Newly appointed President Radenka Maric spoke to a crowd of students and administrators in Torrey Life Sciences, Monday, Oct. 3. This town hall was hosted by the Undergraduate Student Government in response to concerns raised by students surrounding cultural center funding and resources.
USG President and seventh-semester political science major Mason Holland opened the town hall’s forum. Students and community members stepped forward to ask questions to the administration.
Hannah Ravenell, a seventh-semester political science and psychology major and President of the Black Students’ Association and UConn Collaborative Organizing, asked Maric about the president’s plans for diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity hasn’t been a new idea. The concerns that have stemmed from the cultural centers are ongoing ones,” Ravenell said.
Tam Vu, co-coordinator for the Pan-Asian Council, spoke about how budget changes have impacted the Asian American Cultural Center (ASACC) and asked how costs were prioritized.
“We talked about how things aren’t being slashed. But I do know that things get requested by our really great directors, and they get slashed because they’re deemed not feasible or within their budget. I want to know what is deemed as important for the budget,” Vu said.
Evelyn Simien, a political science professor and Office of Diversity and Inclusion Faculty Fellow assigned to the African American Cultural Center (AACC), spoke to her experience both as a staff member for the cultural center and as the only Black female full professor in CLAS.
Simien said there is a disparity between the resources between the AACC and the political science department.
“We want for nothing in the department of political science,” Simien said. “This is the first time I’ve had to explain, justify, make a cogent argument as to why we need necessary equipment for our jobs.”
Simien said the funding the AACC is looking for would be used for baseline operations of the cultural centers.
“I’m not talking about dollars for programming. I’m talking about staff. I’m talking about equipment,” Simien said.
Simien described an example of having to walk across campus from the African American Cultural Center to Oak Hall, where the department of political science is housed, to find a working printer.
“As I take that walk each week, I can’t begin to express to you the level of frustration, sometimes rage, because it feels like Jim Crow 2.0,” said Simien. “We are understaffed, and we are under-resourced.”
Simien also spoke to the difficulties of having only three staff members at the AACC. Former AACC Director Willena Price retired on June 30, 2022.
Frank Tuitt, UConn’s Chief Diversity Officer, said the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) is not planning on filling the position of AACC director until the end of the spring semester due to an external review of the AACC.
“Yes, we are short staffed right now across the centers,” Tuitt said. “We are down about five positions.”
Tuitt also spoke to the funding situation that has caused some cultural centers and programs to express a need for further resources.
“We don’t have the luxury of having access to the surplus funding that we’ve used in the previous years to support special requests that would come up,” Tuitt said. “For example, last year we were able to have staff that worked with the Native American Cultural Program and the Middle Eastern Programs.”
According to Tuitt, those positions were funded because of a surplus.
Now, that surplus is going to fund renovations on the ODI Commons, a new space for the Native American Cultural Program and Middle Eastern Cultural Program.
“This year, we don’t have access to that funding. As Lloyd [Blanchard] mentioned, our surplus funding is going towards renovation costs,” said Tuitt.
Tuitt said despite the budget being stretched across cultural centers and programs, ODI is still going to try to meet requests.
“That being said, we’re still going to find a way to fill out those requests, even though I [originally] said ‘don’t ask,’” Tuitt said.
The possibility of allocating further funding was also discussed in the town hall. To that end, Maric said some of the funding would result from proposals from Cultural Centers and programs on what exactly they need.
“I would like to see that comprehensive plan of what we are doing with the cultural centers,” Maric said. “We have to see what’s coming for you, what you are planning, and how this is going to enhance your experience.”
From that point, Maric said the information would be passed on and considered for funding.
“We increased the budget for mental health from $12M to $20M. We will find the budget for cultural centers as well, but we have to look for it,” Maric said.
Some rejected the idea of cultural centers creating itemized proposals demonstrating their need for funding and resources.
Sandy Grande, Professor of Political Science and Native American and Indigenous Studies, the only tenured indigenous faculty member at the entire university, spoke on this process.
“I think it’s really unfair to the students to say, ‘well, we’re waiting for your proposal’. They’re here to study,” Grande said.
“II probably would’ve transferred from the university had it not been for that cultural center.”Hannah Ravenell
Lloyd Blanchard, Interim Vice President for Finance and Chief Finance Officer, talked significantly about the funding process for cultural centers and programs.
“The cultural centers and ODI receive funds from two sources: one, from the university which we call permanent funding, and the other source is through the students through the General University Fee, or what we all professionally call GUF,” Blanchard said.
Blanchard proceeded to explain that the university provides about $3.7 million via permanent funding and $352,000 from GUF.
“Please recognize that the GUF funding is student-managed, so you should work with your representative among students [in] USG and other organizations to appeal for GUF funding,” said Blanchard.
The GUF is controlled by the Student Activity and Service Fee Advisory Committee, a committee of student and university leaders tasked with voting on student fees. That being said, GUF only accounts for 8.7% of cultural center funding.
“ODI Central has decreased its budget to allocate more funding — permanent funding, that is — for the cultural centers. So you’ll see a decrease in ODI funding, and an increase for each of the cultural centers over the last four years or so,” Blanchard said.
President Maric departed the town hall at 7 p.m. for a meeting off-campus.
The meeting’s final comment came from USG CDO and fifth-semester English and political science major Ahenkan Akuffo-Perry, who spoke to the need for transparency from the administration.
“This conversation needs to happen, but I feel like all of this could have been avoided if we had some transparency,” Akuffo-Perry said. “At the end of the day, this is our university. We’re experiencing what’s going on here.”
Tuitt responded to Akuffo-Perry and said that ODI seeks to address issues with communication.
“We have been working on improving communication across our unit. That’s something we’re trying to do a much better job of,” Tuitt said.
Part of the impetus for the Town Hall was discussion around funding for cultural centers. Tuitt discussed ODI’s response to various allegations about cultural centers and programs funding.
“We probably should have begun this meeting today by apologizing for having this meeting in the first place. The fact that you had to take time out of your student life to focus on something you have very little control over is a failure on our part,” Tuitt said.
After the meeting, Eunice Kim, a third semester psychology major with an Asian American studies minor and a member of ASACC, said that while it was nice to talk to some administrators, it was unfortunate Maric could not stay for the duration of the event.
“I really enjoyed some of the answers we heard from staff, but I was kind of disappointed in regards to Maric’s response. She left earlier because she had prior commitments, which is kind of understandable, but still frustrating as a student,” Kim said. “There were many good points that were made after she left, especially asking for her definition of diversity.”
Vice President of USG and fifth semester business management major, Peter Spinelli also commented on the evening.
“As a student myself, I was a little hurt that they kind of threw the problem back on us,” Spinelli said.
Throughout the town hall, students expressed how they felt cultural centers were necessary to student life.
Wasif Zaman, a fifth semester chemical engineering major and member of the Bangladeshi Students Association and Pan-Asian Council, explained his connection to the organization.
“Through BSA I found a way to reconnect to my culture in a way that I hadn’t even done with my family. It really gave me a sense that, as an American, my people were still here.” Zaman said.
President of BSA and UCCO Ravenell also spoke on how impactful the AACC had been for her.
“I have been very active in the African American Cultural Center since my freshman year. If I can speak quite candidly, I probably would’ve transferred from the university had it not been for that cultural center.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said the town hall occurred on October 2. This has since been corrected to the actual date of the town hall, October 3.