- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - New students will discuss social differences, black students will get their own cultural center and more students will be allowed into ethnic studies courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of a multi-faceted plan to give minorities a better experience on campus, university leaders said Wednesday.

The efforts come after a rocky spring semester that saw a number of racially charged incidents on campus, including pictures of swastikas and Adolf Hitler posted on a Jewish student’s door, a black student getting spit on and called racial slurs in a dorm, and police arresting a black student during class for spray-painting anti-racist messages on buildings. Minority students spent the semester pressuring administrators for change.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank told reporters during a conference call highlighting the university’s plans that 65,000 people work or attend classes at UW-Madison and she can’t guarantee “ugly” incidents won’t take place on campus. But she said she hopes the plan will reduce those incidents.

“Our campus, indeed our entire society, has more work to do dealing with the sort of diversity we’re all living in the midst of,” Blank said. “We want students to feel supported and not subject to harassment.”

Nneka Akubeze, executive director of the United Council of UW Students, a statewide student association that has been pushing for diversity-related improvements, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The plan includes a pilot program dubbed Our Wisconsin that will bring 1,000 new students from several dorms together this fall to discuss social differences and how to resolve conflicts in a civil manner. The university also is creating a black cultural center on campus and will increase the size of high-demand ethnic studies courses.

All faculty and staff will receive some type of inclusion and diversity training during the academic year. The university will hire three new staff members to help expand mental health services and deliver them to students of color. The Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute will offer workshops to faculty and staff this fall on unconscious bias.

What’s more, Blank has created an advisory committee to share information about diversity, and an online survey will assess students’ experiences.

Our Wisconsin is expected to cost between $150,000 and $200,000. Blank and other leaders on the conference call didn’t have any other cost estimates, saying most of the other initiatives will use existing resources.

Asked how university leaders will gauge the efforts’ success, Blank said it’s difficult to set hard benchmarks.

“The issue is can we make sure more people on campus are aware of these issues and are able to stand up and support folks when (bias) happens?” she said.

Blank took fire last year for writing a blog post saying no one is entitled to express themselves in ways that diminish others. Critics questioned whether she was committed to free speech on campus. She walked her remarks back a few days after the posting, saying she was simply trying to encourage civility.

She said Wednesday that free speech and a respectful society can go together. A safe society helps people feel more comfortable expressing their views, she said.

“I don’t think any of us here believe you have to choose between those two,” she said.


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