University Failure and Student Response – Linking Today to the 1960s

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By KJ LeFave

Earlier this month, a horrific, hate-filled video of a UW-Madison student spouting racist slurs, threats, and a desire to own enslaved people began circulating around the UW-Madison community. It didn’t take long for the video and responses to it to go viral online, resulting in a petition for the expulsion of the students involved with the video amassing tens of thousands of signatures. However, despite the outrage triggered by this video, UW-Madison administration failed to respond in a way that protects and uplifts Black students. In a statement made by LaVar J. Charleston, UW’s Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, it became clear that the university had no intention of expelling those involved in the video. In his statement, Charleston cited the First Amendment as the reason the university is unable to move forward with expulsion. Quickly, Charleston’s response alongside other university responses, such as that from Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, were heavily criticized.

A group of students linking arms in protest.
Students are photographed silently protesting on Library Mall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison.[1]

Students swiftly called attention to racist incidents that took place at two public institutions, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Kentucky in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In 2015 at the University of Oklahoma, a racist chant at a frat party resulted in the expulsion of two students, and a physical and verbal assault of a Black student in a dorm at the University of Kentucky in 2022 also resulted in the expulsion of a student. At Oklahoma, University President David Boren stated that the chants created a “hostile learning environment for others,” which is listed as a violation in the school’s Code of Conduct and thus served as the grounds for expulsion.[2] At Kentucky, the assailing student was expelled, banned from campus, and charged with multiple counts of assault.[3] Furthermore, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto emphasized that despite the student no longer being a part of the UK community, investigations into “Code of Student Conduct disciplinary proceedings and racial harassment misconduct being reviewed by our Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity” were also being pursued.[4]

According to UW-Madison’s Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, nonacademic misconduct is described as follows: “things like hate or bias, sexual violence, hazing or other issues that may work against the university’s living and learning environment that is safe and free from violence, harassment, fraud, theft, disruption, and intimidation.”[5] Armed with examples of public universities expelling students based on Code of Conduct violations despite theoretical protections from the First Amendment, UW students questioned how this incident, one that without question violated the university’s Code of Conduct, still failed to result in the expulsion of the students involved in the video. Outraged and unwilling to accept the university’s failure to respond adequately, UW’s Black students took matters into their own hands. On Wednesday, May 3rd, students marched from the Red Gym, the home of the Black Cultural Center, to Bascom Hill in protest of the video and the university’s response.[6] Organized by the student organization the Blk Pwr Coalition, the march to Bascom Hill stopped outside of the Chancellor’s office, where a silent sit-in took place.[7] Students sat in silence, with some students putting tape over their mouths, to illustrate how the university silences students of color.[8] When Chancellor Mnookin eventually made an appearance, students presented her with a list of nine demands, such as calling for the expulsion of all students involved with the video, academic accommodations for those affected by the video, increased funding for safe spaces for students of color, reevaluation of UW’s DEI initiatives, and more.[9] Upon being presented with the demands and being told she had 24 hours to respond, Mnookin left Bascom Hill after being at the protest for approximately 20 minutes.[10]

A woman speaks into a megaphone in front of a group of protesters holding up a sign that says "The Blk Pwr Coalition."
A protester speaks to a crowd on May 4, 2023, during a demonstration against the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s response to a racist video.[11]

Mnookin did respond within the time allotted, repeating the apology herself and the university had given to students, calling for “future meetings with student leaders” and stating that she called on instructors to be flexible in the classroom with students affected by the video.[12] Students were again let down by the lack of punishment Mnookin’s response had towards the students in the video. As a result, protests continued for a second day on Thursday, May 4th. Over 500 students wearing all black congregated at the bottom of Bascom Hill to embark on a march through Library Mall and the surrounding campus.[13] Again led by the Blk Pwr Coalition, participating students engaged in chants, listened to student leaders addressing the crowd, and locked arms in solidarity.[14] These protests aimed to show the university that Black students were not going to concede in the fight to hold the students in the video accountable, as well as showcasing that the video is part of a much larger and oppressive system that UW perpetrates against students and staff of color.[15] The Thursday protests also took time to celebrate Black culture and resilience through song and dance, with protestors blocking traffic outside of the Wisconsin School of Business to participate in dance circles and listen to the work of Black artists.

