Interview of UISG President 2020, Connor Wooff, conducted by KRUI News Director Annemarie Elser on 6.26.20, regarding UISG’s stance toward cutting ties with the ICPD on University of Iowa’s campus.
Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Annemarie: Okay, so hi! I am Annemarie and I am going to be interviewing Connor Wooff. He is the Student Government President. Do you want to introduce yourself a little bit?
Connor: Yeah, so my name’s Connor Woof. I’m the Undergraduate Student Body President this year, I study political science and I’ll be a senior.
A: Okay! So first of all, how did the email to the administration about Black Lives Matter and the protests and everything come about for Student Government?
C: Okay so first, I’ll kind of walk the timeline. After the murder of George Floyd we knew we wanted to respond, not only to reassure students we cared about Black students and students of color on our campus, but also offer opportunities for engagement on topics of race for students, resources like counselling or various multi-cultural resources on our campus, but also kind of do a call-to-action. So after George Floyd’s murder we were really taking the time to write a good statement, and I know a lot of people were like “Oh where’s student government’s statement on this? Where is it?” so we just wanted to make sure it was high quality and not performative. And so that initial statement went out before the teargassing of students and so our biggest thing in that was we called on administrators to kind of think about how they themselves, in their positions, but also personally, are contributing to the policing of students. Like the policing of their lives, their education, just to kind of do some sort of call to action for us to think about how we can be a better university. So we did that, and then on June 3rd, the night of June 3rd as you know, students were protesting peacefully near Mayflower/interstate 80, there was no clear line that students were told not to cross and the law-enforcement present were Iowa City Police Department and Iowa State Patrol, so University of Iowa Police Department was not present. But at one point, and I was watching over the Daily Iowan livestream, and I’m really thankful they were able to attend, they were just using teargas on the peaceful protests and flashbangs so we knew at this point we had to respond because it was completely unacceptable. As I was watching it I was on the livestream from my house I was like this is just- it looks like a warzone. Students were literally screaming for medics, you could hear it. These are students who are going to class with me, these are students who are in student orgs. They are part of our community and so it was just horrific to see so we had to make some kind of action. The next day we were in meeting all day about it and communicating with administration and as a team and talking to student org leaders. We knew two of our Big Ten Colleges’ student governments, so first Minnesota called for cutting ties with Minnesota Police after George Floyd in Minneapolis and that was successful because of all that’s going on in Minneapolis, and then Ohio State student government also called for the same thing and so it was definitely on the table and we were thinking- my initial thoughts were “Oh is it realistic, what would it look like, what relationships do we have?” because I didn’t know at the time how the University of Iowa worked together with ICPD. It really came to the point where not calling for this now, if we’re not making this big ask now, what has to happen for us to feel comfortable for us to do that? And at that point the people in SG were like “We don’t want to wait and see something like that happen to feel comfortable in this city.” So we got a group together and wrote this letter, and it included a variety of asks. (Demands can be read below) The first one is to cut relations with ICPD, the second is State Patrol and Coralville Police because we’ve been hearing a lot of concerns about Coralville Police. Another one was to audit the Department of Public safety that we have on our campus, the University of Iowa Police. In our minds and in my mind we had to make it clear, put a stick in the ground, and say enough is enough and this is too horrific to watch. We need to make this big call to action and force administration to come up with a response and start responding to what happened.
A: I mean everything that happened, that’s not something you would expect to happen in Iowa City. I feel like we think of IC as a little bubble in Iowa, it’s like that little liberal bubble in the conservative mass of Iowa. I know for me when I heard about it, thinking about how this happened in Iowa City, I just never would have expected that. Definitely very crazy. So when you guys got together to start writing the email and statement and everything after the teargassing, as SG did you talk to other organizations? Did you interact at all with organizers at the protests or was it mostly just a SG decision?
