Western student body leads diversity sit in

Students brought their concerns about diversity and inclusivity to Dr. Salsbury

Marisa Cardin / Senior Staff Writer

On Feb. 2, at 3:30 in the afternoon, twenty-three students met at the lobby of Taylor Hall. Some held signs, while others brought only themselves. All of these students held on to a message of diversity that they hoped to spread to the rest of Western.

Following the allegations of the Jackson National Life Insurance Company Lawsuit, Jodie Howard, junior, scheduled a meeting with President Salsbury to discuss diversity and go over the open letter that the student body had written shortly following these allegations. “President Salsbury, your responses to multiple discriminatory events in Western’s recent history have been inadequate, absent, or tactless,” the letter read. “Last year, the administration’s stubborn and muffled reaction to the threatening posts on Yik Yak, a public social media forum, disheartened us. The silence from your own office, President Salsbury, after the hate crime that occurred in Colorado Hall last December, disturbed us. Most recently, your statement regarding the allegations filed against your previous employer, Jackson National Life, disgusted us; it was impersonal, lacking sympathy, and merely highlighted your own success rather than recognizing and taking responsibility for the damage that was done regardless of your own involvement. This is unacceptable.”

Madison Manning, one of the students who had organized the silent sit in, originally intended to be held right outside Dr. Salsbury’s office, encouraged the gathering students to exhibit peace and kindness, in order to more efficiently spread the message of diversity. A few minutes after everyone had arrived, the group of students moved in solidarity and silence down to Mad Jack’s, where they were to meet with Dr. Salsbury. Though the president was unaware of the amount of students he would soon be meeting with, he made it clear that he was thoroughly enjoying the discussion that followed. Upon Dr. Salsbury’s arrival to Mad Jacks, the peaceful protestors, who had been silently sitting until then, stood and proudly showed off their signs. “Diversity isn’t a game. Discrimination isn’t a joke,” one read. Another stated, in big red letters, “Equating race, sexuality, gender, and ethnicity is wrong and delegitimizes the experience of minorities.” The students remained silent as Dr. Salsbury moved through the crowd, taking his time to read each and every sign. By this point, about thirty students were gathered together, with more students approaching curiously as they moved through the University Center.

For the next few minutes, Howard and Dr. Salsbury sat at a nearby table, to discuss the student body’s open letter. The students remained quietly sitting around them. The crowd continued to gather, even drawing employees from Mad Jack’s and the Bookstore out to see what was happening. By 4pm, only thirty minutes after the sit in had started, there were nearly forty people there.

“I really appreciate this conversation,” Dr. Salsbury said right away. Soon after he arrived, students began calling out their own questions and concerns about diversity at Western. One of the biggest concerns that was addressed was the recent hate crime at Colorado Hall, as well as an incident of cyber bullying that occurred last year over Yik Yak, an anonymous messaging board. Dr. Salsbury said that, regretfully, it was hard to monitor things happening over social media. “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat…we would need a much larger staff to be able to monitor it 24/7,” he said.

When a student asked if he could comment more about the alleged statements made during his time at Jackson National, Dr. Salsbury said: “Those attributions of what I said are wrong, they’re false, and they didn’t happen. It’s allegations, and that’s all I can say on it.”

Students also voiced their concerns about the lack of professors of color at Western, and Dr. Salsbury agreed, asking students to feel free to bring their ideas of how to increase the diversity of faculty. “We can’t hire who won’t apply,” he reminded them, stating that, although he would like to have more people of color teaching at Western, professors of color must first apply.

Tukano Salat, Junior, raised her hand and stated simply: “I want to know how you’re going to approach diversity.”

“We’re [increasing diversity of faculty] by approaching the front range,” Dr. Salsbury responded. “And that’s helping. But I think it would be good to have a student subcommittee to deal with the diversity of students. We’ve already had great success on improving the diversity of our student body,” he added.

The conversation eventually led to Jenny Cirkovic, junior, asking Dr. Salsbury, “What are you going to take away from this?”

Dr. Salsbury thought for a moment. “I believe that there are two races of people,” he said, “the decent and the indecent. It’s important to give equal opportunities to everyone. I believe that color blindness and race blindness are important.”

Madison Manning immediately responded to this. “That delegitimizes the experiences of minorities,” she said. “You can’t be colorblind because we aren’t all treated equally in this country.”

“The most important thing I can learn about you is your value,” Dr. Salsbury responded. “What’s most important is how your background, culture, and ethnicity affect your values. Values trump all, in my view.”

Unfortunately, President Salsbury had to cut the meeting short in order to pick up his daughter from school. “We’re not always going to agree,” he addressed the student gathered. “But I can assure you, my intentions are good. To a degree, Western has some issues, but I don’t want that to be the only thing we focus on,” he said. “I will always do my best to share with you what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I don’t need this job. I’m letting you know my personal commitment to being here.”

“We will keep coming back and voicing our opinions,” Howard replied. With that, the President left, and the students remained to mingle around Mad Jack’s and discuss the sit in with each other.

After the sit in, a number of students were interviewed about the goals of the protest. Jay Ytell, a junior and member of SGA, had been at the sit-in since the group originally met in Taylor Hall. “Western stands for inclusivity and diversity, and every student is valued,” he said, when asked why he wanted to attend the sit in. “We want to show this to the administration and hope they follow in our footsteps.”

Jodie Howard had similar thoughts. “I’ve been on student council for three years, and there’s a lot of things on campus that aren’t heard,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that are brushed under the rug, and there’s a lot of problems that students are afraid to vocalize because of the power structure. We need to be able to have a free-speaking student body and be able to work towards what we believe in without things being brushed under the rug. When we had hate crimes on campus, not many students knew about it. I want everyone to feel just as important every day that they’re here, as important as the highest power on campus.”

When asked how she felt the meeting went, Howard said: “I feel like Dr. Salsbury didn’t really hear us, so I’m interested to see what’s going to happen in the future, and we’ll be able to tell by the actions that are taken from here on out. If we don’t see action made and if we don’t feel heard, we will definitely have more meetings like this.”

In a student-wide email, Dr. Salsbury later invited student to participate in an open forum with him and other faculty on Feb. 16, during which students could address more of their concerns.

On Monday, Feb. 6, the Western Faculty Senate passed a statement on diversity and inclusion:

“Western State Colorado University takes a firm and unyielding stance in support of diversity, inclusivity, scientific inquiry, and creative expression. We believe these principles are necessary for the free and open inquiry that defines our role as a public institution in a democratic society. We believe that these principles are a moral imperative requiring constant vigilance and a firm stance against actions motivated by hate or intimidation.  The university welcomes people of color, people with disabilities, people of all genders and orientations, people of all religious preferences, immigrants and refugees regardless of national origin or ethnicity and other underrepresented communities regardless of socioeconomic class. We actively seek to build a civil and respectful culture which affirms these principles in all that we do.”

The purpose of this statement was to assure students of the safety they should feel in and around campus, and of the importance of inclusivity, regardless of any differences between people.