On Thursday, students across campus participated in a strike as part of the #StopSpencer week of action. The event, hosted in part by Students4Justice — a student organization whose mission is to hold the University of Michigan administration accountable for inequities on campus — consisted of class cancelations, accommodations and a student sit-in.
On Nov. 23, Students4Justice and other organizers called for faculty, graduate student instructors, research assistants and staff to cancel classes Thursday to pressure the administration to deny Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus, following its decision to consider allowing him to speak if a safe time and venue is found.
“The recent decision to ‘begin discussions with Richard Spencer’s group to determine whether he will be allowed to rent space’ on the University of Michigan’s campus demonstrates, as we have learned time and time again, the administration’s refusal to truly prioritize the needs and safety of its students,” the statement read. “Though President Mark Schlissel stated ‘if we cannot assure a reasonably safe setting for the event, we will not allow it to go forward,’ Spencer’s history shows us there is no ‘safe’ setting possible when white supremacists and neo-Nazis are given permission to come to college campuses.”
The groups explained that marginalized students on campus are in danger of hate crimes on campus every day; they fall victim to racist flyering, graffiti and slurs. They explained students come to the University to learn and when individuals like Spencer are allowed to convene on campus, there is a “barrier” to their existence and education.
“We ask that you stand in solidarity with us, marginalized folx across campus and the broader community, by canceling class, discussions, labs and any other academic obligations on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017,” the statement read.
On Tuesday, LSA Dean Andrew Martin and Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the School of Education, announced classes would not be canceled Thursday in response to the ongoing activities opposing Spencer.
Martin and Moje wrote in their respective emails that though they support the right of students to protest, they encouraged them to not participate.
“We urge you not to participate in such a protest, which gives power to the people who spread falsehoods and hate,” Moje wrote. “Instead, we urge you to teach your courses and use them as an opportunity to engage our students in discussions about free speech, the power of multiple perspectives, how to launch productive protests, and about the right to the opportunity to learn for all people.”
Instructors take action
With a number of students planning to participate in the strike, professors across campus acknowledged the ongoing #StopSpencer events and made efforts to accommodate students missing class.
David Gerdes, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, did not cancel class Thursday, but offered accommodations for students in his Physics 240 class, making participation extra credit and providing students the opportunity to make up attendance points.
Though Gerdes said he understands students should protest Spencer in their own way, he believes holding class Thursday and encouraging attendance is the most powerful course of action.
“I understand the urge to protest Spencer, however I think that someone like him derives his power from the power to distract, disrupt and capture the narrative,” Gerdes said. “I don’t feel that the best way to respond to ignorance and hatred is to bring our teaching mission grinding to a halt. But I understand that people disagree about this.”
Ultimately, Gerdes said he believes opening a conversation with students about recent events is a significant step professors should take.
“I thought it would be important to not pretend that we live in a bubble, to acknowledge what’s going on and to make the students understand that I am aware of their concerns and that I share many of their concerns and I am willing to support them within reason,” he said.
Associate Sociology professor Sandra Levitsky rescheduled her Thursday class in light of the day’s events.
“My planned lecture for today was really essential for the final class paper and I didn’t want anyone to be disadvantaged for missing it,” Levitsky said.
Fortunately, Levitsky had an extra class built in the syllabus, meaning students will not be academically affected.
Several GSIs also canceled discussion sections. One GSI, who asked to remain anonymous to not jeopardize her job, told her students that while canceling a class defies both LSA and departmental policy, she would do so.
“I strongly believe that learning happens in and out of the classroom,” she wrote in an email to her students. “Please take this time to educate yourself about current issues, reflect on your responsibilities to ensure a safe and welcoming space to learn, and act according to your beliefs.”
Students sit in at Dean’s office
Late Thursday morning, a couple dozen students held a sit-in at Martin’s office, talking to Martin and Angela Dillard, LSA associate dean of undergraduate education. Throughout the sit-in, students continually took issue with the administrators’ tones, saying they were dismissive and unnecessarily defensive.
LSA senior Hoai An Pham, the press coordinator for the Stop Spencer at the University of Michigan coalition, said Martin’s disinclination to send the message that Spencer’s trolling matters was akin to calls to ignore Spencer and his followers. She said this would only allow Spencer’s ideas to flourish.
“I think what a lot of people have been saying is, ‘Why don’t you just ignore him? Why don’t you just ignore this and let him do his thing?’ Are we supposed to just ignore actual Nazis when anything has happened? Do we just say, ‘Oh, it’ll solve itself?’ ” Pham said. “Let’s look at everything else that has happened in history. We can look at what happened with Hitler, we can look at slavery — a lot of people sat there and said we’re going to let this happen, but if everybody had done that, if everyone had said, ‘Let’s just let them do their thing,’ it never would have ended.”
Students also noted Martin wasn’t answering questions directed at him, instead letting Dillard answer for him.
“We’ve asked you questions explicitly, and she answers,” one student said. “Not saying that she has to or you’re making her, but I’m just saying that you’re not saying anything. And it’s frustrating.”
Following a long silence, Martin answered, “What questions can I address?” to audible expressions of further frustration from students.
After Martin said there wasn’t anything happening on campus Thursday that put students in any physical danger, students said the administration didn’t correctly understand their concerns or what they were protesting.
“So you think people are lying? You think people are lying that they feel unsafe? That’s what is really frustrating — that people here are literally telling you they feel unsafe and you’re saying that you don’t think it’s true,” a student replied.
Pham said the issue was also bigger than just Spencer’s request.
“I think that what the administration don’t understand is that this entire week was not only to stop Spencer, but to stop white supremacy and to stop the white supremacy that already exists on this campus,” she said. “We do not feel safe in classrooms where people wake up in the morning and there’s the n-word written on their door decorations. They need to understand that it’s not us just doing this for fun. We don’t have a choice as students when we have to protest our own fundamental human rights.”
After one student started speaking through a bullhorn, Martin and Dillard left the room. It was symbolic, a student said, that they could step out while the students were still there protesting.