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The Michigan Daily sat down for an interview with E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, to discuss several current issues on campus, including a likely visit from Richard Spencer, the addition of a Middle Eastern/North African category to University of Michigan demographic data collection, and hiring issues in the office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs.
The Daily: The administration has been very clear that safety is the first priority in negotiations with Richard Spencer. Can you talk about what the University outlines as safety, and how it’s taking mental health into account?
Harper: I think the University is thinking primarily about physical safety of everybody involved, and that the rest of us are thinking about, ‘OK, how do we ensure psychological and emotional safety?' And actually, we talked with the team down at Florida — our director of Counseling and Psychological Services — about what they provide, when they provided it, how do you — if the decision is made for him to come, how do you get people psychologically and emotionally ready so that it doesn't have really a detrimental effect on their mental and emotional health? I think the challenge for the University is, it's much clearer to think through the issues related to physical safety than it is emotional and psychological safety, because that's different for some students.
TMD: Can you tell me about what came out of that conversation with the University of Florida?
Harper: For example, one of the things that they said in Florida is it's really important to have people available before, during and after for some students. That it's important to have communal spaces where folks can gather. But there are some folks who say: ’I don't want to be in a communal space. I want to be by myself, I want to process this.’ Sometimes a sense of wellbeing and safety doesn't come just from a clinical practitioner. Sometimes it comes from who you know and who you feel comfortable with — and making sure that we're mindful of all of those kinds of options for students. Some folks will choose to go home, or choose to do what they would normally do with their friends. So depending on how you respond, what makes you feel safe when you're in a dangerous situation is what we want to make sure that we provide a lot of options.
TMD: One of the things Richard Spencer's team said, in pushing the University for an earlier decision date, was that they need time to make arrangements to bring numerous people to campus. How big of a concern is that for the University and are they going to push back on that?
Harper: I don't know if the University would push back about who he brings or invites as much as taking into consideration what's the safety implications of that. The other thing that I would offer around this idea of psychological safety and emotional safety, where we want to be really, really careful, is — and I think it's a delicate path we walk — I don't want my whereabouts restricted because somebody looks at me and decides I'm unsafe. Or they look at my grandson, who's tall and lanky, and decide he's unsafe. So for me, as an African American, this idea of not feeling safe, this idea of 'I only want to walk down the street when I see certain people, I don't want to get in an elevator with other' — all this idea of 'I feel psychologically unsafe' really creates a ripe area for discrimination. This is what I would offer: I think students are saying that that's the argument we're using. I would frame it this way: that's the caution we're taking. That's what we're trying to weigh. I'm not saying that that, in and of itself, is enough, but I am saying we should consider that. We should fold that into our thinking.
TMD: There seems to be, in all these protests and debates around Spencers appearance, a pretty clear disconnect between the students who are protesting and the administrators responding to those protests, in that administrators feel they're listening to students' concerns and students feel they're still not doing enough to address those concerns. Why do you think that's happening?
Harper: Two things happen: We behave internally, like we can have an internal conversation that nobody else is listening to. So, if Richard Spencer and those who follow him are dangerous — and I actually believe they are, and intend to do harm — why would I publicize where, when, how? Because if your intent is to do harm, the more I tell you, and the earlier I tell you increases the likelihood that you could create more harm. So I think the disconnect comes because what's reassuring to students isn't just contained in that population. We're trying to have a kind of private conversation about how we secure our community in a public forum. And students are saying, 'Tell us everything.' Well, the 'us' is much larger than the student body or the community harmed. I think that there is an expectation from students of administrative behavior that, on its surface, appears pretty easy, until you add a layer of complexity. There are times when everything a community wants to know, feels like it's entitled to know, is simply not appropriate to share. And that's when trust becomes important, and giving people the benefit of the doubt. And I think we're sort of low on that right now.
TMD: What I hear students say is that they're not able to self-determine their safety.
Harper: Sure they are. Sure. You can go, or not go. If your own sense is 'I am unsafe, Royster.' I don't want to hear what this guy has to say, I am not going. There is nothing he's going to say. I do get to self-determine, I do have a choice, I do have agency. I don't have a choice over what other people do, but I do have a choice over what I do, and the decisions I make. I always have a choice, and I'm not giving that up to Richard Spencer, I'm not giving that up to the University of Michigan, and I don't need everybody to agree with me to use my sense of agency. So I will not concede that. I cannot say that there is some person, or someone external to me, that takes away my agency. No. And I certainly won't concede that to Richard Spencer.
TMD: In your tenure as vice president, and more specifically this past semester and year, how have you seen these issues facing marginalized students change, and how has the relationship of marginalized students with the administration changed?
