community relations and chair of the UA Diversity Coordinating Council, will lead the task force.

"It will be the work of university staff, faculty, and students to implement the recommended actions coming from the task force and to report the results of those activities back to the campus community," Hart says in a statement on the UA website. "I want to be very clear that their perspectives and experiences are absolutely vital to this process, but that the students with whom I have met should not be seen as responsible for designing the UA's response, nor should the burden of our response rest on their shoulders when they are working to be successful in their studies. Our goal is to unify the University of Arizona and to work together to become a more inclusive, diverse and safe community, and I envision that others will be involved as the task force moves forward with its work."

Hermanson says she is offended that the UA has for long used diversity as a shiny object to attract and retain new students. She complains that Hart sees the UA as a business and each student that enrolls as a big fat dollar sign. While she believes that there are good people who want the best for all students, she wants an end to what she sees as a culture of impunity toward racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism.

The marginalized students have been meeting every week. After the demand letter came out, they had to deal with several media reports, one in specific that came from an alternative publication in Phoenix, where, they say, the author ridiculed the call for free tampons, asked if the marginalized students are going to propose more tuition increases or state support to cover the cost of these demands, and ignored the serious allegations noted in the letter. But that was expected, Hermanson says. Oftentimes, she says, minorities have the burden of having to prove any type of discrimination.

This week, Hermanson turned in signatures to hopefully qualify for the UA student Senate ballot because, she says, minorities need a voice at all levels of the university.

"Changes have to come from everywhere," she says. She promised that the list of demands was merely the beginning.

"As minority students knowing there are going to be other minority students coming into this campus, we feel it is our obligation to say that this isn't a safe place for them," Hermanson says. "I love the UA in a lot of ways, but I am not gonna lie to a group of queer students in high school, who are looking for a safe place, about whether or not this is gonna be a place where they can get an education and develop as humans."

More by María Inés Taracena

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