A small group of students is grabbing media attention after demanding that Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng either step down or provide them safe spaces. The ultimatum was issued by a group calling itself NAU Student Action Coalition.
Cheng had made the mistake of calling for students and faculty to respect each other during a campus forum held Wednesday, March 29, at the High Country Conference Center. During her presentation, which was followed by a question and answer session, Cheng discussed a variety of topics, including NAU’s budget and tuition proposal, the importance of state support, enrollment and retention growth and expanding NAU’s reach throughout the state and online.
It was her response to a question by NAU sophomore Breanna Kramer that appeared to outrage the small group. Kramer asked Cheng, “How can you promote safe spaces, if you don’t take action in situations of injustice, such as, last week, when we had the preacher on campus and he was promoting hate speech against marginalized students? As well as, not speaking out against racist incidents like blackface two months ago by student workers followed by no reform and no repercussions?”
“As a university professor,” Cheng replied, “I’m not sure I have any support at all for safe space. I think that you as a student have to develop the skills to be successful in this world and that we need to provide you with the opportunity for discourse and debate and dialogue and academic inquiry, and I’m not sure that that is correlated with the notion of safe space as I’ve seen that.”
Kramer claims that wearing blackface is a hate crime. However, according to the Race and Social Justice Law Review, “Blackface exemplifies racist stereotypes perpetuated over hundreds of years used formerly in theatre and vaudeville shows and more modernly to stereotype and characterize blacks in racially denigrated ways. Blackface today is inherently racist because it carries the same meaning from hundreds of years of racism- blacks are inferior, in fact the reason blackface exists is because they were not allowed to act in shows. However, the law allows racism. The law protects free speech. And the law permits people to paint their faces black, so long as it isn’t done in a threatening way, intended to harass, assault, or bully black people. But isn’t that exactly what blackface, regardless of intent, is doing? Of course it is. The problem is, hate crimes are established by intent, the act was intended to affect a certain group.”
After the forum, the group issued a statement on Facebook issuing their ultimatum:
President Cheng’s answers at the forum were insufficient and if she’s not ready or willing to engage in these serious conversations and more importantly work towards solutions, then we do feel her resignation is necessary. We want and deserve a university president who works to provide the purpose of higher education, which is to enrich the lives of many people, including students, faculty, staff and the larger flagstaff community.
We were guaranteed access, quality and excellence in our higher education experiences and far too many students are experiencing the exact opposite. We work to empower students, raise awareness around the current campus climate and build student power to enact real sustainable changes that cultivate a university where every student can learn, grow and thrive. We will post more information about our campaigns soon.
In 4 days, the post has only garnered 7 “likes.”