Harper: I do think it's in a national context. The national divisiveness has come on campus also. Much more difficult to not find common ground, but to hear each other's common ground. It's not that we don't have it, but the national narrative is extremes. Us and they, rather than a we. And Richard Spencer is coming here to harm 'we' — us. Think about who he targets — I'm not sure who he doesn't target, other than a very small portion of the population which looks exactly like him. So that we would then be in conflict, rather than in community around this, that would be a change. We've got folks in Puerto Rico, months later, without water. And the old us would've been busy doing that work. The new us — we're fighting about, on the scale, way less important things. We've somehow managed to get ourselves to where every issue is of the same importance. And it's not. I don't want to downplay Richard Spencer — but really? At best, he's going to come, if he's allowed to come, talk for an hour, and go somewhere else and say the same thing. At best. But a travel ban? A tax cut that hurts education and graduate students? A tax cut that hurts the poor? If given a choice, that's probably not where I would spend my time and energy. If given a choice.
TMD: As you saw at the Regents' meeting, the calls for a ME/NA checkbox on University documents and collection data is growing, and a number of supporters were at the meeting. Do you support the addition of a ME/NA checkbox?
Harper: Again, here's another one where work is being done. I don't think there's anything wrong with the community saying, 'I want to be identified, and I want to be able to check a box.' It doesn't matter, in the community I'm in, whether I check it or not. And I think having the numbers to make sure the resources are there, and that we can help students, I get that and support that. I think where I struggle personally is when that's an affirmation, when that's a way to say, 'I'm being seen.' But I don't have to understand it to be able to respond to it. So this idea of making sure that we know the numbers, and that students are getting the support that they need, absolutely. And the strategy students want to use for that is a box. I guess that's the right strategy. There are other students who say: 'I don't want to be targeted that way. Leave me alone.' There are students who don't want it. There are students who do.
TMD: Do you think we'll see a resolution to this debate around the box in the near future?
Harper: Boy, I hope so, as long as we've been working on it. And trying to figure out, how do we get at what's being asked, separate from how it's being asked.
TMD: Latinx umbrella organization La Casa released a statement earlier this week objecting to the process through which the new MESA director was appointed. What does student input for appointing these Student Life positions look like, and how do you respond to this criticism?
Harper: With respect to boycott, it’s a strategy and a choice, and we make it every day, so I don’t have an issue with that. Not a strategy I would employ for this, I prefer engagement. If someone is saying to me, ‘Come and help me figure out if what you want to have happen, any of these people might be able to do,’ I’d probably go, but I certainly understand an individual’s right to boycott. So I’m separating out the strategy and the choice from the issue. I think the issue of common ground –– absolutely, around representation. But always, for me, in a non-discriminatory way. I don’t want to be hired for my identity, and I don’t wanna be not hired for my identity. I don’t want anyone ever to –– ‘take away’ is the word that comes to mind, but it’s the wrong word –– this idea of ‘qualified, not qualified’ has been such a theme around communities of color. This idea of tokenizing –– I’m not gonna engage in that.
TMD: So how do you not tokenize, but at the same time represent 7 percent of campus?
Harper: Well, in Student Life we have done that. And I can send you any of that information if that’s helpful for you. I also think it’s a dangerous precedent for anyone to believe that the only people that can hear their concerns are people who look like and represent them. So there’s some pieces of the logic that are problematic to me that are deeper, and so to me you sit and talk through those things. How do we make sure we get the best folks to advance the work we’re trying to do in an office, and make sure that office is diverse? Absolutely a responsibility. Absolutely to be held accountable for, all the time. I don’t have an issue with accountability. We’re on this road that goes both ways, and I think we’re just looking in one way. So my job is to look both ways. How do I make sure that I don’t tokenize, I don’t marginalize, I don’t even suggest to somebody the only reason they got the job was based on their identity when they’ve worked hard, gone to school, blah blah blah, all these things. I don’t wanna take that away from someone. And nobody that we would want would come if the only reason we were hiring them was because of that. The fastest growing community among faculty, staff and students at the University is the Latinx community. But it’s a young community.
TMD: Do you think that looks the same on every part of campus, that growth?
Royster: No, I don’t. And that’s why the core of what students are raising about who’s not at the table, I don’t disagree with. But a strategy that says, ‘I hire based on identity, I discriminate’, I’m not going there. I’ve lived in that world. I don’t want any part of it. So the core issue: yes. The strategy: no. Because that strategy cuts both ways. And that harms our communities. Because what it really says is, ‘You don’t bring anything but something you don’t have anything to do with.’ I don’t have anything to do with being an African-American woman. Nothing.