The duality of the First Amendment as a powerful political weapon for both marginalized groups and their oppressors presented itself as a reality this past semester. The ongoing negotiation between the University of Michigan administration and white supremacist Richard Spencer regarding Spencer’s request to speak at the University, as well as planned University events in response to the speech, has roused divided opinions on campus.
While the University has not reached an official agreement with Spencer on when and where he will speak, University President Mark Schlissel sent a statement on Jan. 5 welcoming the University community back to campus and announcing the administration’s commitment to providing a forum to discuss the challenge of balancing free speech while maintaining an inclusive community.
The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion published the scheduled programming on their website for the series titled “Speech and Inclusion: Recognizing Conflict and Building Tools for Engagement.” The events are slated to begin in February and continue throughout the winter semester. The DEI office has organized these events in collaboration with the Office of the President, The National Center for Institutional Diversity, the Office of Student Life, The Alumni Association, Wallace House and the Office of Academic Innovation. There are also plans to broaden the organizations involved and expand the schedule throughout the semester.
Thus far, the scheduled events include several virtual teach-outs hosted online by the Office of Academic Innovation, one teach-in, lectures from New York Times columnist Bret Stephens and NPR host Joshua Johnson, as well as a panel discussion featuring higher education leaders.
Mike Morland, marketing and communications manager for the DEI office, explained the goals behind these planned events and what the University ultimately hopes for the series to achieve.
“The series is aiming to recognize the differing views on speech and inclusion, so to explore the views that play out in politics, in culture, higher education and many other parts of our lives,” Morland said. “So by engaging in productive conversations with individuals that have varying views and perspectives, we are hoping our community will be able to come away from this series with a deeper understanding of issues like these that are very complicated and a better understanding of one another.”
While the DEI office has alluded to more programming in the future, the initial lineup of events has elicited frustration among students and faculty concerned with the administration’s choice to anchor discussion in free speech and inclusion.
Michigan Mellon Fellow Austin McCoy believes the free speech and inclusion series does not adequately rebuke Spencer’s racial dogma. To McCoy, the series suggests the University is employing the canon of free speech as a “Trojan horse” to avoid addressing Spencer’s white supremacist philosophies candidly.
“It would be better if there were actual conversations about the resurgence of white supremacists or white nationalist politics and what that means for political culture, but also having a frank conversation about the intentions of people like Richard Spencer,” McCoy said.
The belief that the administration is defaulting on a backbone of free speech and inclusion as opposed to challenging the white supremacist beliefs espoused by Spencer, is a criticism echoed across campus.
In an email interview, History lecturer Anne Berg explained her own concerns regarding the message ascribed to the word “inclusion.” Berg noted it is unclear whether the use of the word inclusion implies the inclusion of minorities or expands to mean the inclusion of neo-Nazis.
According to Berg, this ambiguous use of the word undermines the integrity of the University’s DEI efforts.
“The choice to label the series ‘Free Speech and Inclusion’ is not only complicit with the framing imposed by right-wing agitators, but also risks to undermine the important efforts to make our campus a more equitable place where we confront white supremacy head on and don’t just throw around empty, sanitized language that allows us to celebrate an increasingly hollow-sounding concept of ‘inclusion,’” she said.
The notion of uniting the collective voice of a higher education population to yield change is an idea whose birthplace is quite present on the Diag at the University of Michigan. Within the cradle of progressive Ann Arbor, the University’s history is chronicled with displays of students and faculty defending the values of the institution.
This touchstone of the University has not been forgotten by those students and faculty who are unsatisfied with the University’s response in the “Free Speech and Inclusion Series.” The fact that the Free Speech and Inclusion series is the first formal announcement of programming sponsored by the administration to address the tensions that became grounded last semester has also left students and faculty questioning the intentions behind the series.
Berg explained how the framing of the University’s response thus far to Spencer lends itself to a critical examination of possible external influences.
“Having the series on ‘Speech and Inclusion’ now strikes me as a rather pathetic attempt to provide retroactive justification for letting lawyers and the pocket books of existing or potential donors dictate the university’s response to the resurgence of white supremacists in the public sphere rather than listening to the voices of a concerned campus community and to historically informed scholarly arguments against downplaying the violent threat inherent in white supremacist platforms,” Berg said.
McCoy similarly called for the University to be clearer when designing programming in response to the violent rhetoric ingrained in Spencer’s agenda.
“The University seems to be more concerned about protecting itself from any sort of legal harm than it does with actually issuing a very sharp and critical stance that acknowledges what they are trying to do politically,” McCoy said.
In a similar manner, in an earlier interview with the Daily, Art & Design freshman Betsy Stubb reflected on the need for more transparency between students and administration regarding Spencer’s impending speech.
“I knew very little information about Richard Spencer's appearance because administration has been keeping students in the dark,” she said. “I think the best way we can combat the hate and violence that Spencer spreads is for all of us to rally together and show that racism and bigotry are not acceptable at U of M. We need to help foster an environment where students of all races, religions and sexualities feel safe and protected, because under the current administration this is not the case.”
However, the DEI office has emphasized the series will not be the only action taken by the administration to tackle the threats last semester posed to the University’s values.
“This isn’t designed to be the singular answer to it. It is part of that larger complex of the challenges we face as a community,” Morland said.
Yet, those involved in the #StopSpencer coalition believe the University’s track record when addressing the pending Spencer visit warrants the need for the movement to continue to pressure the administration.
LSA senior Hoai An Pham is an organizer in the #StopSpencer coalition and described in an email interview how the administration has missed opportunities to frame the Spencer visit in a manner that recognizes the fears of marginalized groups on campus.
“We would like the University to acknowledge the ways in which it has been complicit in propagating white supremacy and racism, starting with their lack of qualifications to host a series on free speech when they are allowing a white supremacist to come to campus to endanger our community and take away the free speech and fundamental human rights of marginalized people,” Pham wrote.