On Monday’s wet and cold afternoon, John Cowan sat in a chair, alone and refusing to speak, outside Wescoe Hall at the University of Kansas.
He held a white poster board reading, “HUNGER STRIKE in Progress.”
But unlike at the University of Missouri, where student Jonathan Butler’s seven-day hunger strike was part of a protest over campus racial issues that last week led to a tent encampment, a threatened boycott by the football team and the resignations of the university’s president and chancellor, no protestors joined Cowan on Monday.
Some apparently had joined him before, but there was no tent city. No boycotts as of yet.
Not black, but white, not a current student, but a former student, Cowan last year protested the university’s handling of sexual assault wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. The hunger strike he announced Friday drew little more than odd looks and the occasional question Monday from passing students.
“What are you doing here?” asked one African-American student.
In the ranks of protest, the movement that was born last week at KU in the wake of the events on the University of Missouri campus is at this point a far more muted affair.
“I would be surprised if anything at Mizzou were to happen at KU,” Sinclair McDonald, a sophomore from Atlanta who is black, said of acts of racism on the campus of KU. “I would be completely shocked.”
Ron Smith, a sophomore from Overland Park who is also black, said he was surprised late last week to receive an email from student government leaders saying they were trying to address racism on campus.
“I’m not particularly affected by it,” Smith said. “I’m surprised because it didn’t seem to be an issue.”
But in the halls of student government, elected student officials are nonetheless taking it seriously. Last week a committee of the KU Student Senate called for three top student government leaders to resign by Wednesday evening at 5 p.m., or face possible impeachment proceedings.
At MU last week, university system President Tim Wolfe and R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the Columbia campus, resigned amid the school’s protests over racial tension.
At KU, the call is for the resignations of Student Senate President Jessie Pringle, 22, a senior from Chanute, Kan., and Vice President Zach George, 23, a senior from Ottawa, Kan.
The demand arose on Friday, two days after a town-hall meeting on race convened by KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little that drew about 1,000 people.
It was alleged that neither Pringle nor George stood when those gathered were asked, as reported by the Lawrence Journal-World, to “stand in solidarity with their black peers and proclaim that ‘black lives matter.’”
Yet on Monday, in an interview at the Kansas Union, Pringle insisted that both she and George did, in fact, stand when the call went out. Just previous to that, she said, the protest group called Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk had set forth a list of demands. Among their list of 15 points is the the hiring of a director for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and for mandatory “inclusion training” for students and faculty and more diversity in hiring.
Pringle and George said that they did not stand at that moment because they were still pondering the nature of those demands. Then came the call to stand in allegiance to the ethic that black lives matter.
“We did stand for black lives matter,” Pringle said Monday. “We all stood at the same time. We totally believe that. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t be in these jobs.”
The call for resignations also includes Senate Chief Staff Adam Moon, 22, a senior from Mission, Kan. On Monday, none of the students said that he or she plans to resign, which would possibly kick of a lengthy impeachment process.
Pringle and George, along with Moon, have been involved in KU student government since their freshman years. The rise of race as an issue on the KU campus, they said, is hardly surprising because it has risen nationally long before the protests at the University of Missouri and other schools.
“This university doesn’t exist in vacuum,” Pringle said.
Said George: “We were aware — from the issues that occurred last year with Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City. This isn’t just an issue on university campuses. It’s an issue in towns and communities nationwide. This isn’t something that came out of nowhere.”
Pringle said that diversity and inclusion has been a priority for her administration since she took office in May and, even before, when she, George and Moon had other roles. KU’s student make-up is 72 percent white and 5 percent black. Its faculty is 2.9 percent black and 77 percent white.
“Every time we are able to talk to an administrator, we bring it up,” Pringle said. “We say what are you thinking about this? What are you doing?”
All three said they strongly supported the town-hall meeting that would later initiate a call for a vote of no confidence against them. They urged senators to attend to hear students’ voices.
George, who is openly gay, said that he felt he could relate to acts that marginalize other students.
“I know how it feels to hear people say some slurs or hurtful words toward my sexual orientation,” he said. “I don’t know how it feels to be oppressed if you have a black identity or are a woman or transgender. I believe I can relate to a lot of these stories to a degree.”
The students recount a long list of achievements in trying to address not just different racial groups, but also others for whom inclusion is important on a majority white campus. Efforts have included help in creating a Native American Advisory Board and the creation of a “reflection room” in the new student union building for where students can reflect or pray regardless of faith or beliefs. They’ve also backed financial support for the campus Black Men’s Initiative, cultural sensitivity training for student government officials, and others.
New initiatives were expected to be announced late Monday night. The three said they recognize the important need to do more to make sure all students feel included and safe.
“We can confront these issues,” Moon said, if the entire university, department after department, comes together.”
For some students, safety has been an issue.
Kynnedi Grant, the president of the Black Student Union at KU, reported on Facebook that she and three black female friends were physically and verbally assaulted at a house party last month by a group of white males using racial epithets.
Sophomore Gabrielle Frank, who is black, attended last week’s town-hall meeting.
“Some people were saying that we know all lives matter and we know that other minorities experience racism,” Frank said Monday. “Right now the problem that people are focused on is just the all black one.”
Senior Bobby Gay of Leawood said racism is not just in-your-face acts of exclusion.
“I think we’re in a situation now where racism is more systematic than it is overt,” said Gay, a business marketing major. “Changing and challenging the system is something that we have to look at more than changing the minds of people.”
Gay said the millennial generation is more accepting of diversity. But he said he could understand why some on campus are calling for the student leaders to resign.
“Asking them to step down is looking for a breath of fresh air, looking for a new source of leadership,” he said. “They want to see some change. I think KU has been very stagnant in being able to provide change and a welcoming environment for minorities.”
Senior Hannah Sroor, who is white, from Lee’s Summit said the attention to racial issues on campus is a positive thing.
“I wasn’t as aware of it before because I wasn’t a marginalized student,” Sroor said. “It’s made me sort of start paying attention to those things more. And I think a lot of the demands from those groups are they just want a more inclusive environment that they can learn in.”
Late Monday, Cowan, the former student, ended his hunger strike after about 70 hours.
“It is not my place to act without guidance of oppressed people,” Cowan wrote in a statement.