OSU Racism: Student Group Demands More Action, Less Talk

 Oregon State University, like many other colleges and universities across the United States, is predominantly white: in spring 2020, 7,698 students of color attended OSU, making up only 26.5 percent of the total student population. Consequently, OSU has made strides in recent years to attract and retain students of color, launching the Office of Institutional Diversity in 2015, and a campaign called “We Have Work To Do” in 2018, with the purpose of advancing diversity, inclusion, and equity at the university.  

Yet, to many OSU students and activists – like Tali Ilkovitch, Colin Cole, and Adrian Cerny – believe the university has not done enough to support its students, particularly BIPOC and individuals from marginalized backgrounds. As a result, students and OSU community members mobilized to create their own campaign – “We Can Do The Work” – to pressure the university to adopt what the students see as just and equitable goals.   

The Creation and Goals of We Can Do The Work  

We Can Do The Work is the result of several groups at OSU joining together with collective goals in mind. Cole, a Ph.D. student in education, is involved with OSU’s Young Democratic Socialists of America, and had contact with an individual involved in Disarm PSU, a movement to remove armed campus officers from Portland State University’s campus. Disarm OSU launched soon after, and merged into a singular campaign when other students, notably Nat Young, joined a YDSA meeting to discuss the need for a required anti-racism course at OSU.   

Now, the We Can Do The Work campaign has a number of goals for the university. Chief among them are disarming and defunding the university’s new campus police force, investing in the community, implementing mandatory anti-racism education at OSU, and requiring explicit transparency in policies relating to public safety and equity and inclusion on campus.   

Disarm OSU has been one of the most active facets of the campaign, particularly since the university is currently developing its own in-house law enforcement.   

“We’re calling to specifically disarm and defund police, rather than police reforming, because we’ve seen that things like body cameras, things like extra training – that doesn’t solve the problem that policing is an inherently flawed and racist system that’s embedded in our society,” said Ilkovitch, an OSU junior studying natural resources. “That’s why we’re calling to take money away from policing. We don’t want all of this money, which is like five million dollars, going towards a system that’s inherently flawed and will always be flawed. No amount of money we throw towards it will make it less flawed.”  

The call to disarm OSU’s new police force comes in the wake of recent Black Lives Matter protests and the shooting of Jason Washington, who was killed by PSU campus police in 2018.   

“We want our demands to be met, and we want our community to be safe. I think just the thought of someone getting hurt is what really troubles me the most, like keeping me up at night. The thought that a Jason Washington event could happen on our campus, in our community,” Ilkovitch said. “I think that’s the hardest part for me, and thinking about how BIPOC in our community and neurodivergent people and disabled people in our community are constantly met with discrimination and troubles as a result of their identity.”  

In August, PSU announced it would disarm its campus police for the upcoming school year.   

“Portland State just finally listened to Disarm PSU, and they’re reinvesting in the community – they’re disarming the police, and they’re in Portland. [Vice President of University Relations & Marketing] Steve Clark recently said that the Corvallis campus of OSU is one of the safest in the nation,” Cole said. “If that’s the case, then maybe we need to rethink some of these quote-on-quote norms. Like, how are you going to prove the need for armed officers on campus, and patrolling the community in one of the safest campuses in the nation?”  

We Can Do The Work vs. We Have Work To Do  

The university’s We Have Work To Do highlights a number of campaign themes on its website, including confronting bias, building equitable and inclusive learning environments, establishing a sense of belonging, transforming the future of the university, and creating coalitions between students, faculty, and staff.  

Charlene Alexander, OSU vice president and chief diversity officer, said the campaign has also developed three programs for the upcoming school year: a “Got Work To Do” Podcast, which features members of OSU whose work is connected to the five themes of the campaign; a webinar series, which will feature a mix of alumni, faculty, staff, and students speaking to different social justice topics; and community dialogues, a monthly series that will “seek to cultivate connection and deep learning through exploration of critical and contentious issues.”  

The students of We Can Do The Work, however, say these actions are not enough, particularly considering the cost of the new police force.  

“The difference between what the university is doing and what we’re doing is they’re trying to reform a system that’s inherently broken, and we’re trying to say, ‘we don’t have to reform this – we should build the other areas of community support, and crisis mediation, and de-escalation,’” Ilkovitch said.   

Cole also noted the importance of taking actions towards anti-racism, “rather than merely relying on talk.” And Cerny, a freshman at Linn-Benton Community College, expressed the importance of outside forces holding the university accountable.   

“You cannot fix a flawed system from the inside. Many people have tried, but in the end, you integrate the system, and even if you don’t support it, you don’t confront it to the degree necessary,” Cerny said. “If they’re letting the people in charge pick out how revolutionary they want their courses to be, obviously it’s not going to discuss any flaws with the people in charge.”  

While We Have Work To Do is mainly run by administrators and staff through the Office of Institutional Diversity, We Can Do The Work is a collective, grassroots, rank and file organization that conducts weekly meetings with students and members, sends out newsletters, and organizes direct action events aimed at university administrators: phone and email blasts, speaking at Board of Trustees meetings, posting flyers, banner drops, chalk events, and more.  

And while it’s difficult to pin down how many individuals are involved in the campaign, Ilkovitch said the group’s numbers continue to grow steadily.   

“We’re doing a lot of stuff. We really want students to be informed and engaged in what’s going on, because it’s important to all of us and our community and what goes on on-campus and keeping people safe,” Ilkovitch said. “We’re really trying to get students and the community in general engaged, and we’re definitely planning to do more direct action in the future.”  

