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Blacks at Iowa college seeking change after KKK robe display
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The activism sparked by an art display depicting a Ku Klux Klan robe should be a catalyst to make the University of Iowa more welcoming to minorities, students and employees said Tuesday.

Many blacks and other students said they were traumatized by the 7-foot-tall KKK robe a visiting art professor displayed on campus without the university’s permission Friday. During a meeting Tuesday of the UI African American Council, students, faculty and staff aired their opinions and called for progress on broader issues such as the recruitment, hiring and treatment of minority students and employees.

Graduate student Kayla Wheeler said she’s had nightmares and been unable to sleep since Friday. Jose Orduna, an adjunct instructor in creative writing, said seeing the statue left him feeling afraid and alone, and he’s since slept with chairs against the door of his home. Orduna said he didn’t appreciate what he called a “paternalistic tone” from the artist, Serhat Tanyolacar, that suggested critics didn’t understand the meaning of the piece.

“As an art object, this was an artistic failure as far as appropriating other people’s pain,” he said.

Tanyolacar said he built the fabric sculpture years ago to raise awareness about racism in the United States. The piece includes images of newspaper headlines about white violence against blacks. He said he decided to display it — including a camera recording people’s reactions — to show solidarity with students who have been protesting police brutality.

After students were upset, university officials ordered the statue removed hours later. Tanyolacar said he felt horrible that his work caused so much pain and anger, but also took issue with a university statement denouncing the display as divisive and intolerant.

University President Sally Mason on Sunday apologized for the school’s response, saying it wasn’t adequate and didn’t happen soon enough.

“All of us need to work together to take preventive action and do everything we can to be sure that everyone feels welcome, respected, and protected on our campus and in our community,” she said.

Mason plans to meet with a group of concerned students Wednesday and to form a committee to study changes that could include strengthening cultural competency and implicit bias training.

Wheeler, who will be in Wednesday’s meeting, said more training and a “better game plan” for handling future incidents would be positive steps.

Michael Hill, president of the UI African American Council and an associate professor of English, said Mason’s statement is “an opportunity” to seek changes on more systemic issues, such as specific steps to recruit and retain more tenure-track faculty members and students who are minorities.

Blacks make up about 2.5 percent of the university workforce and 3.5 percent of the freshman class — which Mason has touted as the most diverse in school history.