Like many other colleges in the U.S., Eastern Michigan University has an incredibly long yet infuriatingly recent history of racist aggressions against its population. As such, students fed up with the mistreatment spent much of 2015 calling attention to their plight.
Most recently, during a forum addressing institutional racism on campus, EMU’s black student body presented the Black Student 10-point plan to administrators and the community at large. Sadly, like so many of that community’s calls for help, it fell on mostly deaf ears.
The forum was announced via campus-wide email by EMU Interim President and Provost Kim Schatzel on Nov. 12, 2015.
"At EMU we have always taken pride in our efforts to support and promote a diverse student body and community. We are deeply committed to creating the best possible environment – one that is free from racism and racist incidents," Schatzel wrote.
The email arrived in inboxes shortly before nearly 150 students planned to walk out of class and march in solidarity with the students of Mizzou. Along with the Institutional Racism in Higher Education Forum, she also announced a bias reporting system set to be ready sometime in the middle of the Winter 2016 semester.
While many saw the email and subsequent actions by EMU administration as a success for diversity and inclusion on campus, it all proved to a predictable delaying tactic. Just 15 days after the forum, it was announced that Schatzel would take over as president of Townson University on Jan. 25, 2016 – before any of her proposed changes could be implemented.
“Anytime there’s a racial thing here, it’s put off to Calvin Phillips and Reggie Barnes of diversity and community involvement,” according to EMU senior Darius Simpson speaking on behalf of the school’s concerned black student body. “Schatzel’s response was exactly what we expected.”
In reply to the demands presented by Simpson at the forum, Schatzel continued to delay making any solid decision on the topic.
“I feel like the administration are not made to see from our point of view. So, they can say, ‘we’ll take two years and we’ll craft this plan and then we’ll get back to you,’” Simpson said.
“When she says that, she still isn’t getting it. The demands weren’t just some suggestions to throw in a pot with everything else that was said; these are the demands. It’s not a question you say maybe to then you put it off until next week. You say yes or no now and we move forward accordingly, period.”
Since the demands were born from the collective, generations-long wails for justice and equality from EMU’s black student body, they feel any compromise would and should be unnecessary.
“Were tired of getting shrugged off,” Simpson bemoaned.
The demands put forth by concerned black students of EMU is just one of over 70 similar lists recently presented to university administrators around the country. Once the trend and individual lists hit public awareness, comment sections across the web lit up with questions about what gave these students the right to demand anything.
“I am a paying black college student on a campus that does not cater to my needs; those are all the credentials I need to make these demands,” Simpson says defiantly.
EMU’s high enrollment rates and relatively low tuition paints a positive image of campus life. Still, their 6-year graduation rate is only 38 percent overall, while the rate for black students is nearly half that at 22 percent.
Though black students are being criticized for their demands, EMU’s Board of Regents' Faculty Affairs Council acknowledged the campus wide problem in 2009. To solve this, they proposed four “initiatives” that mirror the Black Student 10-Point Plan.
Sadly, there seems to be no further mention of these of these initiatives and, as of Dec. 2015, there’s been no change in overall or black student graduation rates. Interestingly, the rates for student athletes – a large portion of whom are black – jumped from 76 percent in 2010 to 81 percent as of Nov. 2015.
While a college education isn’t appropriate for everyone, it’s important that those who want one have not just access but also support in order to actually complete the program. Although the regents have stated they wish to help students achieve, they aren’t and black students are getting the worst of it.
As many of the EMU’s Black Student Union leaders near graduation, the pressure is on to finally make permanent changes in the institution’s core functioning.
“We know full and well the system that we put in place cannot work without the bodies to man them,” Simpson said. “We need these institutional changes, so it’s on paper and there are punishments for not following those procedures.”
“We need things that are going to work without us thinking about it. The only way institutional racism gets erased is institutionally.”
Key among those needs is recognition of historical perspective of their experience.
“I am a descendant of people who built this country,” Simpson said. “You can’t build a country on people’s backs, remove the weight and not address the crooked spine. Until you take those people to the chiropractor and rub that spine or do whatever needs to happen until its fixed, there can be no healing.”
More specifically, they require help overcoming the specific longstanding burdens they face, such as culture shock, representation, funding and over policing.
“Just doing the best we can is not going to get us where we need to go,” Simpson said. “We have different needs.”
That’s why demands 2-5, 8 and 9 all focus on increasing the autonomy of black students and educating the EMU community, including students, faculty, staff and campus police. While demand ten seeks to target the specific issues facing EMU’s black female population.
Demand one hopes to help black students visualize themselves doing great things and meet others who already have.
“Students need to see people in power who look like them so they can aspire to be that,” Simpson said. “It’s not just motivation that’s stopping us; there’s a skin tone thing here that needs to be addressed.”
Black students make up 20.6 percent of EMU’s 18,340 undergraduate students, but only 10 percent of their approximately 2,600 faculty members.
The most commonly cited reason for black students failing to cross the finish line is securing funding for school. Demand seven would help make paying for school easier on black students who’re much less likely to have financial support from their families.
Demand six would help decrease the overall cost of attending EMU dramatically for anyone who wants to cook their own food.
“This demand came from knowing people that have turned away from EMU or only did one semester because their meal plan was so expensive that person had to move off campus and they never made it back,” Simpson said.
According to the USDA, the average person aged 14-50 spends about $256 per month on groceries. On the other hand, EMU offers students three “options” for their mandatory meal plans, the least expensive offering only 8 meals per week for $569 per month.
A student living on campus must spend at least $6,828 to eat each calendar year versus $3,072 for those living off campus. This means choosing between spending 38 percent of the average black individual’s $18,102 pre-tax income on a meal plan or take out loans.
That cost does not include tuition, housing or books, which can easily add another $12,000 in costs annually.
On Dec. 8, 2015 EMU’s board of regents voted to raise the prices of tuition, housing and meal plans by nearly 8 percent because it would bring in more revenue for the school than a $1 million subsidy from the state. This makes black student’s call for financial advisers more important than ever.
If the need is stronger than ever, these problems have been known for at least six years, administrators have proposed and failed to follow through on similar plans, then why aren’t listening to the cries of their black students? Is EMU incapable of providing the environment needed for black students and students in general or is that they don't actually care?
Considering EMU is still seeing record registration numbers despite squeezing students for even more, it seems ignoring the needs of its students is all a part of EMU's business plan. Although, with continuing protests on campus from NAACP, Black Student Union, Native Americans and Muslims, as well as staff and students against EMU’s participation in the highly criticized Education Achievement Authority, ignoring the needs of its students might not be profitable for much longer.
Despite the administration’s best efforts to pacify the protestors, Simpson and rest of the community are determined and pushing forward.
“We will have these changes,” he stated bluntly. “Strategically we’re playing it by ear, right now. Schatzel’s answer was not okay, but were working with it. That being said, the protests will continue indefinitely. Black lives matter.”