C: It was really a SG decision because initially we knew that- I guess that’s not the case. It was something we were thinking about very seriously and it was something that we had been seeing– especially with Ohio State. I think they had a very similar situation to us, as peaceful protestors were gassed for no absolute reason, they were just gathering. So they made that call and it was in the back of our mind like “Is this an option for us?” But I think there was a lot of grassroots support for it even before we did it. I know people all across Twitter, all across student orgs, all across Iowa City, they were really calling for this on Twitter and a change.org petition started. I haven’t checked it since we were making the letter but it reached, at the time of our letter, I think it reached 15,000 signatures which is a lot. If you put that in perspective its half our student body. Not to say that all of them were students, it’s just a lot of them could be alumni and people that care about the University of Iowa and IC. So there’s a groundswell of pressure from students, student leaders, even people that I looked up to like former student body presidents that I know have been in my shoes before, even they were calling for it and I was like “Okay this is something that we need to do, there’s no if and or but for calling for it.” Afterwards a lot of the outreach our Director of Justice Ruth Kahssai, she did a lot of organizing with student leaders and we reached nearly 150 student orgs that signed on to the letter, which is 1 in 5 organizations which is a pretty big deal. There’s a lot of student orgs that don’t have anything to do with it like Food Pantry and Dance Marathon, these are people that see it and are angered and want to support what we’re doing. It’s not like we had a town hall and then got that idea, it was a lot of hearing on social media and then afterwards we really saw the support for it once we made the call.
A: That’s fantastic that so many student organizations signed on to it and to have that support, it’s nice to have that in the University community and to know that people are supporting it and supporting all of our students, not just white students- and we are supporting everyone. One thing that personally I thought was interesting was SG sent out their email and I think within five minutes, the administration sent out an email that seemed like it was in response to your email, so can you talk me through – do you know why it was that soon, what are your thoughts on that?
C: It was very, very weird I think from the student perspective to see that. We released our statement on social media the day before and it took a little bit for ITS support to get a mass email out. And I told the President’s office when we made our decision, I was talking to them all day the day after the teargassing and I was like “We’ve made a decision we’re going to encourage administration to cut ties, we’re going to release a letter today.” So they saw it as soon as we released it, they’re pretty active in watching stuff like that. I’m assuming they brought their team together to come up with a response, and it just went out very close together. It seemed really weird but that’s how it played out.
A: Going on that though, what are your thoughts on the response, what they’re saying? Because I know it’s a review board they decided on and they haven’t said anything about cutting ties or reviewing it and everything. For you and SG as a whole how do you feel? Is that enough of a response for you guys, do you think there needs to be more?
C: The initial response was- When we were making these demands we knew it was not going to be a light switch. So that was something I was trying to talk to my team about and talk to students about, we can’t just say all four demands are immediately met. But a lot of working with administration is a give and take so the initial response that was emailed out that Friday was not what we wanted, right. I think honestly it was a little unsure. It was kind of like do you trust this is going to happen, do we feel like its sincere enough, do we feel like there’s an actual- is it just a statement to make a statement? I haven’t read it in a while but I know there were parts of it that matched up with what we said, like the internal audit. What I’ve heard from administration and what they relayed in that letter is that they are really committed to working with City of Iowa City leadership and so they are putting in their trust because the city has a Black mayor. They really want to support them as they reform the police and make changes. It wasn’t satisfying completely. I don’t think that type of response would have happened if we didn’t make such a big call, I think it would have been more like “We support students, this is important to us, diversity, equity and inclusion is always a priority” right, but if we didn’t make this big call I don’t think they would have come to meet us in the middle. That’s not to say there’s not so much more work to do. But I am really excited about this reimagining public safety committee. Sarah Hansen, the VP for student life announced the Reimagining Campus Safety Action Committee and basically what its intended to do it bring in students, people doing research on this issue, a person from the UI police, a variety of stakeholder to- if we were designing a UofI police department what would it look like, what would we want it to look like. I’m very excited about that because it’s really going to dismantle what we currently think of as the UofI police and it’s going to ensure that we’re providing more mental health professionals who can deal with mental health issues in residence halls and throughout campus that are emergency related. I’m very excited about that. I think the greater conversation is growing beyond public safety. The University has to make some sort of- We have to move forward on diversity, equity, and inclusion across the campus. That’s where our focus has to shift because we’re seeing so many concerns across the board, so we’re trying to have those bigger conversations and push the needle.
