Students defend professor after sit-in over racial climate
By Sam Hoff
Nov. 20, 2013 12:00 a.m.
Current and former students in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies expressed their support for professor emeritus Val Rust following a demonstration in one of his graduate classes last Thursday.
Student demonstrators alleged that there is a “toxic” racial climate in the graduate school, including in Rust’s classroom. Organizers told the Daily Bruin last week that they decided to host the demonstration after a recent report examining racial discrimination among the university’s faculty stated that UCLA’s policies and procedures do not sufficiently address racially motivated instances of discrimination.
After Thursday’s sit-in, several current and former students said they did not believe there was a problem with racial discrimination in Rust’s class.
[UDPATED at 1 a.m.: In a letter sent to colleagues in the department after the sit-in, Rust said students in the demonstration described grammar and spelling corrections he made on their dissertation proposals as a form of “micro-aggression.”
“I have attempted to be rather thorough on the papers and am particularly concerned that they do a good job with their bibliographies and citations, and these students apparently don’t feel that is appropriate,” Rust said in the letter.
He said the protesters were also responding to a conversation in class between two students about critical race theory that he allowed to take place by not stopping the discussion.
Rust added he thought the department should organize a town hall meeting later in the month to begin a dialogue.]
“Many of (the demonstrators’) individual stories were very touching and I feel something ought to be done to address their concerns,” he said in the letter.
Rust, who is giving a series of lectures in China this week, could not be reached for additional comment.
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, the dean of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, said in a letter to the school’s department of education Tuesday that he expects all members of the graduate school community to be respectful, and that acts of discrimination are not tolerated in the school.
“I expect of the entire GSE&IS; family – including faculty, students, and staff – to embody an ethos and practice based on respect, rigor and reflexivity,” he said in the letter.
Suárez-Orozco said the graduate school encourages safe spaces for debate.
“Acts of intolerance, discrimination, bullying, and overt and covert bias stand in complete opposition to the spirit that animates the (graduate school),” he said.
The demonstration’s organizers said they are aware of several examples in the graduate school where minority students claimed they faced challenges and “micro-aggressions” from professors.
Suárez-Orozco told the Bruin Tuesday that his office is working to establish basic facts of past incidents by reaching out to all parties involved.
“First we need to get the facts; we’ll proceed from there,” Suárez-Orozco said.
Nora Cisneros, a graduate student who participated in the sit-in, said the group chose to hold their protest because they feel Rust’s class does not encourage a climate where students of color can discuss issues of race openly.
Emily Le, a graduate student in the school who has known Rust for about 10 years, said she thought it was unjust for sit-in participants to accuse Rust of being part of a hostile environment because he is a supporter of intercultural learning and collaboration.
“It is disturbing that students would make such unfounded accusations based on misperceptions of what they believe as racism,” Le said.
Le said she thought the demonstrators should not have claimed to represent all students of color.
“If they were trying to create a bigger dialogue for the community to discuss, they would have chosen the town hall (meeting) we have once a quarter, or talked to the dean to discuss their issues,” Le said.
Le said the sit-in organizers should have emailed the entire department, so other minority students could choose whether to participate instead of being grouped as in support of the protest because they are students of color.
Kenjus Watson, a graduate student who participated in the sit-in, said he thinks incidents of racial profiling have taken place in the school for several decades, and that students who report incidents using traditional methods are often disregarded.
Watson said the protesters never stated that they represented all students of color in the division, but that the 25 protesters represent a significant portion of the minority population.
“Many of us have been through the formal complaint system of leveraging charges … the letters are reviewed, and we receive responses saying (the) charges have no merit,” Watson said.
Some students said they thought Thursday’s protest was focused more on humiliating a single professor than starting dialogue.
“I think the most unsettling thing was that it was in the name of a larger, legitimate cause, but it was so targeted at very specific people,” said Stephanie Kim, a graduate student who has worked with Rust for several years.
Kim said she thought the organizers should have reached out to the rest of the department in forums such as town hall meetings instead of planning the sit-in.
“Maybe (the demonstrators) do have legitimate grievances … but the way they chose to address their issues was by very aggressively showing up in one targeted professor’s class and using him as a scapegoat for much larger issues,” she said.
Cisneros and Watson said they thought the sit-in was warranted because of similar alleged incidents of racial discrimination over the past 20 years.
“The conversations and remedies we’ve had to take … we’ve tried to address (incidents of discrimination) in class,” Watson said. “This was the next logical step.”
In an emailed statement, Weiling Deng, a graduate student who worked with Rust on her master’s thesis, said she does not want conflicts to begin in the graduate school as a result of the sit-in.
Deng said Rust has demonstrated support for students of color throughout his time as a professor.
“I felt after reading the (Daily Bruin story) and knowing about the protest … that I was so innocent in thinking that all students in the department are friendly,” Deng said in a telephone interview. “Not only I was shocked, all students of (Rust) were shocked and most of his colleagues were shocked.”
Deng wrote in an email Monday that she wants the mood in the department to remain peaceful and scholarly.
“Voluntary supporters of Val Rust … don’t want to see and undergo an upgraded conflict in and out of our beloved department and university,” she wrote.