Inside the student ballroom at the University of Houston on Tuesday evening, the voices of the angry were heard.
About 200 people, including Vice President for Student Affairs Richard Walker, current and former students, concerned activists, the presidents of both the Black Student Union & NAACP along with Student Government Association Senate members had decided that a town hall forum was the best way to air their grievances and offer solutions.
The meeting convened as embattled SGA Vice President Rohini Sethi stood at the mercy of the crowd, offering apologies that seemed to fall upon deaf ears.
Sethi’s July 7 Facebook post in the wake of the Dallas police shootings kickstarted a campus wide firestorm, drawing ire from numerous African-American led organizations such as Alpha Phi Alpha Inc, the school’s NAACP chapter and more. In the since-deleted post, Sethi wrote, “Forget #BlackLivesMatter, more like #AllLivesMatter.”
From there, a social media campaign in #RemoveRohini began, calling for her ouster from the SGA over the post. It picked up steam as a letter from the university’s Alpha Phi Alpha chapter published on July 13 championed her removal stating, “When SGA allows its members to spew out thoughts and ideas rooted in bigotry, this divides and alienates our diverse Tier 1 University.”
Rohini was contrite on Tuesday night during the four-hour marathon session, profusely apologizing and noting that she had learned the error of her ways. Students demanded her resignation, even impeachment from the SGA over her comments. Due to the SGA bylaws, Sethi cannot be removed from her position. The news was met with dismay from some inside the town hall, some of whom left flustered and frustrated.
A SGA Senate meeting to further discuss the matter is scheduled for Wednesday night. In addition to the people in the ballroom, a series of Periscope broadcasts of the town hall registered more than 1,200 viewers.
A non-scientific poll conducted on the website for the student newspaper The Daily Cougar found that 42 percent of voters didn’t want Sehti removed while acknowledging she shouldn’t have dismissed Black Lives Matter. Twenty-five percent of voters wanted her removed while 20 percent called her brave. Thirteen percent of respondents felt indifferent on the matter.
Student Body President Shane Smith, who served as primary moderator for the town hall understood the honesty of many of those in the crowd.
“I don't think that people were volatile, I think they were frustrated and wanted to voice concerns,” he said. “I felt like people were specific with their complaints and explained their frustration clearly in a way that was constructive. There’s a lot of work to do and the goal of learning about some of the problems that our student body faces was accomplished.”
Smith assured that the SGA would participate in mandatory diversity and inclusion training while also holding internal and external events to address awareness.
Many audience members such as UH graduate, charter member of the Collegiate 100 and former SGA senator Jessie Smith voiced concerns about community involvement across campus.
“One thing that I felt frustrated for so many years; we get all in a room and be angry when somebody talks about our race,” Smith said. “Have we done anything outside of that to step up to the plate? Have you gotten to actually do something as opposed to get down for a party or social cause?”
He continued, “If [Rohini] never said what she said, would we be in this room right now? Removing her isn’t a solution.”
The town hall moved into two separate panels discussing the lack of diversity in UH faculty hiring and absence of community and SGA involvement in the hiring process.
Attendees also talked about annoyance with UH’s consistent promotion of diversity and organizations constantly dealing with systematic discrimination in regards to security. Accountability remained the main call for many, from the top on down.
Last November, members of select organizations such as the NAACP, the Black Student Union and Delta Sigma Theta met with UH President Renu Khator to air campus-related grievances in the wake of Concerned Student 1950 at the University of Missouri. To students who attended the meeting, the grievances went heard but not adhered to, and the meeting was nothing more than a photo op for Khator.
“I felt we were silenced. They gave us an hour to just talk and we had an agenda,” UH’s NAACP president, Wesley Okereke, said of the November meeting. “We didn’t get a chance to go through it. At that meeting, it felt like nothing was being done. I’m fairly pleased at what happened with tonight. With our panels, we got to discuss ways so that this doesn’t happen again. The people who stayed actually know what we need to do.”
“We're moving on from #RemoveRohini. We have a new direction that we’re taking. Hopefully, we can make things for the better.”