The University’s Response   

We Can Do The Work met with the OSU Office of Institutional Diversity early in the creation of the campaign, when the group first published their list of demands. Ilkovitch said both the university and the campaign agreed that OSU does not have enough anti-racism education, but that the conversation around policing was less productive.  

“They keep bringing up sexual assault, they keep bringing up school shooters. We have extensive evidence on how policing doesn’t solve any of these issues, on how policing is unable to solve the very issues they’re claiming they’re necessary for,” Ilkovitch said.  

Later, Ilkovitch said an email from the president of OSU’s faculty senate leaked, which stated the need for a session where the students could talk through their concerns.   

“It will be painfully long–it will have emotions–it will have fireworks–but that is what community dialogue takes–there is no shortcut,” the email said. “In the end there will still be Nay Sayers and there will be conspiracy theorists who don’t accept the reality of needing an armed police force. At least we can say–we gave them lots of time.”   

“Basically, what we got from that was they’re not coming to the table in good faith, so there’s no way we can come and sit and meet with them in order to fix things,” Ilkovitch said.   

Cole also expressed frustration about the leaked email, and the notion of letting the students “feel heard” rather than making concrete changes.  

“This idea of being heard, and the university and admin use words like transparency, and accountability, and community engagement,” Cole said. “Like you’re going to talk about community engagement, you’re going to quote-on-quote ‘engage us in the conversation,’ but that selective hearing, and the silencing of the main points of our communication? All these terms they throw out there, and what they’re using to market themselves as being a good, community-based institution, ring extremely hollow.”  

Cole said he, along with a number of students and faculty, recently spoke at a Board of Trustees meeting to give testimony in support of Disarm OSU and We Can Do The Work. According to Cole, none of the testimonies were taken down in the meeting minutes, even though that was one of the main reasons members of the campaign called in.   

“One thing that they also tell us in the communication that we’ve had with admin is that they appreciate the work that we’re doing, and they understand the need for the work that we’re doing, and it’s kind of offensive, right?” Cole said. “Because they’re saying these things, and then we actually see what they’re doing…without that leaked email, without us seeing the meeting minutes, you start to kind of feel crazy.”   

Alexander said the Office of Institutional Diversity has had several opportunities to engage with We Can Do The Work over the past few months.  

“We have engaged to share our engagement strategy, to listen to their concerns, to respond to them and share the university’s response to demands they have made, and to answer all the questions posed by the group,” Alexander said via email.   

Alexander also said she “applaud[s] the members of We Can Do The Work for their courage, energy, and commitment to challenge the university to examine some very difficult topics.”  

“It is clear to me that they care very much for the welfare and future of OSU,” she said.  

Looking Forward: The University’s Initiatives, 2020 and Beyond  

Alexander said We Have Work To Do continues to engage with colleges, departments, organizations, and individuals through collaboration on programs and events, and with the wider community through supporting the creation of educational opportunities and dialogic spaces.  

OSU also recently outlined new actions, titled “Moving Forward Together,” to combat systemic racism and advance the university’s diversity strategic plan.   

“I am confident that by engaging in important conversations about race and racism, justice and equity; by learning from each other; and by taking specific actions, we will constantly strive to advance the culture of belonging, collaboration and innovation that we aspire to in the university’s strategic plan,” OSU President F. King Alexander recently said in a statement.  

Looking Forward: Next Steps for We Can Do The Work  

According to Cerny, the most significant action the university could take at this time is making a commitment to defund the campus police. Ilkovitch agreed, noting the importance of investing money into the resources OSU students need, like Counseling and Psychological Services, the Human Services Resource Center, emergency housing, and the Coalition of Graduate Employees hardship fund.   

“I think that all our demands are entirely feasible, and entirely important, and there’s nothing in our demands that I would make concessions on, especially at this point,” Ilkovitch said. “I think we have everything to gain.”  

Cole said the campaign’s proposed actions for the university are “a simple shift in priorities,” and added he hopes OSU will begin to prioritize and ensure the safety of all in the community.  

“If we’re not prioritizing and centering the wellbeing of the Black folks in our community, the trans folks in our community, who are most often victims of police brutality, and policing, and surveillance, then OSU’s focus on safety is bullshit. And it’s centering on white folks, and that’s white supremacy, and it’s racist,” Cole said.   

To date, Ilkovitch said one of the biggest accomplishments of the campaign has been the consistent persistence and resilience of the team and community, particularly in the face of administrators and individuals with more money and resources.  

“There’s an international movement going on right now that we have the responsibility as a community to plug into and acknowledge. We need to respond as a community to the Black Lives Matter movement, and make changes in the way our society operates in order to be more in line with the path to justice,” Ilkovitch said. “I think that change is going to happen on a local level, and this is a local level. This is what we as community members can do in order to make changes toward that national level, and make changes that will be in place to protect not only us now, but future generations to come.”  

Cole, who has spent a lot of time at OSU over the last eight years, said We Can Do The Work is the most organized he’s seen activists at OSU, and believes there’s great potential to make change as the campaign moves forward. Ilkovitch agreed.  

“We’re just so dedicated, and I’m really proud of everyone that’s involved,” Ilkovitch said. “We haven’t given up, and we’re not going to give up until we see justice.”  

Students and community members interested in We Can Do the Work can visit their website, or their social media: @wecandothework on Instagram, @DisarmOSU on Twitter, and @DisarmOSU on Facebook. More information on OSU’s We Have Work To Do can be found on the university’s website.  

By Jada Krening