In the past two years, the University of Michigan has seen several acts of hate targeted at people of color and minority groups across campus.
In September 2016, flyers advocating white supremacy were found on campus posting walls. In February, engineering students received racist and anti-Semitic emails from hacked email accounts. This September, the Rock, a campus landmark, was found graffitied with anti-Latino and pro-Trump expressions. In October, racist slurs were found on the residence hall doors of three Black students in West Quad Residence Hall.
In the aftermath of these incidents, campus communities have not stood idly by. Hundreds of students have rallied against racist flyering, graffiti and a variety of other attacks. In late September, Rackham student Dana Greene knelt in the Diag for 21 hours to protest racism on campus and across the country; dozens of other students joined the peaceful protest.
The University administration has taken steps to respond to acts of hate and its historically low minority enrollment. In October 2016, the University launched its five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan, which aims to foster a diverse and inclusive campus, while also supporting inclusive scholarship and teaching. Diversity has been especially difficult in the University, since practicing affirmative action has been banned in the state since 2014 despite the University’s attempts to appeal the vote.
When the plan was implemented, then-Provost Martha Pollack, who is now the president of Cornell University, said the recent racist incidents only emphasized the need for the plan.
“It’s only human to respond with anger and sometimes with fear, emotions that have been felt deeply on this campus,” she said. “I share the grief and outrage felt by our students, faculty and staff. We must cling to the vision of what the world must be … and that is what the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan is all about.”
However, also pertinent to DEI, the University ranked last in terms of socioeconomic mobility and diversity among top public universities. According to a report by the Equality of Opportunity Project, which was highlighted by The Upshot — a data analytics section of the New York Times— 66 percent of students come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution and students have the highest median family income of 27 “highly selective” public colleges.
The DEI plan has been criticized for failing to foster a diverse environment and for failing to put a stop to racist incidents. After the racist emails were sent out in February, students protested outside University President Mark Schlissel’s house calling for “action, not emails,” referencing the University’s digital statement, which showed its support for those attacked, but no further action.
“Schissel WYA” is a common rally of for University students, criticizing University President Mark Schlissel’s response to the incidents. In mid-September, students gathered in front of the president’s home and posted flyers on his door. Schlissel was at a family event during this time.
Postdoctoral fellow Austin McCoy was not surprised by the University’s response.
“From the administration, I anticipate them sending out probably an email and saying that they condemn the acts and then that they’re investigating, but other than that, I don’t know what else the administration plans to do,” he said in February.
However, such incidences and responses are not unique to the University of Michigan campus. Post-election, campus climate and rallying students have been points of debate across the country.
Conservative criticism refers to liberal students as too sensitive and ignorant of free speech — worried for conservative students and their lack of voice on more Democratic campuses. The University of Chicago even shut down the concept of “safe spaces” — sparking what some call a clear rebuke of political correctness. Liberal students, however, hope to protest the turn of the administration along with the fear of rhetoric that they deem bigotry and do not wish to give such thought a platform.
This article is part one of a series in which The Michigan Daily looks at colleges similar to the University of Michigan on the issue of reacting in a tense campus climate. As the University administration and students face their own numerous bias incidents, The Daily will look at other schools to compare and contrast in incidents, administration response and student activism, whether it is a difference in religion, culture, politics or policies.
Julia Rosana Montejo graduated from Cornell University in May 2017. Montejo is Guatemalan and came from a predominantly white high school. She said when she entered the university in 2013, she wasn’t really aware of incidents on campus.
“Long story short, every semester there has been something,” she said.
Cornell University, located in Ithaca, N.Y. — a blue state — ranks similarly to the University of Michigan in terms of the Upshot’s SES status — albeit in the private school category among other Ivy Leagues. Out of 14,907 undergraduate students, Cornell has 6,462 students of color — 43.34 percent. In the graduate program, it is 17.94 percent. Cornell also uses affirmative action in admission.
In fall 2013, a campus organization that promotes Cornell sporting events attempted to increase support for an upcoming football game by creating a “Cinco de Octubre” event, which incorporated racist caricature depictions of Mexican Americans. Montejo said there was a prize given to whoever dressed up as the “best Mexican.”
Since then, Montejo said, there have been a variety of incidents that have primarily targeted Black people and people of color generally. She said she met many people involved with activism at Cornell and in her senior year, she served as vice president of diversity and inclusion on the Cornell Student Assembly.
“A big part of why I started getting more involved was that there had just been a lot of things building up, and I think we were kind of at a culmination of, ‘Oh there were some of these undertones there already,’ and now it’s kind of coming to a point where it’s kind of exacerbated,” she said.
Montejo also said such hateful incidents became more prevalent after the 2016 election. She explained Cornell is known to be a liberal school; subsequently, there is a claim that conservative ideas are oppressed on campus.
