Park University President Greg Gunderson, Ph.D., held a forum for all Parkville students on Nov. 25, in response to what he called a recent escalated conflict in the residence halls. The forum also addressed, to an extent, a specific incident between roommates that occurred on Nov. 19 and resulted in a Parkville police response as well as one student being removed from campus. Video of that incident spread quickly on social media.
“It was an ongoing situation that, one weekend, splurged into what the town’s talking about,” said Isaac Barber, Park’s director of residence life.
Barber stepped into that position in July of this year. He said he previously worked at schools in Mississippi and in north Chicago, particularly with first-year and transfer students.
Barber said he came to Park for an opportunity to grow and contribute to something legitimate. He said he considered the forum to be an example of developing that legitimacy. Barber said the forum was recommended by students at a gathering of third floor Copley Quad residents, which was also in response to the Nov. 19 incident.
“A lot of the stuff that happened, they saw and we didn’t want to leave them without answers,” said Barber.
Some of those answers about the specific details of the event were not readily available, however, due to regulations on student privacy.
Campus safety, which was also involved on Nov. 19, was unable to meet for an interview.
Barber said he attempted to address students’ concerns about this specific incident as well as how it relates to other, similar events on campus.
“One of the questions people had during the forum was ‘What’s actually going to change?’” said Barber. “This isn’t just some one-off situation. We have to do things differently. How can we recruit students and say what we’re about if something like this happens, and we say we’re not going to do anything about it.”
During the forum, Dr. Gunderson outlined several things he plans to do about it, including training for all faculty and staff in Parkville to improve sensitivity and understand implicit biases. In an interview after the forum, Dr. Gunderson elaborated on another change. Incidents, concerns and complaints filed with campus safety and residence life will now be shared with him as well, and he said he’ll be working to streamline communication between the two departments.
“Coordinating that would help us close the gap in knowledge faster and have a more coordinated response,” said Dr. Gunderson.
He also mentioned an idea he said was presented to him immediately after the forum by students who had attended. He said they suggested various ways to implement tests of staff and students’ cultural flexibility. He said he saw in the idea both the potential to alleviate current tensions but also measure growth over time and adjust accordingly.
“I think the way we gauge success is by how we as a community feel,” said Dr. Gunderson.
For some students, that feeling has been severely damaged on campus. Renae Cross, a junior studying American government, said she was originally drawn to Park for its emphasis on diversity and inclusivity, hoping it would be freeing from many of the forms of oppression she faced growing up in Belton, Missouri.
“On the tour I saw all those flags in the cafeteria,” said Cross. “I came up twice so they really did a number on me. I was really enthusiastic about it, but now I feel like I’ve been scammed.”
Cross said this feeling did not come from any single incident like the one on Nov. 19, but rather a pattern of dismissiveness and disproportionate discipline toward minority groups from faculty and staff, including Barber.
“That prejudice in the back of people’s minds,” said Cross. “Because you look a certain way and I believe this group of people acts a certain way.”
Other students echoed this sentiment.
“If you’re of black descent, or your friend has anger problems, or they’ve already had a run-in with the school or authority, you already have this issue and that’s that,” said junior social psychology major Walter Wilkins. “It’s too late.”
Students also voiced concerns that the forum was more about damage control than change.
“I really do believe if this situation did not get shared on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, it might have been swept under the rug.” said senior Spanish major Leah Winn. “I feel like the administration tries to protect each other and the administration’s name, and they are sometimes more concerned with protecting their own image. They forget to meet the students where they’re at and just be there for us 100 percent and authentically.”
Winn acknowledges some at the forum likely remained silent because they didn’t see a problem or simply weren’t aware of one, but also said she saw people there she knows to have questions and complaints who didn’t speak, she believes out of fear.
“I feel like it’s impossible to be the victim,” said Cross. “I know that’s not a place where people want to be in life. You don’t want to be the victim, you want to be the victor all the time but sometimes you are genuinely the victim. You have done nothing wrong and I feel like at this school I would still be treated like the perpetrator.”
“I hope,” said Wilkins. “I do have hope that they will be true on their word but being from situations that have happened like this, I just know it’s not going to change. I have no idea what to do to get that change but something has to be done and we can’t be quiet about it anymore.”
“I just want us to do better and be better and move forward,” said Winn.