© 2022 WUKY
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Local/Regional News

UK Students Escalate Protests, Receive New Commitments From University

Josh James

"We are occupying Main Building. Until our demands are met. Bring your blankets." That was the message University of Kentucky students with the Basic Needs Campaign broadcast to their supporters over social media this week. By Tuesday evening, the university had agreed to eight new commitments. 

The protest, initially focused on food and housing insecurity among fellow students, expanded this week to include more minority campus voices — and new tactics. Several students launched hunger strikes last Wednesday, along with hundreds who have committed to fasting or altering their diets in solidarity. This week, students set up camp inside the building that houses UK's administration. 

Tuesday, President Eli Capilouto sat down with the campaign and the Black Student Advisory Council for a frank two-hour discussion. 

"We have people in this room who can’t eat, but y’all just offered Calipari a lifetime contract,” J.D. Brown-Lewis said, referencing the lucrative deal recently inked with UK Mens Basketball Coach John Calipari. 

Students used the meeting to press for changes on a number of fronts they argue the administration has neglected or not fully reckoned with. The demands include the creation, funding, and staffing of a centralized Basic Needs Center for students who are having trouble obtaining food or housing, the removal of a controversial mural depicting slaves and Native Americans, and a seat for the Black Student Advisory Council on administrative search committees, among others.

Chandler Frierson with the council said demonstrators were shining a light on longstanding issues.

"I think that we masked it in the black community as just being a broke college student," he says. "And you know everybody's just a broke college student, but after really thinking about it, it's like... this shouldn't be our reality. This should not be our portion." 

UK officials have argued better coordinating, and communicating about, existing resources could ease access for students who require assistance. University spokesman Jay Blanton said the school takes the problem of student hunger seriously, and has doubled the hours of its food bank and created a staffed hotline and email address to direct students in need to resources.

"There's a real, sincere agreement around those issues," he told WUKY Monday. "Where we've got a bit of a difference of opinion, and I think it's a respectful one, at least I hope it is, is what is the best approach to that challenge."

In the meeting, Capilouto pledged the university would do more. To that end, the president committed to more food swipes for low-income students this semester and the hiring of a new staffer. 

"Thank you for your passionate and commitment to this," the president told Beau Revlett, a leading member of the Basic Needs campaign. "Because of you and others, this university is going to be a better place." 

Yet the demonstrators sounded unconvinced. 

"For a lot of students, it is not a choice but to miss one or two meals every day because they can't afford it," said Lidya Azad, who was taking part in the hunger strike.

Update (6:30 p.m.): Late Tuesday, President Capilouto released a statement saying the university has committed to eight additional actions. Those promises, along with safety concerns about the occupation of the Main Building, led protesters to reportedly agree to leave the building. 

In the release, Capilouto called the meeting the "toughest day I have had as a member of our community." 

"My mind was further opened to their challenges and, frankly, to some of the shortcomings we have as an institution that aspires to be a community of belonging for everyone," he wrote. 

Below he listed the new commitments UK is prepared to make: 

A permanent seat for black students on search committees for administrative officials: UK will include a representative from the Black Student Collective on all senior-level search committees (deans and high-level administrators). UK will work with the Collective on the best process to ensure how that representation happens.

Revising the William C. Parker Scholarship: The Parker Scholarship – which historically has targeted underrepresented students and students with financial need -- requires reform. UK will meet with the Collective to review the available data relative to the Parker scholarship, with the goal of strengthening and continuing to grow the program for black students, without diminishing our commitment to diverse students across the campus. Our review will also include the Lyman T. Johnson Awards, which are awarded to graduate students. 

Standardizing the role of Diversity and Inclusion Officers: UK will immediately move to ensure that Diversity Officers have the duties, training, time, and resources they need to mirror best practices in the country, and to confirm that we are meeting the University’s Strategic Plan goals relative to diversity and inclusivity. UK will develop a standardized process for evaluating Diversity Officers and measuring their effectiveness.

Releasing the findings from the 2016 Cook Ross Survey: UK will post the Cook Ross Survey online along with wellness and other campus climate surveys for public review. That survey and others have helped guide much of the progress we have made in recent years in improving our campus climate and making us an even better place to work.

Taking down the mural in Memorial Hall: UK will immediately cover the mural and re-engage with a new committee to determine a long-term plan. Although efforts over the past two years to create a more complete context for the mural have been earnest and thoughtful, the artwork in Memorial Hall remains a touchstone of pain and hurt for many students of color.

Staffing for a Basic Needs Center: As a first step, a full-time, professional staff member will be hired and trained to coordinate and plan UK’s approach to basic needs, including food and housing insecurity. Additional resources for staffing and other needs will be added, if needed.

Establish a Basic Needs Fund: UK will consolidate its two emergency and assistance funds into a one-stop shop to better handle requests related to food and housing insecurity and questions around basic needs. The consolidated funds will be continually assessed and replenished to ensure needs are met.