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President Kay Norton: The year in review

By Will Costello
On April 30, 2017

The approaching conclusion of the 2016-2017 academic year caps one of the rockiest in UNC President Kay Norton’s tenure. 

Norton has been dogged by controversy since before the school year even began, and calls for her resignation have crossed the desks of the UNC Board of Trustees in recent months. The Mirror sat down with Norton to discuss these controversies, and her reactions to them. 

“We have some very clear differences of opinion within our community,” Norton said at the beginning of our interview. “And as a community we have some really hard work to do.”

Norton said that she thinks much of the turmoil that has shaken UNC is a symptom of the political climate across the country. 

“I went to college during the Vietnam war protest era,” Norton said. “Some of the language and some of the actions by students are quite familiar.” 

The Bias Response Team and John Cooke’s Letter

Criticizing Norton is a bipartisan activity. Prior to the beginning of the school year, she was taking flak from a Republican state senator from Greeley. John Cooke, a UNC alumnus, wrote a scathing letter to Norton regarding the Bias Response Team, a task force intended to police behavior that might be considered objectionable or discriminatory, and sent it to the Greeley Tribune, which published it. 

Cooke was troubled by reports that the Bias Response Team had instructed professors not to discuss certain topics that could be found offensive in their classes. 

“I am both astonished and disappointed by what is happening at my alma mater, the University of Northern Colorado,” the letter began.  “It appears UNC leadership has decided that so-called ‘tolerance and diversity’ is justification for intolerance and intimidation.”

Battle lines were drawn, but because Cooke sent his letter over the summer, when few people were on UNC’s campus, the story fizzled. Norton dissolved the Bias Response Team soon after the school year began, and UNC said that discrimination complaints would now be sent to a new office. It was later revealed that many of the former staffers of the Bias Response Team now occupied that office. 

Norton, who knew John Cooke prior to the letter, said she was disappointed that he had made the letter public. She said she contacted him right away, and that they had productive discussions about the topic.

The Campus Commons

Billed by the university as “A gateway to campus, a unique navigation and support hub for students, and a showcase for UNC’s world-class music and musical theatre programs,” this $73 million project has upset many students. Paid for by state grants, alumni donations and a fee levied on current students, many of whom will never see the finished project, the Commons represents wasteful spending to much of the student body.

“I think that, to the extent that there is discontent, it’s because of a lack of understanding of what the Commons is all about, and how university financing works,” Norton said.

In Norton’s words, the Commons satisfies several different needs in one place, but attracting and retaining students and implementing a performance hall are usually brought up as the most positive effects.

“Frasier is woefully inadequate,” she said, referring to Frasier Hall, home of the School of Performing and Visual Arts. “We have a world class music program, but we run the risk of losing potential students or faculty because the facilities are subpar.”

New residence halls are off the table as well. The construction of North and South Halls on West Campus were finished relatively recently, and the administration was looking to fix other problems. 

The Donald Trump Rally

Only days before Donald J. Trump’s poll-defying victory in the 2016 presidential election, a surprise visit from the candidate himself was announced by UNC’s press office. Trump’s campaign stop sent shockwaves through the UNC community, Greeley and Weld County. Eager Trump supporters from all corners of Colorado lined up for hours before the event began, and protesters led by Democratic public officials, including Rochelle Galindo, a Greeley city councilor and Dave Young, a state senator, waved signs and chanted yards away. 

Norton received criticisms from students opposed to Trump for giving him a platform to speak. Her response to that criticism, a video and a letter expressing understanding but also praising open debate was, in itself, criticized as lukewarm. 

“I think we did the right thing,” Norton said. “We are a public institution, that place was publicly available,” referring to the Bank of Colorado Arena. 

“We weren’t thrilled when they called,” she continued, saying that she expected the visit to be unpopular. “But we didn’t have a valid reason to turn the campaign down.”

Critics on the left accused her of being a Trump supporter, Norton said, while those on the right criticized her for what they saw as a tepid welcome. Many wanted her to take a stance one way or the other. But Norton said that it was essential to remain impartial, seeing as she is not an elected official. 

“The current generation of activist students is different from their predecessors in terms of wanting and demanding particular responses from, in this case, the president,” Norton said. “Being president of a university is very different from being an elected official. I don’t think that I could have responded in any way that would have been more favorably by those who were unhappy with how I responded without provoking unhappiness on the part of others.”

Student Demands

Shortly after the Trump rally, a group of students presented a list of demands to the UNC Board of Trustees. Items on the list included a center designated for use by LGBTQ students and a higher salary for directors and staff of cultural centers. The most notable item, though, was a request that Norton step down, and that a student committee be put in place to determine her replacement. 

Norton pointed out the need to be able to say no to students when their demands are not realistic. 

“So, to single out and ask for the doubling of someone’s salary is completely inconsistent,” with the standard procedure for how those decisions are made, according to Norton. But she said that, when the answer is no, “It’s ‘no,’ along with an explanation.”

Whether or not students like the explanation is another question. 

“It just tells the lack of accountability,” said graduate student Austin Ramirez earlier this semester after hearing the board’s response to the list of demands. “We get a 20 minute speech or an email. Nothing substantial.”

“If you’re talking about the people who were actually protesting, I think they were prepared to be unhappy with any response other than doing exactly what they asked for,” Norton said. “But I also think they were really more invested in the symbolic value of the demands. They were somewhat arbitrary, I think. You’re never going to make everyone happy. What I want to do is make sure we carefully consider what the issue is, and what have we done to address it in good faith.”

The Missing Performance Evaluations

In the process of defending Norton’s performance as University President, the board cited a $45,000 comprehensive assessment of her tenure. However, upon further questioning by the Greeley Tribune, it was revealed that no documentation was present corroborating that positive evaluation. 

“They’re using it in her defense, that this evaluation happened, and it showed good things,” Jeff Roberts, the executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, told the Tribune. “But there’s no record of that. How is anyone able to independently corroborate that?”

“Nothing vanished,” Norton said. “It was not conducted with a survey, it was conducted through interviews by the consultant, who presented orally to the board. Those statements made by people who are not privy to what we do were inaccurate.”

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