Black and white image of a group of protesters.16
Strike leaders, including Harvey Clay, Larry Taylor, and Bernard Forrester, in front of a crowd.[16]

The nonviolent protest efforts shown by the Blk Pwr Coalition and Black students on campus in response to the video echo UW-Madison’s history of Black students taking matters into their own hands to create change. During the 1960s, UW-Madison emerged as one of the most politically active universities in the United States for the mass anti-Vietnam war protests and civil rights protests that broke out on campus. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and as the Black Power Movement picked up steam in the late 1960s, UW-Madison’s Black student population “became increasingly unsettled by rampant racism and the inattention to the experiences of Black students.”[17] Following the expulsion of 94 Black students at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh for protesting for civil rights, a boiling point had been reached.[18] Beginning in February of 1969, the Black Student Strike commenced.[19] On the first day of the strike alone, “as many as 3,000 students demonstrated in front of 10 campus buildings, emphasizing the boycott of classes and nonviolent confrontation.”[20] The strike would only end when 13 “non-negotiable” demands were met by the university, such as that the university must admit a minimum of 500 Black students in the Fall of 1969, the establishment of a “Black Studies” department, that UW-Madison granted admission to all expelled students from UW-Oshkosh, and more.[21] Organizers of the strike “held rallies to educate the community about racial inequities, boycotted classes, marched to the state Capitol, took over lecture halls and blocked building entrances.”[22] On February 13th, 1969, the biggest march of the strike took place. Approximately 6,000 to 10,000 people marched from campus to the capitol.[23] The march was nonviolent, as all the protests of the strike were, and was seen as a huge success within and outside the UW-Madison community. The strike came to an end on February 21st, 1969 as a result of “dwindling turn out.”[24] Shortly after the conclusion of the strike, Black students and their allies saw fruition of one of the major 13 demands given at the start of the strike. In March of 1969, the Afro-American Studies Department, now called the African-American Studies Department, was granted approval.[25] The first Afro-American Studies classes were offered in the Fall of 1970, with students today able to receive an undergraduate degree, a certificate, a graduate degree, and a PhD minor in the field.[26]

The links between the protests of Black students today and during the 1960s are clear. By learning about and making space for the history of Black student protests at UW-Madison, we allow ourselves to better understand and inform participating in and supporting activists on campus today.

[1] Drake White-Bergey, Photograph, Madison, Wisconsin, May 2023, The Daily Cardinal.

[2] Sean Murphy, “2 University of Oklahoma Students Expelled over Racist Video,” The Florida Times-Union, March 10, 2015.

[3] Liam Reilly, “University of Kentucky Student Who Repeatedly Hurled Racist Slur at Black Student Permanently Banned from Campus,” CNN, November 10, 2022.

[4] President Eli Capilouto “Update on Racist Incident November 9, 2022,” Update on racist incident | Office of the President.

[5]Nonacademic Misconduct,” Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.

[6] Ian Wilder, Gabriella Hartlaub, Zoe Kukla, and Liam Beran, “UW-Madison Students Protest Outside Chancellor’s Office, March on Campus as Backlash over Racist Video Grows,” The Daily Cardinal, May 3, 2023.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9]The Blk Pwr Coalition Letter,” UW–Madison News.

[10] Wilder, Hartlaub, Kukla, and Beran, “UW-Madison Students Protest Outside Chancellor’s Office, March on Campus as Backlash over Racist Video Grows.”

[11] Drake White-Bergey, Photograph, Madison, Wisconsin, May 2023, The Daily Cardinal.

[12] Kimberly Wethan and John Hart, “Hundreds Protest for Second Day, Say UW-Madison Response to Racist Video Is Insufficient,” Wisconsin State Journal, May 5, 2023.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Norman Lenburg, Photograph, Madison, Wisconsin, February 1969, University of Wisconsin – Madison Archives.

[17]In the Classroom,Sifting and Reckoning.

[18]1969 Black Student Strike, UW–Madison,” 1969 Black Student Strike | UW–Madison News.

[19] Ibid.Europe

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25]In the Classroom,” Sifting and Reckoning.

[26]History,” Department of African American Studies.