Student Protester Leads Walkout vs. “Racist” Leath, Slams Pence Hunting Trip with NRA Official

As university president Steven Leath took to the lectern at the annual Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity this morning in Ames, he was interrupted by a student activist who excoriated him over his inaction on addressing diversity problems on campus, ties to President Trump, and possibly illegal misuse of university-owned airplanes that included a hunting trip to Indiana with Iowan and NRA board member Pete Brownell to meet then-Gov. Mike Pence.

“Please join us in leaving this space until President Leath completes his insincere remarks. Then we can return and listen to the rest of the speakers,” said the student, a senior in women’s studies named Itzel Padrón Zuñiga, concluding a three and a half minute speech before leading a walkout from the Sun Room of the campus’ Memorial Union.

Zuñiga began by accusing Leath of “advanc[ing] an image of equity that you are not willing to work towards,” coming to the conference “to welcome us, and to take pictures with us, but never to listen to us.

“I have stood on that stage, shared my experience as a woman of color at this university, and I was not listened to,” she continued. “I am tired of my and my peers’ trauma being used as a tool for white educators on this campus.”

She then tore into Leath for his timid response in addressing white supremacist posters discovered on campus on two separate occasions last fall. The first time was about a week and a half before the election, when posters with neo-Nazi symbols that warned of an impending white minority population in America were found. Four days later, ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard appeared on dressed for Halloween as Phil Robertson, the racist and homophobic patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan.

On the day before the election, in an address that failed to acknowledge the taunts of “Build that wall!” recently directed at Latina students at a Campustown pizza joint or condemn Donald Trump’s many bigoted remarks on the campaign trail, Leath delivered a bizarre and passionless video-recorded address urging Election Day calm that was emailed to students and faculty and seemed to suggest he had little understanding of the legality of hate speech.

“The posters found on our campus two weeks ago may be factually described as white heritage posters rather than white supremacist posters, because they do not legally violate the First Amendment,” he said. “However, as human beings, we recognize those posters as hateful, racist, and bigoted. The message they explicitly and implicitly conveyed defy everything we work for at Iowa State to create an environment where everyone feels welcome, included, and valued. For many people, including me, the posters evoke feelings of anger or disgust. But for others, the posters also generate a real fear for their safety and well-being.”

A week after the election, following allegations that Trump supporters yelled “Fuck you, niggers!” from their dorm rooms at a group of freshman walking across campus and the discovery of a reproduction of a Nazi propaganda poster created in 1936 that was modified to add a message promoting scientific racism on the outside window of a campus counseling services building with a gay rights flag hanging on the other side, Leath issued a similar statement condemning the “posters and messages of racism, bigotry, and bias” that “are causing students, faculty, and staff to feel threatened and fearful” and calling for “solidarity against hate and discrimination” but little else.

This morning, Zuñiga also criticized Leath for the university’s reponse to Trump’s short-lived travel ban directed at the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. (Leath’s boss and hunting partner Bruce Rastetter, a Trump campaign adviser and president of the Iowa Board of Regents, dodged a question from the Informer in January about whether he supported the travel ban.) She then quoted her mother, who told her as a child, “Tell me who you spend your time with and I will tell you who you are.

“So tell us,” she continued, “who are you when you use our state-funded airplanes to go on hunting trips with NRA officials, as you did in September 2014 with NRA board member Pete Brownell? I can tell you. You are complicit in a system that lobbies and profits on behalf of violence against black and brown bodies through dangerous stand your ground laws, open carry gun policies on college campuses like the ones [bills] currently in our state Legislature.

“Who are you, when, according to your friend [and Ames realtor] Dean Hunziker, you were all joined by then-governor of Indiana [and longtime LGBT-rights opponent] Mike Pence at this hunting trip?

“I can tell you. You’re complicit in a system that legalizes and defends homophobia and transphobia and [infringes] upon people’s bodily autonomy.

“And who are you, when you redact these previously public records after you damaged a university airplane?

“By allowing Donald Trump on this campus and refusing to shut down white supremacy, you have put our safety at risk. You hang out and spend time and spend our tax money with racists and you, sir, are a racist.

“You do not deserve the brilliance of a single student of color in this room.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.