As soon as students get off Highway 30 and arrive at Iowa State University, in Ames, they are greeted with bright yellow banners saying, “welcome,” in multiple different languages.
This is just one thing Julian Neely, 22, a journalism and communication major from Des Moines and ISU’s 2018-19 Student Government president, said the university does to promote inclusivity and reach out to students of different backgrounds.
It comes after incidents on campus this past year that included racist posters found in a college residence hall and a racist Wi-Fi router name on campus. But incidences like these are not unique to ISU.
US Department of Education collected data from 155 Iowa college campuses that showed 13 incidences of hate crimes occurring directly on campuses in 2016. Of these, seven were motivated by race, while two where gender-related, one was motivated by religion, one by ethnicity, and two by national origin. Other categories reported to the education department but with no crimes were sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.
Hate- and bias-related incidences at college affect students in various ways, ranging from wondering if a classmate committed the act to having to becoming your own advocate, said Neely, a previous chairman of ISU’s student-driven Diversity and Inclusion Committee and involved in the university’s Black Student Alliance.
“It becomes a job, in a sense. A full-time job.”
Nationally, there were 1,300 incidents from 6,506 higher education institutions reported by the US Department of Education.
Since this data was collected, incidents continued on Iowa college campuses: for example, racist language on residence hall doors at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, or anti-Semitic behavior at Drake University, both in 2017.
In December 2017, several students living at Pierce and White residence halls, located just north of the football stadium at Buena Vista University found words such “illegal” on the door of a Hispanic student and, on other doors, “nigger”, “KKK” and a swastika. One of the students was a former cheerleader who had quit the team when the university issued a policy stating students on the field couldn’t kneel during the national anthem.
Kneeling during the national anthem began in 2016 by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a form of silent protest against racism, social and criminal injustice, and systematic oppression. The form of protest has been adopted by individuals across the country, amid much controversy.
The Anti-Defamation League reported three incidences of anti-Semitic behavior at Drake University, in Des Moines, in 2017, including a swastika found carved into the wall of an elevator in Olmsted Center, a student center at the school.
Drake University also reported a racial slur was found written on a whiteboard attached to the door of an African-American student that same year.
In March 2018, Nazi graffiti was found over a University of Iowa unity mural located in a pedestrian tunnel beneath railroad tracks west of the Iowa River.
Racist fliers were left at the U of I’s cultural resource centers in early 2018 and several posters were found on ISU’s campus, also early this year, that depicted the United States shirking away from a hand reaching for the southern border, declaring, “NO means NO!”
The racist Wi-Fi router name near ISU’s campus this summer has not been investigated because it’s protected under the First Amendment, according to members of the Ames Police Department.
ISU’s Neely said addressing racism and discrimination, and keeping the conversation active on Iowa campuses is not about trying to change people’s ideology. Rather, he said, it is about trying to challenge people and earn their respect.
“You can live your own life. You can’t live someone else’s life,” Neely said. “I used to try to push people to believe in certain ideologies and ways to live, but at the end of the day, you just have to have that respect.”
The nationwide News21 journalism project reported that many incidents across the country that local authorities encounter lack tangible evidence for being investigated as a crime but that, even so, reporting these incidences is important.
“It’s important to look at the number of people who suspect they were a victim of a hate crime,” said attorney Roy Austin, a former deputy assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, said in a News21 interview. “People’s perception is their reality.”
Hira Mustafa, who is Pakistani-American, said she has learned that asking students about their views, rather than attacking them, was a more constructive response to racist or biased language she hears students use. Mustafa, 21, a senior from Des Moines studying ethics and public policy at the University of Iowa, is president of the university’s Student Government for the 2018-19 school year.
“I try to focus on educating with empathy, taking a step back, and having a discussion on where they got their ideas, seeking to understand where they’re coming from,” Mustafa said. “That’s more likely to expand their view of something and recognize the harm they’re causing.”
Mustafa, who served as a resident advisor in the residence halls for two years, said the university is adding a video to its rhetoric curriculum that discusses free speech and students rights, hate speech, and constructive ways to have conversations with people with different views. Rhetoric is a required course for first year students at the U of I.
The U of I created a Bias Assessment and Response Team, which went by the acronym “BART,” in 2016. The team was to provide a meaningful way to address the needs of people hurt or offended by something student did that might not be illegal or break the university’s student code of conduct, according to an IowaWatch interview with Sarah Hanson, the U of I assistant vice president of Student Life at the time.
Incidents a bias-response team addresses can affect students deeply, Matthew Bruce, who helped organize the Bias Assessment and Response Team, said.
“You’ve heard about the highly publicized KKK statue here? I was a freshman on campus. I could see the statue from my dorm room in Daum,” said Bruce, of Des Moines, who graduated May 2018 with an African-American studies major from Des Moines, referring to the residence hall where he lived in December 2014.
