KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Minority students at the University of Kansas, frustrated by what they see as a lack of attention to issues they care about, are pushing for an independent governing body to represent their interests — and have won the school's recognition and funding to start the long process that could allow them to do so.
Students insist they're not trying to set up a wholly separate student government, with the thorny "but equal" questions that could spur. Details on how the arrangement would work haven't been decided, but advocates say they want a structure whose focus on social justice issues and multicultural students would complement the work of the traditional student government.
The novel approach at Kansas is something experts see as the latest example of the anger and impatience many minority students feel after generations of exclusion from campus government.
"It's important to raise the question of why would students of color want to go off and create a parallel student government," said Shaun Harper, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think people need to understand that students of color don't want to be segregated. What they want is inclusion, and fair and equitable funding of programs and initiatives that reflect their interests. They've reached a point where they are tired of waiting, because it's clearly not going to happen. They are saying 'Just give us our own thing.'"
Leaders of the effort at Kansas say they were spurred by years of neglect combined with specific moments, such as last semester when Kansas Student Senate leaders shut down discussion by some members about the appointment of a new head of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Similar long-simmering frustrations have contributed to student protests at colleges elsewhere in the past year — including those at the University of Missouri last November that led to the resignation of the system's president and a campus chancellor.
After several contentious meetings, the Student Senate voted in March to relinquish control of about $90,000 in funding per year for the proposed Multicultural Student Government and to add seats for multicultural representatives on a committee that determines campus fee allocations. The votes made the new government an officially recognized student organization but several steps are necessary before it would become a co-governing body.
Jameelah Jones, a graduate student who helped lead the effort, says the goal is to work with the Student Senate, perhaps with a liaison between the groups, but its main mission is to center attention and fee expenditures on minority students. For example, organizers would like a semester-long orientation for multicultural students, particularly first-generation college students, more scholarships established for underserved students such as women with children, and funding for students who face financial emergencies.
"It doesn't take away from what the Student Senate does," she said. "We want a smaller group focused on marginalized students and advocating for them at the university and state level. We pay the same amount of money and put in the same amount of effort. We would simply be centered on those students who feel they are not being represented."
The Kansas effort and protests at other colleges are pushing college administrators to acknowledge that students of color often do not get the same quality of experience as other students, said Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California-Riverside.
"Having a seat at the table is a good first step," he said. "The challenge is how it lays out, how to develop a more optimal environment for a range of students. We need to continue to think about students on campus who don't have a voice and find a way for them to be empowered and have some say-so as they traverse the educational terrain."
Still, how the Multicultural Student Government will move from a recognized organization to a governing body is "the big question" as many steps remain, said Student Senate President Jessie Pringle.
"I think it will be very difficult to convince some people that this is what is needed for this group of students. Right now, the waters are very murky as to who has the power and what decisions will be recognized," said Pringle, whose term ends this month.
University administrators aren't commenting on the proposed new government until they have a more formal proposal. Jones said the details will be worked out, but the goal is to change the structure of student government for all students.
"This is a step for the future, to push a deeper change in how we are represented," Jones said.