Over and over, MU students protesting a lack of racial and ethnic diversity on campus quoted the same old proverb: “This is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The protest, which followed a racially charged column last week in MU Student News, drew more than 150 people Monday morning to the south steps of Jesse Hall.
It was organized by MU’s historically black fraternities and sororities and attended by many Greek and non-Greek students of varying ethnicities.
The columnist, political science junior Jenny Marinko, alleged that a banner for her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, was vandalized recently by members of a traditionally black sorority, which she did not identify. The column ended with: “Why don’t these sorority women stay in their little worlds and stay out of ours.”
It was in part such us-versus-them language that caused hard feelings and public outcry.
“The article printed was very slanderous and demonstrated ignorance,” said Khandicia Randolph, president of MU’s National Pan-Hellenic Council, an association of historically black fraternities and sororities.
But the article was not the only reason for the National Pan-Hellenic Council protest.
“We are here to make a statement for Columbia to see the underlying issue. This is not just MU — Columbia itself is very segregated,” said Nakia Moore, a 2003 MU graduate who attended the protest.
Beginning about 6:30 a.m. with about 20 people, the protest expanded to about 150 by 10 a.m. As students came and went, the faces in the crowd changed — but the sentiment did not.
Many people held signs or wore black T-shirts with “REPRESENT” on the front and “Less than 5.9%” on the back, pointing out that blacks make up less than 5.9 percent of the student population (about 26,100 in all). Students, faculty members and administration made up a nebulous crowd in which the tension ebbed and flowed.
“Is she going to be stripped of her letters? She needs to be stripped of her letters; she doesn’t need to be in the organization anymore if she’s going to represent it this way. What are the consequences of her actions?” Shara Kennedy, a non-Greek student, asked members of Zeta Tau Alpha huddled on the steps of Jesse Hall.
Zeta Tau Alpha members were under strict orders not to comment, those at the protest said. They sat on the steps quietly, wearing their Greek sweatshirts and holding signs that read “No matter the letter, we stand together” — which they said was meant to show support for greater campus diversity.
Protesters said they were seeking to have their voice heard by MU administrators. They cited a predominantly white male faculty, limited scholarships for minorities and limited campus understanding in a list of grievances and demands handed out to the crowd. That list may be found online at www.columbiamissourian.com.
“This is not overlooked, we see this happening, and it’s disturbing, disappointing, and we need to double our efforts. We need to drive the point home — we have more work to be done,” Scroggs said.
MU spokesman Christian Basi said that compared to this time last year, the number of applications from blacks has increased 30 percent and admissions are up 29 percent. Last year 1,366 black students enrolled at MU. He said that the number of Hispanic applications has increased 15 percent and that admissions are up 20 percent. In 2003, 411 Hispanic students enrolled at MU, compared to 21,745 white students.
In response, the National Pan-Hellenic Council’s Randolph said, “The university is growing, so naturally we have to grow, too. How many is 30 percent? Show me 100 percent, and I’ll be satisfied.”
Many members of other MU fraternities and sororities stopped by Jesse Hall to back the need for greater diversity on campus and to protest the column and the feelings it uncorked.
“It sounded very uneducated, a not-thought-out article that wasn’t so much an article as a rant,” said Meredith Woerner, a member of Delta Gamma sorority. “It’s unfortunate that one voice can attempt to rip the seams of a community.”
Marinko spent her morning inside Jesse Hall in a meeting with Scroggs to discuss Marinko’s intentions in writing the column. She has written a letter to the chapter presidents, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the Panhellenic Council and Interfraternity Council leaders, the vice chancellor of student affairs and MU Student News apologizing for the misunderstanding her column caused, she said.
She said her article was meant to criticize alleged vandalism by students, not the students themselves. No vandalism report was filed with Columbia police; Randolph said she was under the impression the matter had been investigated and cleared up.
“It was written against what was done, but it came across as against who did it,” Marinko said. “If I were in their shoes, I would have taken it the same way.”
Marinko said she didn’t regret the column’s publication because she learned a hard lesson.
“I know this: I will not be doing this again,” she said. “This made me realize the power of print and that you can hurt someone without meaning to. What I learned is worth it. Anything you do, you can learn from it.”
MU Student News is a student organization that publishes a weekly newspaper independent of the university. It is owned by Dan Johnson and employs students both as writers and as editors, Marinko said. Johnson did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him.
Elizabeth Kimberly, editor-in-chief of the paper and president of Zeta Tau Alpha, said she edited the story before it was published.
“I took the specific names out,” she said. “(Monday) races will come together — that’s a positive thing. It’s unfortunate that this had to happen to make us come together.”
Randolph said she hopes the administration will not only hear their concerns, but act upon them.
“Fifty years ago this May, Brown v. Board of Education resolved this issue,” she said. “Why are we here again?”