In the wake of a hate-speech incident last year, Western Washington University plans to build a bigger, better space for the university’s 16 student ethnic clubs, an idea that has been in the works for several years.
Students say Western Washington University has needed a bigger, better space for ethnic clubs to meet on campus for a long time, and this summer, the trustees agreed.
The university is now planning a new center that will accommodate the growing numbers of students of color on campus.
Those involved with the center’s planning say there’s no direct link between the decision to build a new center and a hate-speech incident that caused university officials to suspend classes for a day last November.
But the turmoil that roiled the Bellingham campus last year highlighted a need for the university to do a better job of meeting the needs of a student population that’s increasingly diverse, said Paul Cocke, Western’s director of university communications.
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The new center, which could be as big as 10,000 square feet, will be five times larger than the existing one, and is likely to be built either above the Viking Union’s multipurpose room or above the student bookstore. Design work will start this fall.
Sixty-three percent of Western students who voted in a campuswide election this spring gave the go-ahead for a $30-per-quarter fee to fund the center.
“The space in general has been needed for a very, very long time,” said Abby Ramos, last year’s director of diversity for student government.
“We really think Western needs to be a leader in this area, and we haven’t been, in terms of space,” said Eileen Coughlin, vice president of enrollment and student services for the university.
The percentage of undergraduate students of color — black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and students of two or more races — increased from 15.6 percent in fall 2005 to 25.3 percent in fall 2015, according to WWU statistics.
The center will provide a meeting space for the university’s 16 ethnic clubs, including the Black Student Union, Latino Student Union, Native American Student Union, Chinese Student Association and Hui ‘O Hawai’i.
Most of the $15 million to $18 million estimated cost will be paid through a bond issue supported by the $30-per-quarter student fee, which will be collected starting in fall 2017. The university’s trustees voted in June to give another $5 million to $6 million, clearing the way for the center to be built. That money will come from reserves and additional bond funding, and Western will also ask the Legislature for an additional $2 million during next year’s session.
Ramos imagines a center that is visually striking on the outside. “That’s one of the biggest things — we want to make it very visible,” she said.
She hopes it will be beautiful inside, as well. “I want to see a lot of ethnic art up — we don’t have anything like that” elsewhere on campus, she said. “I’d love to see the center full of color. I want students to feel welcome, to go into the center and eat lunch there,” and meet with academic advisers in the new space.
Plans for an expanded center have been in the works since 2014. The idea gained momentum in the wake of the incident last November, when several students of color, including Ramos, were threatened online. The incidents occurred after student government leaders raised the possibility of changing the school mascot, a Viking, saying it didn’t represent all students and should be re-examined.
The hate speech caused then-president Bruce Shepard to suspend classes, and led to the arrest of WWU student Tysen Campbell for malicious harassment. His trial date has been moved several times, and is now set for August.
After the incident, some students called for a separate ethnic student center in its own building. But students later decided the space should be part of the Viking Union, Coughlin said. “And philosophically, I think that’s an important message,” she said, because it underscores that students of color are central to the university.
Ramos said some opponents argued that they didn’t want to pay for the new center because they wouldn’t use it. But she countered that many students don’t use the school’s recreation center, even though every student pays a fee for it. “We have to support each other,” she said. And the new ethnic student center will be open to everyone, she said.
The addition could open by spring 2019, or perhaps even sooner.
Ramos said she’s also pushing for greater staff support for students of color on campus, to help support the clubs and the programs they sponsor.
Coughlin said the space would have a symbolic meaning for the university, not only creating a visible identity for the clubs, but also encouraging the university community to adopt a broader perspective on all kinds of issues.
“We see across the nation, and across the world, the importance of relationships that need to be improved,” she said, “and moving from models of fear to models of care are very important.”