A lot has happened in the week since we last checked in on the anti-racist student occupation of Seattle University's Matteo Ricci College (MRC), now into its tenth day.
Dozens of students, who call themselves the MRC Coalition, remain holed up at the college's Casey Building with pillows and donated food. They remain steadfast in their demands for a swift overhaul of the college's curriculum, which they say is far too Eurocentric, and for the resignation of the college's dean, Jodi Kelly.
Last Friday, the university said it had received threatening phone calls directing "vitriolic hate speech" toward the students. And there's plenty of ugly stuff on social media.
On Tuesday, Stephen Sundborg, the president of Seattle University, rejected the coalition's demands and insisted that they follow the university's existing procedures to address their concerns. At the same time, he offered this apology:
As president of Seattle University, I sincerely apologize on my behalf and on behalf of the university for what has been the experience of some of our students when it comes to race, class, gender and disability in aspects of the university’s academic and social life. I hope my apology is embraced and accepted as intended.
On Thursday, in turn, eight students representing the leadership of Seattle University's student government issued a statement backing the MRC coalition's stand and sharply rebutting Sundborg:
It is important to note that the MRC Coalition has attempted to utilize the existing processes and procedures of Seattle University to address the problems they have identified to no avail. The sit-in and occupation of the Matteo Ricci College office is a testament to the feeling that Seattle University has failed its students. This is not the time to continue using the existing processes and procedures...
The testimonies of the Coalition not only highlight the harm that has been done to them, but the harm that has been done to all students. To apologize for “what has been the experience of some of our students” is to ignore the fact that all students suffer when their education does not deconstruct and interrogate systems of oppression.
Meanwhile, students from around the region, from UW to Bellevue College to Green River College in Auburn, declared their support for the coalition. The coalition publicly thanked singer Hollis Wong-Wear—recently honored by the university as an outstanding alumnus—for standing in solidarity. The pop-up restaurant Hood Famous Bookshop dropped off a helping of their trademark ube cheesecakes on Monday.
One grievance, among others, is that the students believe Dean Kelly told a black student she could "reclaim the n-word" in a way that was inappropriate and deeply upsetting.
Kelly told me she pulled the 1964 book Nigger from her shelf, and cited a passage where its author, the iconic civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, talks about using the slur to his advantage.
Yesterday, in a statement provided exclusively to The Stranger, Gregory elaborated and addressed the MRC Coalition directly:
Gregory goes on to suggest the students focus on their curriculum concerns, not the dean, and says he's proud of them for their activism.
Thank you for opening dialogue with me. The recent press surrounding Dean Kelly’s recommending my book, and in doing so, using its title, “Nigger,” focused more on her usage of the word and less on your curriculum concerns. I have spoken with Dean Kelly, and would be happy to speak with any of you, who have concerns. Her use of the word did not offend me, and as I said to her, and will say to you all, I do not believe Dean Kelly is a racist.
I want to be clear: your concerns should and must be heard and addressed. If you felt offended there should be proper grievance channels. But I beg you to ask yourselves, is the scale of your movement appropriate for a curriculum discussion? And do you believe that by recommending my autobiography, Dean Kelly intended to be hurtful or racist? Simply saying the title of a book, even if it is a controversial word, does not equate to malice.
Here's how the students responded:
Some great reporting by Seattle University's student newspaper, The Spectator, which has put out a comprehensive timeline of events, backs up aspects of this account. An external program review is required by university policy every seven years, according to the Spectator, and back in 2008, 13 students formally requested the college undertake the review, implement diversity workshops, and revise the curriculum. But, the Spectator reports, the Matteo Ricci College has never conducted such a review in its 41-year history.
The MRC Student Coalition fully supports Dick Gregory’s work as an author and an activist. Our sit-in was not catalyzed by the interaction between Dean Kelly and a young black woman. This action is a consequence of many years of organizing and engaging with the administration. The many testimonies we have gathered are reflective of systemic issues within MRC, specifically perpetuated by Dean Kelly. The specific testimony of the interaction behind closed doors, in which Dean Kelly encouraged a young black student to re-claim a violent racial slur, has been inappropriately used by the media to individualize our concerns.