The fight song of the University of Wisconsin is “On Wisconsin.” It is played at all major sporting events and even in a medley at graduations. One verse says, “On Wisconsin, on Wisconsin fight on for her fame. Fight fellows fight, fight, fight we’ll win this game!” However, this past week the UW Alumni Association released a promo video to encourage people to come back to campus for homecoming that could only prompt me to say instead of “On Wisconsin”… “No, Wisconsin!”
The video features the University and its students… some of its students. You see students going to class, football games, biking, hiking, playing in the band, eating pizza—all things students do. However, there is no representation of students of color in the video. Unfortunately, this is a familiar racial faux pas for UW.
Some years ago the university photoshopped a Black student into the student section of the stadium. Its response was to apologize. More recently, a Black student was spat upon by another student and told she did not belong there (despite her incredible performing arts portfolio). About that same time, another Black student was arrested in class in front of his fellow student for doing anti-racist graffiti.
The list of racial microaggressions is too numerous to enumerate, but every day students of color are confronted with reasons they should not feel welcome or safe on the UW campus. UW-Madison is 13 out of 14 (University of Nebraska is worse) Big Ten Conference campuses in the number of students of color. Out of over 44,000 students there are only 593 African American undergrads and 255 African American graduate students.
Before someone thinks I’m hating on UW-Madison, let me be clear, I am not. I was a faculty member on that campus for 26 years. It afforded me a great career. I was the first African-American woman to earn tenure in my School (in 1995). I served for 7 years on the University’s athletic board and was the Big Ten faculty representative. But, I understand how institutions work. Some years ago, I was asked to conduct a workshop for practicing physicians who made the decision to enter academic medicine (become faculty at the Medical School). One of the first things I told them was, “Institutions have no capacity to love you back!” My point was no matter how much you love the university, it cannot love you back. I still believe that. However, just because the university can’t love you does not mean it has the right to abuse you.
What makes the video so egregious is the homecoming committee solicited many student groups to participate in the filming and groups of color did volunteer and participate. All of them were cut in the final editing and somehow no one saw a problem with that. This is a pattern that the university must break. It must stop giving lip service to “equity, diversity, and inclusion.” It must stop using the athletic department as its “diversity program.” It must stop pretending that students of color are all here under some “affirmative action” benevolence. Trust me, after teaching hundreds of students I have had my share of mediocre White students (I’ve had some outstanding ones, too, so save the White tears!).
I am always amazed (and proud) when I see Wisconsin students of color do great things despite their constant marginalization. As a part of the 100th anniversary of the “On Wisconsin” fight song, the university sponsored a contest to re-mix the song. It was the students of color who are a part of our award-winning “First Wave” Scholars program who won that award with an amazing update of the song (see below).
One of my Black students, DeShawn McKinney, not only led the campus’ “Black Lives Matter” effort, he won a Truman Scholarship for his civic engagement, was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, and a Marshall Scholarship winner which afforded him the opportunity to pursue his master’s degree in Oxford, England. Another of my students, Jonathan Williams won the national “Raise Up” competition designed to encourage high school students to stay in school. He later went on to win a fellowship for a highly selective Masters of Fine Arts Program at the University of Florida.
A few years ago, Sports Illustrated named the Wisconsin basketball team the most politically active one in the nation. Star Nigel Hayes regularly spoke out on injustice (and mounted his own respectful protest at the singing of the national anthem) and Bronson Koenig made his was to the protests at Standing Rock to both express his solidarity with other Native peoples and help conduct basketball clinics for the children there. There is not enough room in one column for me to detail all the amazing things I have seen scholars of color accomplish on our campus. The university must do better by them.
My undergraduate classes focus on preparing teachers to teach history and social studies. I remind my students that the rich, powerful, and privileged don’t really need democracy. They have ways of getting what they want whenever they want. No, democracy is what the marginalized, disenfranchised, and underrepresented need. It’s their only hope for true justice and a fair opportunity. So until the university recognizes its needs to attend to the concerns of the most vulnerable among its students (and faculty) we can’t really sing “On Wisconsin.” Our song will be, “No, Wisconsin!”