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UNT students stage silent protest and demand changes after racial slur incident

One week after a UNT assistant legal counsel resigned, students say the university is receptive to demands for cultural sensitivity training for faculty and staff.

DENTON, Texas — Students at the University of North Texas in Denton filed into a regularly scheduled Board of Regents meeting on Thursday afternoon. They let their presence, several hundred strong, send a silent message to university leaders about their demands for improvements in racial and cultural sensitivity training on the campus.

The protest comes one week after an assistant legal counsel used a racial epithet a university-sponsored event in an attempt to educate a group of students and faculty about the limits of free speech. 

Caitlin Sewell submitted her resignation the next day after students in attendance at the "When Hate Comes to Campus" event, joined by a chorus of others on social media, reacted in disgust to her use of the n-word in front of a diverse audience. 

Sewell immediately tried to apologize for her choice of words but was shouted down by several members of the audience.

"I think this is telling of the systemic issues we have within the UNT system," Yolian Ogbu, the president of the UNT Student Government Association said last week.

In her resignation letter submitted the day after the incident, Sewell said "In an educational environment, I thought I could educate. In an effort to teach students about the boundaries of free speech I used the racial epithet as an example of offensive language that is protected under the First Amendment. I deeply regret the hurt that my speech has caused."

Credit: Kevin Reece
UNT students at UNT Regents meeting

Today, students gathered in the Union building and marched silently to the Board of Regents meeting down the hall. They have issued demands that include required cultural sensitivity training for faculty and students at UNT. 

But before they could begin their march, they were greeted by UNT President Neal Smatresk. He told Ogbu and her fellow students that he was proud of them for what they were doing. 

Then he told Ogbu "I used to do this all the time in the late '60s and early '70s so I get it and I'm with you." 

 The university president also issued this letter on Thursday:

"Dear UNT family,

 The events of the last week have disturbed our campus and given our community and me a great deal to reflect on. While I am proud of the caring nature of our campus and believe that the UNT community is one of the most inclusive communities anywhere, the events last week suggest that we should take a breath and see what we can do better to promote equity and improve our campus climate.

 Our students put together a list of things they ask us to consider and came to discuss them with us. I find the list to be thought provoking and it affords us an opportunity to make the campus experience better not only for students of color, but for all students.

 While we are weighing what we can do to build a strong strategic plan that promotes diversity and inclusion, there are some steps we can take immediately to begin the crucial conversations that will help us create a more inclusive culture. Many of you already have started these conversations with your colleagues. I applaud your initiative. I also have asked each of our vice presidents to engage all their employees in discussions on culture and climate, and to consider what we can do individually and collectively to build a stronger more inclusive campus. Some of these conversations already have started across campus, and I know our faculty and staff senates and our student governance groups will be enthusiastic partners in these discussions.

 I am confident that working together we will find ways to improve our students' experiences and build a stronger Mean Green family. I thank you for your contributions to these crucial conversations and look forward to listening to your ideas about how we make UNT a truly caring campus."

Credit: Kevin Reece
UNT students file into Board of Regents meeting

"I mean if anything I understand like our president does care and like that's something that he wants to take into consideration," Ogbu said. The fact that he is engaged in activities like these makes me think that OK, this (our demands) doesn't seem too crazy to everyone."

Friday at 10:45 a.m., the students will be given an opportunity to present their list of demands to the Board of Regents. 

They include creating and enforcing a comprehensive racial awareness curriculum, mandating cultural sensitivity training for all faculty and staff, workshops with a cultural sensitivity emphasis for students, and a new allocation of financial resources toward expanding the campus multi-cultural center.

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