Back then, Serhat Tanyolacar, an assistant professor at the time at the School of Art and Art History, placed on campus without university permission a statue of a robed Klansman made from newspaper articles of racist incidents. The artist claimed the statue was intended to draw awareness to local racism, but students said the statue, which appeared with no notice to faculty and students, lacked context such as an information plaque and was irresponsible.
The statue was taken down, and the act sparked an apology from then-U of I President Sally Mason to those made uncomfortable by the incident. But the university came under fire for their handling of the situation. The artist accused the university of violating his First Amendment rights.
Cornell College, in Mount Vernon, had a similar experience in April, 2016, when three cement blocks, often used to write messages on campus, where painted with the phrase, “Build a wall. Build it tall.” Students recognized it as a reference to then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign to build a wall along the US-Mexican border.
“If we don’t have the ability to speak our minds, then we can never engage in discussions and debates about those ideas,” Cornell President Jonathan Brand said during a campus-wide meeting aimed at strengthening the need for diversity and civil discourse on campus following the “Build a Wall” incident.
RACIALLY CHARGED COMMENTS
Tensions rose at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, during the 2015-16 school year. Chloey Arispe, then a freshman elementary education major, said in an IowaWatch interview she was handing out fliers to a Hispanic Latino Student Union dance, “and someone goes, ‘oh, this is just a beaner thing.’”
And Alfred O’Brien, December 2015 UNI graduate with a degree in marketing management and ethics, reported being harassed when walking home from the library late at night.
A truck drove past him flying a confederate flag, and a passenger waved out the window yelling, “Oh, what’s up nigger! I see you out there nigger!” O’Brien said.
It was after midnight and there were no other witnesses, O’Brien said. A fifth year senior at the time, it was something he had become accustomed to, he said for an IowaWatch story in spring 2016.
Following the 2016 presidential election, Someone painting “Nazi scum” on a North Clinton Street home in Iowa City where a Donald Trump banner was hanging.
Kyle Apple, vice president of U of I College Republicans at the time of the election, said in an IowaWatch report, “When Republicans speak up about issues they are passionate about, they are instantly labeled racists, bigots, or misogynists. The labels attached to us for simply thinking different are wrong.”
Bryan Kampbell, an associate professor of communication studies at Buena Vista University said in a 2017 IowaWatch report on campus rhetoric he could understand why conservatives may felt that way. “Sometimes I’m not sure people on the political left realize how oppressive they were being when they didn’t allow people to disagree with things like same sex marriage by immediately jumping to name-calling or trying to exclude those positions from the debate,” he said in that report.
Iowa’s civil rights code protects people from discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, ancestry or disability. However, the Iowa Senate introduced Senate Study Bill 3120 in 2018 that would have prevented Iowa’s public universities from denying benefits attached to being a university recognized group to belief-based university groups because of their beliefs, or their requirement for members to adhere to similar beliefs.
These benefits can include using campus space for meetings or access to channels of communication, such as the student body email list. The Senate passed the bill 29-19 but the House didn’t take it up for a vote.
The legislation came on the heels of a University of Iowa incident, when the student organization Business Leaders in Christ, whose leaders said they adhere to conservative Christian values, were deregistered after denying an openly gay member a leadership position in 2016.
The organization’s status was reinstated in January 2018 when US District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled that the university did not apply its human rights policy uniformly. It states that “in no aspect of its programs shall there be differences in the treatment of persons.”
The university then deregistered 38 organizations, 22 of them faith-, culture- or identity-based, that did not submit documents proving they align with the human rights policy. It since has allowed them to register again, pending further litigation for a second lawsuit the group has filed against the university.
Business Leaders in Christ still is an active student group, pending that litigation.
BIGGER THAN COLLEGE CAMPUSES
In February of her freshman year, Mustafa was returning from a cultural event on the U of I campus dressed in traditional clothing when an undergraduate student called her a terrorist.
Although she said the experience made her and other Muslim students feel unsafe, it remains the only prominent negative experience on campus during her time in Iowa, she said.
What stood out to her more was the overwhelming support she received from staff, faculty and students when she spoke about the experience at a strategic planning forum the university held in May 2016 as its leaders developed a 2016-21 strategic plan.
“That is what really defines Iowa for me,” Mustafa said. “It’s not the issues that we have on campus.”
Moreover, the issues that exist on campus are not unique to Iowa, she said. “I believe every college campus faces issues of bias and hate.”
Featured photo: Places where someone put Nazi-related graffiti have been covered on a University of Iowa unity mural, west of the Iowa River. The graffiti showed up in March 2018. Photo: Lauren Wade/IowaWatch.org
This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.