After getting through the first problem of her statistics exam, University of Wisconsin engineering student Esmeralda Tovar felt confident.
“OK, I can do this,” she said to herself.
But once she flipped onto the next problem, her feeling of assuredness went away.
Shock and disgust took over.
The next question began with the following:
“The federal government plans to build a wall with height 6.5 feet along the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent kangaroos from jumping into the county. The project manager wants to know how high the kangaroos can jump. Ten kangaroos are randomly selected and each of them is tested for the jump heights … “
Tovar, a Mexican-American student, also had a question: Why would anyone think this is OK?
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Tovar, along with two other Mexican-American engineering students, Alan Meza and Cesar Andrez Aguilar, all filed a hate and bias incident report against their statistics professor, citing the reference to the U.S.-Mexican border wall as “insensitive” and “inappropriate” within the context of a statistics exam.
When Aguilar first read the question, he said his first thought was why there is such an insensitivity for people who cross the border. Aside from the comment about the wall, he felt the word “kangaroos” was inconsiderate to those who attempt to cross the border.
“What’s the common phrase that’s used when people try to [cross into the U.S.]? ‘Jump the border,'” Aguilar said. “When I saw the word ‘kangaroos,’ it suddenly felt humiliating — it was humiliating for the people, the little kids that sacrifice their lives trying to make it across the border. It dumbfounded me.”
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While Meza was equally distraught with the question, he didn’t see the decision to put it on the exam as solely the fault of the professor.
Instead, he saw it as a collective issue on the part of the statistics department.
In an email to The Badger Herald, UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone clarified the exam was not reviewed or approved by the department, rather, the instructors are responsible for developing their own exams.
Satya Chima, a UW bias response and advocacy coordinator, contacted Tovar April 12 and indicated the College of Letters & Science and the statistics department have been contacted and the instructors wanted to meet with those who filed reports to apologize.
Tovar met with the coordinator Tuesday and is currently in the process of scheduling a time to meet with all statistic professors as well as the department chair to talk about the incident.
Her professor has since apologized for the incident during class.
In addition, Yazhen Wang, chair of the statistics department said in a statement he is thankful students came forward and raised the issue.
“We understand why this has been viewed as insensitive and deeply regret that it occurred,” Wang said. “The instructors have apologized and I am working with them to engage in further dialogue with the students involved.”
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“It doesn’t cost anyone to learn about something like this,” Aguilar said. “Talking about incidents like these will help so many students and give them the opportunity to have their eyes open to these issues.”
While Aguilar said he would be grateful for the apology, the fact that the question went through several sets of eyes is telling of the university’s current climate. It worries him that an entire department couldn’t recognize a potential issue.
In addition, Aguilar said it “spoke wonders to him” that hundreds of students saw the question as well and didn’t see anything wrong with it.
“More students need to be more aware to these type of issues, and we as us students need to be more sensitive toward other people,” Aguilar said.
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When Meza went over the exam in his discussion section, he said the teaching assistant, along with two students, snickered after reading the question. It made him feel scared they thought it was funny, he said.
Moving forward, the students hope if a situation like this happens again, then others can recognize it so it’s not only them writing the hate and bias reports.
“We don’t want situations like this to get out of hand, and we don’t want to diminish the university’s image by any means,” Aguilar said. “But, we need to address these issues. The moment when we choose to not speak up is when things like this happen.”
Update 1:54 p.m.: This article has been updated to include statements from UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone and Yazhen Wang, chair of the statistics department.
Correction: A previous version of this article suggested the entire statistics department works to create an exam together. This article has been updated to accurately reflect the fact that instructors individually prepare their own exams. The Badger Herald regrets this error.