North Texas Daily

President Smatresk holds virtual town hall, promises to refocus efforts to support black students, students of color

President Smatresk holds virtual town hall, promises to refocus efforts to support black students, students of color

President Smatresk holds virtual town hall, promises to refocus efforts to support black students, students of color
June 07
15:28 2020

By: Samuel Gomez

In an online meeting with students, UNT President Neal Smatresk listened to student feedback and commented on the schools plans moving forward regarding diversity and inclusion. In the meeting, Smatresk said the university is not going to defund the UNT Police Department and that he plans to attend a protest at the Denton city square on Wednesday.

The president held the town hall virtually on Microsoft Teams, with panel members from Student Affairs, UNT’s office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, and office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Smatresk said holding town halls and conversations helps him better understand students experiences and to help bring about change.

“I know the listening exercise that we’re doing now does more for me and more for our faculty and staff members and administrators than any training could ever do, or any other implementation of an activity,” he said.

Smatresk said that he and the university fell short in continuing to provide changes on campus due to the ongoing financial hit from COVID-19. With the scramble to convert the school to online operations, and with the school going into next year at a $50 million shortfall, he said the attention was taken away from Black Lives Matter issues.

He said the university will hold another event in August, which he hopes will be more face-to-face.

Smatresk and panelist read out comments about the experiences shared recently on social media under the hashtag #BlackAtUNT. Shani Barrax Moore, director of Diversity and Inclusion, moderated the meeting and read comments and questions submitted live by viewers.

One comment submitted by a viewer read, “I am a black student at UNT. I feel like UNT uses Black Lives Matter and really all of their so-called black advocacy as a PR stunt. You post little blurbs on social media then do nothing. Stay silent. Only speak out when prompted to by the students.”

Moore also read comments submitted by students who have had negative experiences with UNT police, with one saying they were approached and searched by police for sitting in their car. Another comment from a student said they were stopped by UNT police over a stop sign violation, and were questioned about their citizenship status, all while the officer had his hand on his gun holster.

Smatresk addressed his concerns after hearing black students’ experiences with campus police.

[Students] feel victimized by police. That just by being here, there are very likely to be stopped, to be searched, to be questioned. I don’t think that’s a healthy environment. Police Chief Reynolds and I are discussing this. I want to know how we can make this campus a friendlier place.”

Smatresk said that UNT police have pulled over 167 students in the last two years for not having lights on their bikes at night. He said a small contribution to better relations between police and students would be to simply provide them with bike lights.

Smatresk also said that the university will not defund the campus police.

“We need police to protect us, but we need police to protecting us in the right way,” he said.

One anonymous viewer commented, “If you’re not willing to be radical with your solutions, then nothing will work.”

Smatresk said UNT was not going to implement radical changes.

“That’s generally not how sustainable changes occurs,” he said.That answer won’t make people happy, radical change rarely is sustainable, however we’re willing to look at all kinds of solutions.”

Joanne Woodard, Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity, commented on the progress since the events of last November, when students demanded the administration make changes to better support black students and students of color.

“I would venture to say that we probably haven’t done as good a job as we could have publicizing to date what actions have been taken. But I do know that as an administration, we will be more visible and more intentional.”

Elizabeth With, Vice President for Student Affairs, said that UNT will be adding a staff member to the Multicultural Center in the fall. Funds will also be put toward the black student experience and to create funding for a Latin student experience.

With said the Student Service Fee committee is looking into hiring a bilingual graduate student assistant to help with bringing in Latinx students, as well as creating a first-generation student center.

UNT now provides a diversity training course for incoming students to take online, which was a request from current students. The course was already sent to incoming freshman as part of their pre-orientation homework, With said.

Andrea Ortiz, Graduate Student Council vice-president of marketing and communication, shared her experience working in her department.

“Faculty called me a triple cripple, told me I was unable to learn, discussed my health status publicly with my professors and my clients, and ultimately encouraged me to consider leaving the program to pursue my career goals elsewhere,” Ortiz said.

“We demand to be included, encouraged, and enriched, not tolerated. Diversity and multiculturalism are acts and not ideas,” Ortiz said. “We demand that these professors, staff, and faculty be publicly held accountable and removed or placed on administrative leave until they have completed a verifiable training relating to antiracism, antisemitism and antiviolence.”

Smatresk responded to the onslaught of experiences viewers also submitted during the live stream, and said he tried to respond to as many as he could. He said that the comments were coming in fast and furious.

“In listening to the different stories I’ve heard, I understand much better on a personal level how students have felt fear, anger, and disrespected,” Smatresk said. “And often how our students of color have felt marginalized. It hurts to hear it. It’s painful. As the leader of this institution, it makes me genuinely sad.”

Smatresk commended students for speaking out about their experiences, both during the town hall and elsewhere.

“You are all influencers, and you are influencing me and you’re influencing other people so that we can begin to understand what the next steps are. And until we can hear what you have to say, I’m worried that the next steps won’t make the kind of changes you all need.

The full videos and transcripts of the town hall will be available by mid-next week on UNT Institutional Equity and Diversity’s Black Lives Matter resource web page.

Courtesy Samuel Gomez

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North Texas Daily

North Texas Daily

The North Texas Daily is the official student newspaper of the University of North Texas, proudly serving UNT and the Denton community since 1916.

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