A: Yeah for sure. And that reimagining campus safety, that sounds like a step in the right direction. It doesn’t create immediate results but at least the administration is putting something out there that in the end will help and improve inclusions and public safety and the community. I just was curious, does SG have any more plans and further steps when it comes to the public safety, as well as diversity and inclusion? The email was a big deal and that was really good for the community and knowing SG’s behind everyone. Do you have a plan in place for this next semester?
C: This is the bulk of the work I’m doing now. It is definitely going to be a priority this year, we don’t want- even if the protests end, even if people aren’t posting on social media, we are committed to having these conversations throughout the year. There’s a variety of ways we’re looking at doing things. One is engaging with this Reimagining Campus Safety Action Committee. We have two representatives from SG who will be sitting on that to represent students as well as two additional grad students. It’s not official yet but we’re going to be in those conversations with that committee and Sarah Hansen. A lot of the changes that will happen on campus with public safety will be in that group and I know that they will be really asking big questions, engaging campus, trying to think from the ground up. On the other aspect, we are going to try and reach out, and have already had some initial conversations with city leaders about how is the ICPD changing, is this going to continue on or is this just a committee that’s going to die out, not going to see change. We have two city liaisons who attend every City Council meeting so they’re active on that front. General diversity, equity, inclusion progress on our campus, how is faculty trained, what does the complaint process look like to report a faculty member who is being discriminatory and does that need to be clear? We had a town hall two weeks ago where a lot of people are asking about “How do I report a professor?” and honestly, as a former RA and orientation leader, I was like “Oh I think you report to the Dean or the department head,” but there’s no clear answer.
A: Yes, that’s important.
C: And if I don’t know how to answer that most students probably don’t. Clarifying that process. Supporting Black students in general is a priority for us. How can we as a SG use our funding to provide Black students with a resource that they can tap into? How can we memorialize Black lives that have been lost across campus? Our Director of Justice and Equity and our VP have been really active on creating healing spaces and looking at a possible week long celebration in Fall celebration on celebrating Black lives and Black culture. There’s a lot of moving parts right now. There’s not a lot of other things I’m giving my time to other than COVID-19 and reopening campus. This is going to be a big priority for us. There’s no significant documented plan, but we’re having a lot of conversations.
A: Well that’s exciting to have all these things going and to improve campus, and you know – I love the UofI and I think our campus is a great place but knowing we’re still improving and things can be improved and changed- that’s just an exciting thing to make it a better space. To shift gears a little bit, you just mentioned COVID, I was wondering your thoughts and SG’s thoughts on the fall semester plan for coming back to campus and how SG feels about the administration’s response to that.
C: We are pretty looped in on the planning of that, and there’s a critical incident management team that has a variety of different committees that focus on the experience and student life, a variety of things. They’ve really put together this broad group of subcommittees that have experts on campus on these issues and those groups have reported back to this broader committee that has helped create this plan. I’m honestly very proud of the plan, if you look at other schools in Iowa, our plan is about 32 pages long and is broad. By broad I mean its long. Other campuses have offered very little guidance, so I think we’ve done a really tremendous job. We have the best public health officials in the state, we have a great College of Public Health and a great hospital and they’ve been really instrumental in making sure that we’re following CDC guidelines. Administration has done a really good job of looping me in and SG in creating those plans and we’ve had really regular meetings about it. I think there’s a lot of concern out there still from the student body that I’ve seen. I know in our town halls and on Twitter that people are generally concerned and that there’s a lot of questions to be answered. That’s going to take a lot of effort by the University, I know there are plans for some sort of mandatory Icon or MyUI course that students will have to take that will educate them on all the new changes like wearing facemasks and how to socially distance and what happens if you get sick and how to get tested, so there’s going to be a lot of communication it’s just a lot of its in development. I think it’s harder because personally I want to be back on campus more than anything, and I think most people I talk to, my friends my classmates, want to have a semester. Imagining a completely virtual semester-
A: No one wants to relive the second half of last semester.
