Missouri State University officials are again facing calls from a group of students to improve the school’s diversity and inclusion efforts, this time by removing assistant vice president of Multicultural Services Juan Meraz.
The group Springfield Coalition for Minority Advancement Monday morning issued a petition to university administrators calling for the immediate removal of Meraz. The petition was signed by just under 100 students and community members.
“He [Meraz] has demonstrated, through racial discrimination and abuse of power, his inability to lead effectively in roles that require cultural competence and ethical leadership,” the petition stated.
Meraz also directs the Latino Leadership Institute, serves as director of the student diversity training team and is an adviser for multiple student organizations.
The petition says that, upon dismissal, it demands a public statement explaining the dismissal, a stronger commitment from the university to employ Hispanics in administrative positions who share the values and commitments to diverse populations, and to provide the public with all accessible evidence.
On Monday afternoon, roughly 20 students spent about two hours protesting outside the front steps of Carrington Hall, MSU’s administrative offices.
“We are calling for the removal of Juan Meraz, our assistant vice president of Multicultural Services. And we’re also here to highlight the hypocrisy of Missouri State University and its idealism of diversity and inclusion,” one protestor stated through a bullhorn.
The students took turns sharing their experiences as minorities, and recited several chants, including one naming the three pillars of the university’s public affairs mission; ethical leadership, cultural competence, community engagement.
“Tell me what diversity looks like?” asks one student participant to her fellow protestors. “This is what diversity looks like!” the group shouts back.
MSU sophomore and protest observer Matthew Hampton, said, “I’ve always stood for love and respect of all people, and these actions demonstrated by the man who’s currently in charge… it’s ugly and all hatred is. And I don’t stand for that.”
Jonathan Miranda, a junior at MSU, says he’s known Meraz for a couple of years and considers him a friend.
“If he was removed it’d be a great disappointment. We’d lose a great leader. I know he’s been here for a very long time and I don’t understand why they would do anything like that,” Miranda said.
The Audio File and Student Complaint
The release from the Springfield Coalition for Minority Advancement (SCMA) references ineffective communication from administrators back in November on plans for changes in the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC).
It was around this time that a Hispanic student recorded a conversation with Meraz that SCMA says was legally obtained, and includes “inappropriate remarks to her and extreme prejudice towards the African-American students and the Multicultural Resource Center.”
Part of the audio clip was played back during the protest. A more than five-minute file was also shared in the SCMA news release, which the organization called a “snippet” of a longer recording. In it, a male voice – purportedly Meraz – is speaking to a female student. He spends the first four minutes talking about the Mizzou protests before transitioning to issues at Missouri State University.
“I like solidarity, I like the support, but you better know what you’re supporting. And too many people are too easy to go off on tangents and then it becomes a hostile environment. And that’s my concern with the MRC it’s a hostile environment to anyone that’s not black,” the male voice said.
He said that the black students inside the MRC articulate this message well.
“I walk in there and they look at me like I owe them money. It’s like, you know, I don't own them s---. And I don’t have to tolerate that. That’s disrespectful and they don’t even know me.”
In December, students from SCMA attended the MSU Board of Governors meeting during which they called for accountability and commitment to the school’s public affairs mission and follow up to the 2015 Climate Study. Later that month, the release states that the Hispanic student and two black students reported concerns over depraved behavior of Meraz. It notes examples of “racial division amongst the multicultural students, discriminatory remarks about African-American students to non-black and non-brown students and faculty, and withholding money from students who were approved to receive the Multicultural Assistance Grant.” She would later ask for a formal investigation to be conducted. According to the release, the investigation was conducted by Wes Pratt, which SCMA believes creates a conflict of interest due to Pratt’s longtime friendship with Meraz.
Pratt, who was in attendance at Monday’s protests, tells KSMU that the process is ongoing. He declined the notion that there’s a conflict.
“I had the conversation with the individual when she initially filed the complaint. And I indicated he’s a colleague of mine, he’s a friend, but my job is to protect the interest of the university, to address issues of discrimination or harassment, and if I find issues of harassment or demonstration, I mean discrimination in this case, we will address that forthwith,” Pratt said.
In its own release, MSU says a complaint of discrimination and harassment was filed with Missouri State’s Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance in November with several amendments made in December by the complainant. It confirmed the initial review was jointly led by Pratt, then the school’s director of the Office for Institutional Equity and Compliance, and Melissa Berry, who currently holds that position.
In early January, Pratt became assistant to the president/chief diversity officer following the resignation of Dr. Ken Coopwood.
Coopwood resigned as vice president of diversity and inclusion after the university released the results of an independent investigation finding no credible evidence of race discrimination against Coopwood. The investigation was prompted by an online petition noting such allegations. On Monday, the SCMA claimed that “These results painted Coopwood as a liar and, once again, silenced and discredited another person of color on our campus!”
Prior to the protests Monday, the university released a statement saying it has operating policies to ensure fair and consistent processes to handle specific complaints and outcomes, adding “Special interest groups dictate neither the processes nor the outcomes.”
The school says that many recent student concerns and diversity suggestions align with university programs already in progress. It also pointed out recent changes in policy and leadership to improve such efforts.
That includes Pratt’s appointment, along with O. Gilbert Brown as associate provost for diversity, a President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, the appointment of TaJuan Wilson as interim director of the MRC, and plans for a bias response team (BRT) comprised of students, faculty and staff. According to MSU, the team is to be a “resource to members of the university community who have a concern about perceived bias-related situataions, concerns and/or complaints and to coordinate an appropriate response.”
Additionally, the school has invited a national expert in cultural centers to visit campus Feb. 17-20. Lori Patton Davis, an associate professor in higher education at Indiana University, will serve as a consultant to MSU and host several meetings with students to gather input during her visit. Also in mid-February, Campus Climate Study teams are expected to complete their review of the study and offer reports.
“When our students feel marginalized, when our students feel as if they’re not welcome or if they feel they’re not a part of the university – that the climate study has pointed out - then that is something that the university has to pay serious attention to. And that’s what I’m committed to working toward as well as I believe the rest of the administration as well,” Pratt told KSMU.
NAACP Voices Its View
The Springfield Branch of the NAACP released its own statement Monday, saying it continues to monitor concerns of MSU students regarding systemic bias and racism.
The organization says its practice is to avoid personnel and human resources issues, but the allegations “prove troubling.” Cheryl Clay, chapter president, said the lack of response and failure to rectify the situation “appear to support the students’ allegations of retaliatory practices and lack of administrative oversight.”
She added, “The Springfield chapter stands in support of the MSU students in asking for accountability and transparency in addressing their claims of discrimination, harassment, and unprofessional conduct from the Office of Multicultural Services.”
KSMU’s Han Zhao contributed to this report