The University of Wisconsin Think Campaign student organization held a kickoff meeting at the Humanities Building Thursday evening to introduce interested students to its initiative that promotes an inclusive campus atmosphere.
UW juniors Jill Roos and Megan Olson, co-chairs of the campaign and members of the Associated Students of Madison Diversity Committee, led the meeting, which totaled eight UW students. Roos said she was disappointed by the turnout, but was confident that more people would show at future Thursday meetings.
"This happens a lot with new student groups," Roos said. "They often just need some time to spread the word about their group and get the ball rolling."
Roos added the group will focus the majority of the coming week on advertising and calling on UW students to get involved.
The event, though small, marked the official beginning of the UW initiative as a student organization. But the entire campaign is a joint effort led by the Offices of the Dean of Students, the Office of the Chancellor, the ASM Diversity Committee and the Multicultural Student Coalition.
Students may have noticed the effort on display since the beginning of the fall semester in its visual form. Throughout the semester it has been marked by the presence of black and red posters and pins that read "I Think, I Respect."
Though the slogan may seem ambiguous, Interim Dean of Students Lori Berquam said the campaign asks students to think about being more respectful to each other, to consider ways to promote inclusiveness and to take a personal responsibility for a positive campus climate.
"I don't know where you're from, or anything about you, but I can talk to you about whether or not you've engaged in a conversation with someone not of your race or sexual orientation, and whether or not you've made that effort," Berquam said in an interview.
Roos acknowledged on a campus like UW's with so many people, it's natural for a variety of ideas to emerge among students. She encouraged people to not be afraid to express who they are and what they think.
"The main thing we want to do is get students who may be different in some ways to talk with one another," she said. "We all go to college to experience new things, but not everyone is always comfortable with that. We want to establish a setting where people are at ease, can converse, generate dialogue and be comfortable engaging in conversation with someone they may not typically speak with."
This seems simple enough, right? So why did UW feel the need to create a specific campaign to address the issue?
Divisions on campus, if students pay attention, are hard to miss. Students who share similar backgrounds, for the most part, seem to hang out together. After all, those are the kinds of people they're used to.
"You look around the campus, and you see separated groups of people. The divisions are clear," Roos said. "I think it happens because we are allowed to fear each other. You don't have to acknowledge people, so most students just don't."
The reality is that these divisions probably are not uncomfortable for the majority of the campus: white Midwesterners. However, for many campus minorities, in any sense of the word, the story is much different.
"Honestly, you'd probably get different answers from different people when you talk about the campus climate," Berquam said. "If you ask someone who comes from Wisconsin, they may think it's OK. But if you ask someone, for example, who is from the east coast, or is Jewish, they may not feel as comfortable."
An inclusive campus climate, it turns out, means more than just a focus on a few specific groups. The broad stroke of the initiative aims to make all students, faculty and staff feel valued and respected, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, job class, disability or anything else. Essentially, everyone most likely qualifies in some way.
"We didn't want to limit the campaign," Roos said. "That is why it is such a broad brush stroke. Making UW more inclusive means including everyone in the effort. It wouldn't make sense to shut anyone out. We want to hear different opinions and thoughts. People can feel uncomfortable for so many different reasons on campus that apply to the campaign."
According to both Roos and Olson, the divisions on campus are not a recent phenomenon. Climate, after all, is not something that changes overnight. So, if these issues have been here at UW for a long time, what actually caused the university to make a concerted effort like the Think Campaign?
The creation of the program stems from events that occurred on campus last spring. Standing out from the typical goings on last semester was the hate crime against an LGBT liaison in Ogg Hall.
However, Berquam said the Dean of Students Office received other specific complaints from concerned students about discrimination they had encountered. She said these complaints, on top of what happened in Ogg, caused the administration to consult the ASM Diversity Committee and MCSC to promote change on campus.
"Lori [Berquam] came to us, which says a lot because usually to make a change on campus, students have to go to administration, not the other way around," Olson said. "She suggested we do something visible like hang posters and encourage people to wear buttons to get students to think."
However, the future co-chairs of the campaign told Lori they wanted more than just something that people could look at. They wanted to take a much larger step than simply hanging posters and wearing pins.
"We felt like this was a larger problem than just some visual thing the campus could deal with," Roos said. "And since administration wanted to do something about it, we felt like we should do something meaningful."
A three-fold campaign resulted from the discussions. Included in the campaign are the visual posters and buttons, an approach from the administration and the creation of a student organization.
The posters offer suggestions to students on how they can improve the UW campus climate. Suggestions include "Become a Big Brother or Sister," "Express Your Views Respectfully" and "Put up a 'No Hate' Sign in Your Room."
The approach from the administration offers a bias reporting mechanism through the Offices of the Dean of Students website. The feature allows students to report any discrimination they witness. The office's Student Advocacy and Judicial Affairs will make an attempt to follow up on each case.
The Think Campaign student organization will include more outreach to UW students, working with other student organizations to promote diversity on campus.
"There's all kinds of groups working to make the campus more inclusive," Roos said. "We thought it would be better if we all worked together instead of separately."
The student organization will hold monthly campus-wide events promoting campus inclusiveness with the ASM Diversity Committee and will work with other groups on a smaller level. Olson said they are also planning to hold diversity workshops in the dorms to get UW students thinking about the program early in their college lives.
"It's important to get students thinking about this before they get too ingrained here at the university," Olson said. "I know when I was a freshman, I was open to all sorts of new things; I think that's how most freshmen tend to be. So if we get to them early, that will make a huge difference in the future."
With a campaign focused on making the campus more positive, why has it become a controversial issue?
Think walks on thin ice
The First Amendment protects, among other things, speech. Most disrespectful speech and "hate speech" is not punishable.
Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the university has every right to prohibit genuine harassment and can tell students what the administration believes to be true. However, the university cannot punish students for expressing views that oppose the university's position on diversity.
According to Harris, the bias reporting through the Dean of Students Office could potentially violate students' freedom of conscience.
UW political science professor Donald Downs expressed similar concerns, saying that the university cannot tell students to think a certain way.
"The university has every right to speak out about this, but they can't tell students what to think," Downs said. "[UW Chancellor] John Wiley has done a lot of good things on campus in terms of academic freedom, and I think this program can serve to provide good motivation for people to think about respect; but if it's used for moral bullying, that's counter-productive."
Downs, who is the president for the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, said the group has had an ongoing discussion with administration about the legality of the campaign. He added the group not only holds general concerns about students' First Amendment rights, but also is very worried about the university's bias reporting mechanism.
"Our concern is that the program doesn't limit itself to specific student actions, but general biases can also be reported, which can lead us down a slippery slope," Downs explained. "Anyone can file a complaint against anyone, and it becomes a part of public record."
Because the complaint is a part of public record, Downs said any future employer or anyone interested could look it up, even if the complaint is illegitimate. He also voiced concerns about the legal expertise of SAJA, the group investigating each complaint.
The campaign has the potential to be quite positive, Downs said, but how can the university have the initiative without being coercive, both legally and morally?