C: No! Exactly. I think I would have no motivation to log on to Zoom from August to December, and no personal connection with students and campus, so I think it was hard for administration to really look at, “How do we provide that experience that students are paying for that students want that they signed up for that they want to get their degree through, but also make sure that we’re following top of the line CDC guidance?” Personally, very proud of it. I know that there’s a lot of continued concern. they’re having forums throughout the month to answer those questions, there’s an email that students can reach out to for questions.
A: What’s the email?
C: I think its email@example.com
(The email is: firstname.lastname@example.org )
A lot of it can be found at https://coronavirus.uiowa.edu/ everything about how the University is responding should be on that website. That will have the 32-page plan.
A: That’s definitely very in depth compared to some friends who are at different universities. I think that our plan is more in depth than others as you were saying with ISU and stuff.
C: It’s hard because as students we see a lot of other schools either closed down for the year or reopened completely and we just cannot follow what other schools are doing because we’re different. Every state’s different. On that end, we have to be, as a student body, follow these rules because if we don’t the cases in Johnson County will spike and the likelihood of us going home for the year will increase.
A: No one wants that.
C: Yes! No one wants that and no one wants to get sick and no one wants to have to go to the hospital and do quarantine or lose their life or impact their family members. We’re working with City Council and the area business leaders, College of Public Health, to develop a campaign to really encourage students, especially as they to restaurants, bars, house-parties, please continue to socially distance because people are going to continue to get sick and it’s going to risk our semester. There’s still a lot to be ironed out as we move forward. I’m hopeful that this plan is the best out there.
A: From what I’ve seen its very in depth, which I think it lessens fears. I know for me knowing exactly each thing that’s going to happen makes me trust the University more because you know what’s going on and what their plan is in case of this or in case of that. It’s a crazy plan, I don’t know if exciting’s a good word but you’re kind of excited to see what is going to happen and how that plan will carry out through the semester and how things will result. We don’t know right now because there are no schools in session but once there are… Is there anything else at all you’d like to add about the Black Lives Matter movement, about COVID, anything you would like to say to students?
C: I would say first I know how hard of a time this is for students, and we’re working really hard to make sure we’re being as supportive as we can. There’s so many perspectives on all this so we’re trying to realize as a SG we don’t represent every- We technically represent all students but we can’t. We can’t have every perspective. We’re trying hard to do outreach but I would encourage students who are listening to reach out with concerns or questions to either University admin and staff but also SG. On our website, (uisg.uiowa.edu) you can find our contact information. Really reach out, 2020 has a lot of things going on. To think that we have a presidential election coming up in November is insane. Take care of yourselves, do a lot of self-care. I think that our University campus community is- we’re very strong in the fact that we are committed to each other and continue to want to push for progress on things. Students are passionate, more than I think than a lot of universities. We have the ability to raise our voices and ask for change and it inspires me. I’m just excited to continue to work with everyone and hopefully, we can come up with more solutions on things.
A: Well thanks Connor for a really interesting conversation and I loved hearing everything that’s going on with SG and the admin. Again, send questions to email@example.com
C: I would just go straight to coronavirus.uiowa.edu
A: So that’s where you should send questions. I believe the statement from administration and everything is on the website so all that is there. Thank you!
C: Thanks for covering it! I appreciate it.
As Undergraduate Student Government, we are tasked to represent, serve, and listen to our student constituents. Due to these long sustained, and now heightened, concerns of police presence and violence, we as the University of Iowa Undergraduate Student Government demand:
- The University of Iowa immediately cease contractual agreements with the Iowa City Police Department for all on-campus investigations, services, and events.
- The University of Iowa cease affiliation with the Coralville Police Department and Iowa State Patrol.
- The University of Iowa Department of Public Safety cease mutual aid service contracts with the Iowa City Police Department and strongly reevaluate Joint Patrol operations.
- The University of Iowa Department of Public Safety complete an internal audit of policy, hiring practices, and services to ensure that the Department of Public Safety is safe and accessible for all students. Further, this internal audit must be communicated to University of Iowa students and Iowa City community members for accountability