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Students end hunger strike after UK president agrees to cover mural, take other steps.

UK student protesters speak with President Capilouto on demands

Over 100 University of Kentucky students with the Black Student Advisory Council and Basic Needs Campaign met with Uk President Eli Capilouto on a number of issues and demands ranging from food insecurity to racism on campus.
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Over 100 University of Kentucky students with the Black Student Advisory Council and Basic Needs Campaign met with Uk President Eli Capilouto on a number of issues and demands ranging from food insecurity to racism on campus.

A controversial mural at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall will be covered for a second time in several years after a two-hour meeting between President Eli Capilouto and a coalition of student protesters who occupied the Main Building Monday night. The protesters laid out a series of demands to make life at UK better for low-income and minority students, and in many cases, he met them.

As of Tuesday evening, the protesters had left the Main Building, and a portion of the students had agreed to end their six-day hunger strike.

“I heard their brutally heartfelt and painfully honest stories about the challenges of being a student of color or need at our University,” Capilouto said in a statement after the Tuesday meeting. “It was, as I told them, the toughest day I have had as a member of our community. My mind was further opened to their challenges and, frankly, to some of the shortcomings we have as an institution that aspires to be a community of belonging for everyone.”

Over the weekend, the Black Student Advisory Council, which has been meeting with UK administrators in the past few weeks, joined forces with the Basic Needs Campaign, some of whom have been on a hunger strike for the past six days to protest the lack of a centralized office to help students who can’t afford adequate food or housing. About six students are doing a total hunger strike, more than 200 more are doing modified versions.

BSAC Chair Tsage Douglas said the academic needs of black student overlap with those of food and housing insecurity. “We’re using our joint momentum to propel our movements forward,” she said.

In addition to the mural, Capilouto made the following commitments:

A permanent seat for black students on search committees for administrative officials: UK will include a representative from the Black Student Collective on all senior-level search committees (deans and high-level administrators).

Revising the William C. Parker Scholarship: The Parker Scholarship – which historically has targeted underrepresented students and students with financial need -- requires reform, Capilouto said. UK will meet with the black student groups to review the available data relative to the Parker scholarship, with the goal of strengthening and continuing to grow the program for black students, “without diminishing our commitment to diverse students across the campus.”

Standardizing the role of Diversity and Inclusion Officers: UK will immediately move to ensure that diversity officers have the duties, training and time, to confirm that they are meeting the University’s Strategic Plan goals relative to diversity and inclusivity.

Staffing for a Basic Needs Center: As a first step, a full-time, professional staff member will be hired and trained to coordinate and plan UK’s approach to basic needs, including food and housing insecurity. Additional resources for staffing and other needs will be added, if needed.

Establish a Basic Needs Fund: UK will consolidate its two emergency and assistance funds into a one-stop shop to better handle requests related to food and housing insecurity and questions around basic needs.

UK will immediately cover the mural and re-engage with a new committee to determine a long-term plan. “Although efforts over the past two years to create a more complete context for the mural have been earnest and thoughtful, the artwork in Memorial Hall remains a touchstone of pain and hurt for many students of color,” Capilouto said.

The 1930s fresco mural by Ann Rice O’Hanlon was painted as part of the federal Public Works of Art Project. It shows Lexington’s history from its settlement in a series of scenes. In one, black men and women are planting tobacco, and in another, a Native American man holds a tomahawk. Various efforts to remove the mural have been made since at least 2006.

In 2015, in response to a meeting with a group of black students, Capilouto ordered the mural to be shrouded. Then after meeting for a year, a UK task force said the mural should be uncovered, but accompanied by more contextual information and art. In 2018, UK commissioned prize-winning artist Karyn Olivier to add to the space, which she did with a gold painted dome emblazoned with figures from the mural and other historical minorities from Kentucky’s history.

Artists Karyn Olivier and Jay C. Lohmann convert the dome ceiling of University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall entrance into public art to contextualize a controversial mural found within the building made by Ann Rice O'Hanlon in 1934.

Among numerous speakers, senior Mia Thompson spoke of the shame of bringing black speakers to UK, where the most iconic building on campus is decorated with pictures of slavery, while senior Kennedy Guess asked if UK had showed the mural to UK basketball star P.J. Washington Jr. during recruitment.

“You have the power to remove the mural or cover it up,” student Daniel Beasley told Capilouto. “This is a moment in time when people of color and marginalized communities are hurting ... take this step for the people of color on campus. We have experienced enough trauma.”

At the meeting, Capilouto explained that as president, it would be extremely difficult to destroy a work of art, but pledged to continue discussing the issue. Because it was painted onto wet plaster, it cannot be moved without being destroyed. “My heart hurts for the history you have to carry with you every day,” he said.

Students moved on to the Basic Needs Campaign, which is based on a university-wide task force that recommended UK create a centralized office to deal with students’ food and housing needs. That group did a survey that found 43 percent of the 2,000 UK students interviewed said they experienced food insecurity on campus, with nearly half of those reporting actual hunger because they couldn’t afford to buy food. Eight percent said they had experienced housing insecurity, too.

“Nobody was doing this work so we said we have to do this,” Revlett said. “There’s not enough strategic planning, that’s why we need a basic needs staffer.”

Capilouto said he believed there are students who need food and pledged to fund extra food swipes to any students who need them for the rest of the year. Students can email or call 859-218-NEED to get registered.

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