UNLV President Len Jessup got ready for an anti-racism student rally Tuesday by vowing he'd attend and issuing a carefully worded news release detailing the university’s accomplishments in diversity.
But it was somewhat harder for Jessup to prepare for the moment when the students, who were rallying in solidarity with their peers at the University of Missouri over recent concerns about racism, confronted him and grilled him publicly about everything from a lack of ethnic studies courses to perceived racism associated with the university mascot Hey Reb!
“I don’t understand your vision,” UNLV junior Ashley Smith boomed from a loudspeaker at Jessup and several other administrators, who spent nearly an hour surrounded by a crowd of passionate students who lobbed complaint after complaint about the way UNLV handles issues of race.
“I don’t even think you know what [diversity] means,” Smith said.
The rally, which took place in the chilly autumn air on the busy walkways outside the Lied Library, was a rare moment of dissent by students of color at a university that proudly and publicly touts the fact that it’s one of the most racially diverse campuses in the nation.
But students on Tuesday were largely unimpressed by that fact, or UNLV’s recent designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution. One by one, they took turns sharing their personal stories through the microphone.
Their complaints, which were at times fiery and emotional, also reopened UNLV’s long-standing elephant in the room when it comes to issues of diversity and race: The university’s mascot Hey Reb!, who some students see as a racist symbol of the Confederacy.
“We are one of the most diverse campuses in the nation,” shouted a graduate student named Juanito. “Why do we still have that [expletive] racist mascot?!”
UNLV is no stranger to concerns over its public image. Decades ago, the university and even the campus newspaper, The Rebel Yell, was awash with Confederate imagery designed to emphasize UNLV’s desire to split off from UNR early in the college’s infancy.
But many considered the issue dead after years of public relations polished away that part of the university’s history and a redesign changed the mascot from a Confederate uniform-wearing wolf named Beauregard into a more generic symbol of rebellion.
Still, the demonstrating students demanded Jessup go even further and, together with a recent call by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid to revisit the mascot, the pressure has forced him to keep all options on the table.
“Over the years, the university has made changes to the mascot,” Jessup said as he walked from the rally to a scheduled campus town hall meeting about diversity, a train of chanting students in his wake. “That’s definitely something we’re looking into.”
The students painted a less than rosy picture of UNLV’s commitment to diversity on campus, decrying the university’s decision years ago to cut its Department of Women’s Studies and what they described as its unwillingness to continue supporting it.
Anita Revilla, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies in the College of Liberal Arts, where a skeleton version of the women’s studies program still exists, criticized a perceived lack of racial diversity among the faculty and the fact that the program only has a few professors who teach required classes.
“It’s not valued,” Revilla said. “As a service to the institution, we must have these programs.”
Students spoke of an inability to graduate on time with a women’s studies degree due to a shortage of teachers to teach the required classes.
“I want to graduate! I need those resources,” yelled one student. “Whatever we’re asking for, please give it to us!”
Jessup ended up staying for the whole rally, pausing to thank the students for their activism.
The university already had a formidable diversity effort in place when he became president at the beginning of this year.
The diversity office, headed by Afro-American Studies professor Rainier Spencer, is overseeing a number of initiatives designed to address concerns about diversity and racism on campus.
One of those is a comprehensive report on the school’s “Rebel” nickname and mascot, which is currently being finalized.