Prairie Politics

What’s behind the calls at KU to oust student leaders

Former University of Kansas student Johnny Cowan has ended a hunger strike he began Friday on campus.
Former University of Kansas student Johnny Cowan has ended a hunger strike he began Friday on campus. The Wichita Eagle

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from the Student Senate president.

The debate over racism on campus will likely intensify this week at the University of Kansas as student leaders face calls to resign amid claims that they haven’t supported efforts to combat racism.

The KU Student Senate could move to impeach its president, vice president and chief of staff this week if they don’t step down. That effort, attributed in part to a disputed allegation that they didn’t stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement at a student forum last week, has free-speech advocates concerned.

Meanwhile, former KU student Johnny Cowan ended his hunger strike late Monday. Cowan had begun the hunger strike Friday in an effort to force university leaders to address students’ concerns about racism and sexual assault.

Who is Cowan?

Cowan is white and graduated in 2014. He told the Lawrence Journal-World last week that university officials had told him he was allowed on campus as long as he wasn’t sleeping there. On Monday morning, he was bundled from head to toe and sitting on a bench outside KU’s Wescoe Hall.

“The one thing I want to let people know when they ask about my health is to remember that this is self-inflicted. And the health of hundreds – or thousands – of students who are raped and oppressed daily, I would urge you to worry about their health first rather than some white privileged kid,” he said.

However, hours later Cowan released a statement saying he was ending his hunger strike. “I am choosing to cease my hunger strike. It’s not my place to act without guidance of oppressed people,” he said.

Cowan accused reporters of sensationalizing his protest and ignoring “the heart of the issue: victims and survivors.” Media outlets have noted that Cowan was arrested on campus in November 2014 after he interrupted classes while wearing a Guy Fawkes mask as part of a protest against sexual assault.

How is the university responding?

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little met with Cowan over the weekend, and they had a productive conversation, according to Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a university spokeswoman. University officials checked on Cowan to make sure he was warm enough.

Why were student leaders asked to resign?

The Senate’s Student Executive Committee passed a vote of no confidence in student president Jessie Pringle, vice president Zachary George and Adam Moon, the Student Senate’s chief of staff, on Friday.

It issued a statement saying “black students do not feel the Student Senate provides adequate representation, funding and support for their needs.” It said requests by black students for support and action from the current student leaders had been “met with silence and incompetent action.”

The statement also alleged that Pringle and George refused to stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement during a forum on race earlier in the week, an accusation they dispute.

“This visible choice on the part of the President and Vice President showed the students in the room that neither officer has the intention of responding to the crisis our Black peers face on this campus, in the Lawrence community, and Kansas,” the resolution said.

If the trio does not resign by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, impeachment proceedings are set to begin in the Student Senate that evening.

What do the student leaders say?

Pringle said that both she and George stood when students were asked to show their support for Black Lives Matter. She said they did not stand earlier at the forum when student activists presented a list of 15 demands to university officials.

“We didn’t know quite how all those demands would affect the student body. ... But later when they asked students to stand for Black Lives Matter, Zach and I had no hesitation to stand for that. We totally believe it, and if we didn’t believe it, we wouldn’t be in these positions,” she said. “I think it’s just a huge miscommunication.”

The three students released a statement Saturday apologizing for what they called their “failure to respond” at the forum. They expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and promised to release a plan to address a call from minority students for change at the university.

“Black lives matter. Black lives matter at the University of Kansas,” the statement said.

What do free-speech advocates say?

Doug Bonney, chief legal counsel with the ACLU in Kansas, said the efforts to oust the student leaders raise First Amendment concerns.

“There’s no doubt that standing or sitting … is a communicative act and therefore speech within the meaning of the First Amendment speech clause. And these people have the right to speak yea or nay however they feel like speaking under the First Amendment,” Bonney said.

“What’s the remedy? The remedy is not probably to remove them. That seems to be possibly – and maybe likely – unconstitutional,” Bonney said. “The remedy is more speech… The answer is not ‘kick them out.’ ”

Who are the Invisible Hawks?

Students have been commenting about racism on KU’s campus on Twitter using the hashtag #rockchalkinvisiblehawk – a play on the chant KU fans use at sporting events. A group representing minority students and calling itself the Invisible Hawks has submitted to university officials a list of demands, including a ban on guns on campus and the establishment of a multicultural student senate separate from the current student senate.

That group held protests outside Wescoe before Cowan began his hunger strike. Cowan has emphasized that he is not affiliated with the group, even though he supports their efforts.

What do student activists and their supporters say?

The resignation of Pringle, George and Moon was not one of the Invisible Hawks’ original demands, but the group expressed gratitude on social media Friday to the executive committee members who drafted the resolution calling for them to step down.

A petition from KU students and alumni started circulating online Sunday calling on the trio to resign and accusing them of obstructing the “student body’s call to action to institutionalize a safer, anti-racist environment.” It had 258 signatures by Monday afternoon.

How are other students reacting?

Many students passing by Wescoe Hall on Monday morning were unaware of Cowan’s hunger strike and efforts to oust the student leaders. Others were unwilling to be interviewed about the issue of racism on campus.

Dairionn Billberry, a sophomore from Kansas City, Kan., who is black, said there is not widespread racism on campus.

“Everyone pretty much gets along pretty well,” said Billberry, who is studying animation and illustration.

Savannah Oddo, a white freshman studying pre-nursing, also said she doesn’t think racism is a major issue on campus.

“I really don’t feel like it is,” Oddo said. “I feel like it was a huge deal at Mizzou, because the president made it a big deal. I don’t feel like it is, but maybe that’s because I’m white. I don’t know … other people could maybe feel like that.”

What does the faculty say?

Gray-Little released a message Friday pledging that the university would do a better job of tackling racism on campus, without specifically addressing any of the student activists’ demands.

KU’s Department of African and African-American Studies posted a message of support for the Invisible Hawks’ campaign on Facebook on Monday.

“KU students of color testified to a disturbing pattern of anti-black intimidation and violence in residence halls, classrooms, and other campus spaces – as well as spaces in the larger Lawrence community. … This ineffective University response adds insult to the injuries of racial microaggressions and hate speech, and it only feeds KU’s inability to recruit and retain students of color, particularly black students,” the message said.

How is this related to the demonstrations at the University of Missouri?

Protests at the University of Missouri for the university’s president to resign brought national attention to the issue of racism on college campuses. Some of the KU student activists have cited the Missouri protests as an inspiration, and Cowan’s hunger strike appears to be influenced by Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler’s successful hunger strike.

However, the issues at KU predate what happened at Missouri, and students have been sounding off about racism on campus for some time. Cassandra Osei, who graduated from the university in the spring and is now pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois, wrote in a letter to the University Daily Kansan newspaper last week that past conversations with administrators about these issues “frustratingly were often met with stalemate, which I believe was for fear of drawing the ire of not only the Kansas Legislature, but also of donors stuck in an older era.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3