BOONE — Differences over the process for a July 21 meeting between Black students at Appalachian State and university administrators left the students feeling “silenced in a manner we have never seen before,” the Black at App State collective said in a statement.
In response, Appalachian leaders acknowledged that there were “different expectations” for the meeting, but said they have since followed up with the collective and remain focused “on the work the university administration is going to do to make Appalachian a more diverse, welcoming and inclusive community.”
Black at App State — which includes current students and alumni — on July 6 issued a letter with 23 demands to university administrators related to admissions, faculty, student retention and support, health and wellbeing of students of color, curriculum, change in organizational culture, campus culture and leadership, and endowments and scholarships.
The Chancellor’s Cabinet responded with a statement on July 10, saying they wanted to work collaboratively with the students to create a more diverse campus that is inclusive and equitable, and that Chancellor Sheri Everts had extended an invitation to the group to meet to discuss “these critical issues.”
The Black at App State collective then received a July 16 email from Toussaint Romain, the deputy general counsel for App State. Romain offered to facilitate a July 21 meeting between the collective and administrators as a “neutral third party,” and he stated that a Zoom meeting link would be sent.
Black at App State then sent a July 19 email to Everts, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs J.J. Brown, Interim Provost Heather Norris, Chief Diversity Officer Willie Fleming and other administrators to “clarify the objectives” of the meeting, as Romain’s email indicated that a “large number of folks” had been asked to participate.
“Members of the collective were informed that third-party entities who have no direct impact or knowledge of the demands have received invitations to this meeting,” stated the Black at App State email. “This is a cause for concern. Restricting this meeting to those best informed and best able to engage in a productive dialogue will make the best use of all of our time.”
The July 19 email also included an agenda proposing how Black at App State would like the meeting to proceed, including introductions from both parties and a portion of time to allow administrators to explain how the demands would be implemented and a projected timeline of fruition. The group asked that individuals who had not received the Black at App State email not be on the call. The email also included a Zoom link provided by Black at App State in order to have a productive meeting and maintain an “equitable power dynamic,” according to the collective’s July 24 statement about the meeting, which it posted to social media channels.
The statement indicated that Black at App State was told the day of the meeting that the link they provided would not be used, and that a new one would be sent out before the meeting. The collective believed it was “miscommunication and technical difficulties” as to why their link wasn’t used, but later felt they were “dismissed” when the collective asked to use the agenda they provided.
In an audio recording of the July 21 meeting, Romain can be heard telling group member Korbin Cummings that the meeting would not be following the Black at App State agenda and that they’ll “still stick with what we have.” He asked that questions be held until the end, after Fleming gave a presentation of the university’s plans for implementing the demands, and Romain added that students were “here to be heard, not here to be ignored.”
The July 21 Zoom call had around 50 people in attendance, which Black at App State described as a “textbook example of intimidation tactics.”
The July 24 letter stated that students were muted on the call and unable to participate, and that they asked in the Zoom meeting’s chat box if they could be unmuted so they could speak. Romain can be heard in the audio recording of the meeting acknowledging the collective’s requests to be heard while Fleming spoke, but saying that Fleming was responding to the demands “line by line.”
The Black at App State letter states that the chat function was later disabled.
Appalachian State spokesperson Megan Hayes confirmed that all participants other than the presenters were muted once the meeting presentations began, until the time on the agenda for questions. She said that at no time was the chat disabled during the meeting.
Once Black at App State members were able to speak, university senior Jay Edwards said that the group wanted to facilitate the meeting because they “knew that you all would mute us.” Romain interrupted Edwards and said that at that time he wanted to entertain questions and concerns about the demands.
Kynda Bichara, a member of the university’s women’s track and field team and the president of the Black Student Athlete Association, then tearfully explained that facilitating the meeting would’ve ensured that Black student voices were heard. Instead, she said the meeting that took place was a “slap in the face.”
“We have been silenced so much — not just at this school but in America — because our voices do not matter,” Bichara said. “The way this meeting was conducted reaffirms that we are not heard. We worked very hard to address the fact that Black students do not feel safe on this campus. I urge you to see the irony in the fact that this is about the safety and voices of Black students being valued, but we were muted and ignored.”
In response, Fleming said that the intent was to demonstrate that the administration saw the demands — not to be disrespectful. He said the hope was to show that the university was working on the demands, but had more work to do.
But in its July 24 statement, Black at App State said that “the use of Black staff, administrators and alumni in an attempt to invalidate the claims of Black students further serves to demonstrate Appalachian State’s role in perpetuating racist tactics of tokenizing and gaslighting.”
The end of the July 24 letter called for a Black at App State-led meeting with Everts and the Chancellor’s Cabinet, as well as formal apologies by Everts, Romain and university administration.
Hayes said that followup with students began on the evening of the July 21 meeting, and that both Norris and Brown met with students last week, while additional communication continues.
She said that it is important to focus on the work that has happened, work that is underway and that which is to come. She added that the meeting’s purpose was to bring together a group to hold the Chancellor’s Cabinet accountable for the work presented, and that the university felt it was important to involve all of the people on the call in order to have meaningful change and accountability.
Asked why the administrators did not follow the agenda proposed by Black at App State or yield to its request to facilitate the meeting, Hayes said, “In looking at their agenda, they dedicated the majority of it to addressing, point by point, each area they asked the university to focus on, and that is what we did at the meeting on Tuesday. The ultimate goal is to focus on the work the university administration is going to do to make Appalachian a more diverse, welcoming and inclusive community.”
“When it became clear during the meeting that there were different expectations for the meeting, both Mr. Romain (meeting facilitator) and Dr. Fleming apologized to the students in attendance,” Hayes said.
“We are in the very fortunate position at App State to have many, many people in our university community who are committed to moving our institution forward, and recognize the need for establishing a clear process to having these conversations and find a way to include all university stakeholders that leads to co-created outcomes,” Hayes said. “The Chancellor’s Cabinet will remain focused on moving steadfastly toward accomplishing the work before us to make our university a more welcoming and inclusive campus for all, and we will continue to bring people to the table for accountability.”
Black at App State did not immediately respond on July 28 to emailed questions seeking reaction to the university’s comments.