MANHATTAN — Kansas State University provides an safe and inclusive environment but can do more to meet the needs of those from minority communities, students and administrators said Tuesday at a unity rally that took place following a string of racially charged or discriminatory incidents on campus.
The university canceled classes Tuesday afternoon for a unity walk that took students to the front lawn of Anderson Hall, where they participated in the KSUnite rally, which featured campus leaders and students.
Some students on campus reported feeling divisions following a string of vandalism and racially insensitive actions on campus this year and last, though two incidents were incorrectly reported. The KSUnite event presented an opportunity to reaffirm the college’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in a student body that dubs itself a “family.” Student body president Jack Ayres said it was the first time since the 1960s the school canceled classes for any reason other than weather.
“We want to come together and reaffirm our commitments and reaffirm our principles and our values,” Ayres said.
Last year, two students sent a Snapchat, wearing apparent blackface and captioned the photo with a racial epithet. In May, a noose was found hanging from a campus tree. This fall, fliers with white supremacist messages were found on campus, and anti-gay vandalism was found outside the student union.
A Jewish ceremonial tent was destroyed in October, but officials later determined it was the fault of inclement weather. A Manhattan man admitted earlier this month he defaced his own car with racist graffiti and filed a false police report.
Darrell Reese, president of the school’s Black Student Union and a student ambassador, said he thought it was time for K-State President Richard Myers to address students on diversity and inclusion following the incidents. Reese, 20, of Dallas, said he thought the schools overall environment was safe and inclusive. He addressed students and faculty at the KSUnite rally.
“Even though I’m hurting, I’m hopeful,” Reese said. “Even though I’m saddened, I have not lost my faith, and you shouldn’t either.”
Myers told the crowd he thought members of campus needed to have more conversations about what they wanted the school to be. He said it was defined, in part, by its past and present.
“But we are also and more importantly defined by who we want to become,” Myers said.
Myers said the campus wanted to be welcoming and a learning environment, not fearful.
“We won’t let fear dominate or divide us,” Myers said. “We’ll be defined by our common history, our common humanity and our common future.”
Reese said he wanted to remind students of color they were still on campus despite the hurtful incidents.
“Let me tell you that you represent excellence,” Reese said. “Despite your history, despite hatred, despite racism, despite how these incidents have affected you, you are still here.”
The discriminatory incidents, including those that turned out to be false, created a “tense” environment, Reese said in an interview.
“At K-State, we’ve always been a campus that’s committed to family being united,” Reese said. “The sad part is that not everybody feels that way.”
Ayana Belk, a freshman from Kansas City, Mo., said she thought each racially charged incident harmed the campus culture at K-State. At some points, she said she was ready to go home to Kansas City.
“They make people that you never would have thought of come to the defense of whoever did the events. They make people feel like they’re not wanted here,” Belk said. “They just make a lot of trouble, and it causes a lot of issues. Every instance is like another fracture, basically, in the foundation of K-State, which is supposed to be diversity and inclusion and family.”
Belk, 17, said she was a member of the unofficial Project Inclusion group that seeks to bring together groups from across campus.
Belk said she thought Tuesday’s event was an important opportunity to show K-State is a united campus and to bring students together. She said she had not felt personally discriminated against at K-State, but she and other students felt unsafe because of general racially charged events on campus.
“It finally shows that K-State is a unified campus, that we are not trying to be divided,” Belk said.
As she walked from a campus dining center with more than 50 fellow students to KSUnited, Jenae Anderson, a Wathena freshman, said she decided to attend Tuesday’s event to show K-State is a family. She said she felt like K-State was an inclusive campus.
“I am biracial, and so I believe that no matter what color you are, we are all created equal,” said Anderson, 18. “Previous events that have happened on campus have really affected me, and I just want to show that we’re all family here and we all care for each other.”
Reese thought administrators had responded adequately to the concerns of multicultural students, but there’s room for improvement. He said students had been calling for cultural competency classes, more need-based scholarships and a multicultural student center for years.
Pat Bosco, vice president for student life, said he first floated the idea of a multicultural center in 1999. Eight months ago, the college started a planning group to start work on the center. Bosco said the group would create a program statement by the end of the school year to inform its fundraising for the center. He said students were “understandably” frustrated by the long road to create the center.
“This project has been delayed,” Bosco said. “There’s been miscommunication through no one person’s fault — good people with the best intentions. Somewhere along the way, this project lost focus, and we want to build on what’s been done in the past.
Bosco also announced Tuesday he had hired Adrian Rodriguez to become the school’s associate vice president for student life of diversity and multicultural student affairs. Bosco said the position was shifted to report to his student life office to be included in conversations about financial aid, academic success and retention programs.