Last week, LSA facility manager Rob Ramsburgh requested ecology and evolutionary biology professor John Vandermeer to remove a “Black Lives Matter” poster from the window of his office in the Kraus Natural Science building according to emails obtained by the Daily. LSA Dean Martin later cited the request as a mistake, acknowledging a University of Michigan rule regarding the placement of signs on office windows.
The emails were later posted on Facebook and showed Ramsburgh emailed Gary Phillips, technical services supervisor of the ecology and evolutionary biology department, citing University rules as the basis of his request. Diarmaid Ó Foighil, chair of the EEB department, then forwarded the request to Vandermeer.
Vandermeer said he refused the request in an email he sent earlier Friday morning. He noted the positive responses he had received from students of color. He also mentioned his incredulity at the University finding issue with his sign, especially with its consideration to allow prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on campus.
“I find it incredible that the University of Michigan seriously contemplates giving the racist Richard Spencer voice on our campus partly based on an argument of ‘free speech,’ but takes umbrage at a sign proclaiming black lives matter,” he wrote in his email back. “The sign has been in its present position for about a year now, and the only comments I have received are statements of gratitude (mainly from students of color) for having it there.”
According to the Facebook post, Martin sent Vandermeer an email apologizing on behalf of the LSA facilities team, referring to an unspoken rule within LSA to remove all signs facing out on office windows.
“LSA’s long-standing practice has been to remove all outward-facing window signs, regardless of content, and our facilities staff was adhering to that practice when they contacted you,” Martin wrote. “But LSA currently has no written policy on this topic, and your sign should remain.”
In an interview with the Daily, Vandermeer said he appreciated Martin’s apology because it showed the University supported his right to free speech.
“I was very pleased with his response,” Vandermeer said in the interview. “At the upper levels of the University, it came down on the side of freedom of speech.”
Vandermeer copied the entire EEB department in his email to refuse taking down his sign; up until then, the entire exchange had been private. An anonymous source within the EEB department said Vandermeer’s email triggered about 40 to 50 responses, all of them department members rallying behind him in support. Other faculty members are following Vandermeer’s example and posting their own “Black Lives Matter” signs on their office windows.
“We appreciate him bringing everyone to this discussion,” the source said. “We have a 40 or 50 email chain now of different faculty members and graduate students, and everyone’s talking about sending out more signs.”
The controversy surrounding Spencer, as well as racist incidents that have occurred on campus, make this a pertinent exchange. The EEB department previously voiced its opposition of allowing Spencer to come to campus in a letter to University President Mark Schlissel.
“We, the undersigned members of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, respectfully disagree with the University’s decision to entertain Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus,” the department wrote. “It is our belief that such morally repugnant and factually baseless speech on campus runs counter to the culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion that we students, faculty, and staff try to nurture.”
Rackham student Austin McCoy expressed his support of Vandermeer’s response and questioned why Vandermeer’s Black Lives Matter sign was singled out when there are likely other signs hung up around campus.
“The act in itself, it’s admirable, but it’s also innocuous in that he just hung up a sign,” McCoy said. “He can’t be the only the professor with an office who’s hung up a sign with some sort of message on it. Why is he being asked to take his down?”
Information student Vidhya Aravind also appreciated Vandermeer’s actions, and said she would like more professors to take a stand in a similar way.
“I wish I knew of more professors like John Vandermeer,” Aravind said. “I wish I saw regularly more professors who believed in caring for marginalized students stand up and stand up loudly, the way he did. I think a lot of professors are sympathetic, but don’t take action or risks.”
Vandermeer noted the awareness and discussion his email spurred on campus. But he also highlighted the need for people on campus to take more action, rather than just putting up signs, to create a more supportive environment for students of color.
“I think that what’s positive that came out of this was that for at least a moment there, people were talking about the issue all around campus,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to support a professor putting a sign in his window. It’s a whole lot more difficult into putting a lot of resources into changing the University to support students of color.”