Tension from a University of Iowa social justice forum prompts mass walkout


Tom Jorgensen/University of iowa

The University of Iowa campus looking west from Old Capitol and the Pentacrest.

By Katelyn Weisbrod

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University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld’s academic year is ending similar to how it began.

Tension grew after Harreld refused to respond to multiple questions from community members at a Just Living Theme Semester planning committee discussion on Tuesday night. The event also saw several audience members, including Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan, left the forum shortly after it started.

Initially, the discussion was intended for the committee to reflect with Harreld about the Just Living themed semester, which brought speakers and events to campus centered on the theme of social justice. However, the night’s conversation quickly shifted to the topic of inequality and injustice on campus during a time of scarce financial resources.

The audience of the public event saw a large turnout from members of the organization Iowans Defending Our Universities, and other community members who expressed their dissatisfaction with the UI’s current leadership.

Audience members directly asked questions about how social justice issues are treated on campus to Harreld, some of which he did not respond to.

One audience member asked Harreld why nearly 2,700 student employees are paid below the current minimum wage in Johnson County, which went up to $9.15 from $8.20 on Sunday.

Harreld did not respond to the question, as audience members called for him to “defend his policies.” The UI president’s lack of response prompted several audience members, including Sullivan to leave the event.

Jose Orduna, an adjunct instructor in creative writing, asked Harreld: “how are you going to achieve racial and social justice when we know all you’re going to do is cut funding and continue not paying people what they’re due?”

In response, Harreld said, the need for more resources is clear.

“Actually most of this week is focused on the issue of how we’re going to find more resources,” he said. “We’re also looking at making sure we reallocate the scarce resources that we have, and that might be possible if we think more intelligently.”

However, Harreld’s response was cut short after an audience member shouted, “cut administrator pay.”

Parts of the discussion did focus back on the original subject.

Committee member and student ambassador Donovan Roberts pointed out that most of the attendees were not students, and said he did not feel as if the environment was conducive for students to come and talk about racial and social injustices on campus.

“I know this is a public space for us to speak, but for students coming from oppression, this is not a comfortable place for them to speak,” Roberts said.

When Harreld asked Roberts what could be done to make oppressed students feel more comfortable, Roberts said, he suggests establishing a multicultural center where students can freely share their perspectives and experiences with one another.

A UI student in the audience also weighed in to answer Harreld’s question. Tanvi Yenna said she does not always feel comfortable discussing racial injustices in the classroom.

“I feel like talking about racial injustices with people who have experienced that instead of with people who will invalidate my experiences,” Yenna said.

“I wonder if there should be more people who look like me on panels like this,” she said, referencing the committee’s lack of diversity, which consisted of eight white members out of the 10 present.

Despite not addressing all of the concerns brought up at the event, Harreld said, he hopes discussions about social justice continue even after the themed semester is over.

“We could use the summer to collect our thoughts, we can find the areas where we still need to have a dialogue,” he said.



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