About 500 students, staff and faculty from the University of St. Thomas and neighboring colleges turned out for a noon rally on the lower quadrangle yesterday to show support for a hate-free campus.

Student speakers described their experiences with discrimination related to religion, race and sexual identity. They called on the university’s administration to adopt a series of six resolutions designed to improve the campus climate for people of color, for those from other religions and cultures, and for gays and lesbians.

The rally was organized by the ad hoc Student Diversity Coalition, and was co-sponsored by the All College Council, Multicultural Student Services and the Student Coalition for Social Justice.

Gregory Roberts, vice president for student affairs, said he was pleased with the rally’s turnout, its enthusiasm, and its overall challenge to eliminate hate and increase diversity.

“This was the first time that St. Thomas administrators have seen the resolutions,” he said. “We will begin discussing them as soon as possible.”

The resolutions called on the university:

  • To apologize “for allowing a discriminatory and unwelcoming campus culture to develop over the last several years”
  • To officially recognize a Student Diversity Committee, and to allow a member of the committee to be a voting member of the university board of trustees
  • To change St. Thomas’ human-diversity course requirement
  • To double the enrollment of students of color from 9 percent to 18 percent within three years
  • To officially recognize a campus gay and lesbian group
  • To halt the use of the “Come Prepared to Learn, Leave Prepared to Succeed” slogan and adopt a new one drafted by the Student Diversity Committee.

The rally began with a welcome from Nicole Zwieg, president of the All College Council, and opening remarks by Adam Cox, a transfer student from Australia and member of the Student Diversity Coalition.

Citing results from a recent campus climate study, Cox said that 45 percent of St. Thomas students of color have been discriminated against due to their race or ethnicity. “We will not be silent about hate crimes,” he said. “We are starting the process of change now, and we are drawing a line in the sand.”

A St. Thomas student who is Muslim, Naheeda Hirji-Walji, spoke about acts of hate that she has experienced over the past year. Her experiences, which have been described several times in campus publications and at campus forums, included messages left on her car and at her home, and a broken car window that remains under investigation.

“I came here to get an education,” she told the rally. “I didn’t know that discrimination would be part of that education.”

Hirji-Walji repeated several times that “I am not an isolated incident,” and said that if changes are not made at the university, she will not be the last victim of a hate crime at St. Thomas.

The Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, has apologized repeatedly for any hate crimes on campus, including the acts of harassment directed at Hirji-Walji. The apologies have been made in The Aquin student newspaper, the online Bulletin Today, a neighborhood newspaper, and at campus forums that were organized to condemn hate crimes. “From the bottom of my heart I am embarrassed and sad that such an incident would occur here in our community,” he has said.

Dease, who was out of town and unable to attend the rally, voiced strong support of the event in a letter to its organizers. He commended their courage and initiative and said he believes that “if change in attitudes is going to happen among our students, it must come as much, and perhaps more, from the influence of peers than from the words of teachers and administrators.”

Another rally speaker yesterday was Jeremie Greer, a St. Thomas senior and an African-American. As a minority student, Greer said he felt “that the university has been unconcerned with issues of discrimination and intolerance. Today’s rally is a sign of a progressive movement to deal with those issues.”

John Sellner, a St. Thomas student who is gay, said he doesn’t feel welcome on campus as a gay person. He said that while he is happy with his St. Thomas education, he doesn’t live on campus and is not involved in campus organizations.

Spike Moss, a longtime human rights activist in the Twin Cities, gave a spirited talk in which he praised the large turnout. “I didn’t expect to see so many standing up for what’s right,” he told the rally. “That’s a blessing.”

He encouraged the students to “rise up ’till you get it right, so the generation that comes behind does not have to go through what you are going through.”