“The conversation wasn’t automatically, ‘What can we do for people of color?’” she said. “A lot of it became, ‘Look at these poor conservative students who aren’t able to speak their minds.’”
She said at the end of 2016 and in early 2017, there were two resolutions brought before the student assembly to create task forces to investigate why there are so many liberal professors at the school. There have also been calls for the university to do more to protect conservative speakers who come to campus. She said there have been more visibly proactive actions to help conservative students.
Montejo also said that whereas prior to the election, there seemed to be one or two major acts of hate every semester, there is now something happening all the time.
Last month, a Cornell student was arrested by Ithaca police for a hate crime, according to the The Cornell Daily Sun. A Black student, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Sun he confronted four or five white men who were shouting racist slurs at him; they then proceeded to beat him.
In Michigan, during one of the protests after the racist vandalism, an individual was punched by a white man who also called them racial slurs.
Black Students United at Cornell released a statement saying the perpetrators were members of the Psi Upsilon fraternity, which already had its recognition revoked on campus. The building is to be remade into a multicultural center.
Pollack, now Cornell’s president, released a statement in response to the incident — and others preceding it — citing steps the administration will take to create a more equitable and inclusive campus. Among them was a promise to take disciplinary action against the perpetrators of the aforementioned attack and a commitment to not reinstating the fraternity.
“I will not tell you ‘this is not who we are,’ as the events of the past few weeks belie that. But it is absolutely not who we want to be,” the statement read. “The leadership team and I have been working throughout the weekend, and we will continue to do so, to develop and implement steps to be a more equitable, inclusive and welcoming university.”
Meanwhile, Black Students United declared a “state of emergency for black students” in response to the incident. The group blamed the university for creating the Campus Code of Conduct, which protects white supremacists’ hate speech. They recognized it would be difficult to change the policy but felt it would be possible with help from the greater university community.
Prior to creating an official list, Black Students United members met with Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur right after the assault. They were frustrated Pollack did not reach out to them until three days after the assault; they were also frustrated that many of the ideas they brought up in their meeting with Pendakur were presented in Pollack’s letter, without recognition.
Anti-Semitic posters have also been seen on Cornell’s campus and Pollack has denounced these incidents as well.
Looking at responses to acts of hate on Cornell’s campus overall, Montejo said there appears to be a lot of support.
“In terms of climate change I think to your face it seems like there’s a lot of support,” she said. “But behind the scenes, there’s a lot of weird antagonism that’s going on.”
Beth Garrett, Cornell’s thirteenth president, passed away after a battle with colon cancer in March 2016. However, according to Montejo, when Garrett came into office she hired Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life. According to Montejo, Lombardi re-envisioned the Office of the Dean of Students and the dean of students position as one that would be very focused on diversity and inclusion issues.
Additionally, she said Cornell has used polls to gauge how students feel about diversity and inclusion issues — the University has also had campus climate polls — and has always addressed campus climate even without major incidents occurring. Cornell has diversity officers through its Diversity and Inclusion initiative to better promote a welcoming and inclusive campus, as well as a bias reporting program.
Montejo explained the administration always sends out statements to the campus community in response.
Montejo noted Ivy League schools are definitely targeted. In November 2015, for example, hundreds of members of the Yale University community marched in support of minority students who felt they were not fully included on campus. According to The Washington Post, protesters rallied in support of women of color, faculty of color and ethnic studies; one person carried a sign that read: “Your move Yale.”
The theory that prominent, progressive schools are being targeted has floated around before — especially with Washtenaw as a blue county in a newly turned red state. In an earlier interview with The Daily, Schlissel said there might not be a way to mitigate the target on the University's back.
“I think that part of being a prominent university, taking clear positions on things, having large numbers of very successful graduates out there in the world, being on TV all the time, being in the media all the time means that what happens here gets noticed,” he said. “That’s the sort of other side of this double-edged sword of being famous and prominent. … It’s because of our prominence that provocateurs realize they can use us as a platform that the national media will pay attention to, to spread their terrible, thoughtless, degrading, awful ideas. They're using us.”
Montejo said she believes Cornell is generally diverse. According to Cornell’s Composition Dashboard from fall 2016, 39.5 percent of undergraduates were white, while 42.3 percent were from minority groups. Despite that, she said groups that have disproportionate power on campus include those that are white, including the Interfraternity Council.
“I felt really compelled and pushed to join a Panhellenic sorority, and while I had a great experience there, it did kind of feel like there was a disproportionate amount of influence of power in that structure because of its whiteness,” she said.
Though the administration has taken a lot of positive steps, Montejo said there are gaps that need to be filled. She said she feels there is a lot of movement on reactive measures but not nearly as much around proactive members.
In an email response, Cornell’s Media Relations Office pointed The Daily to several of its official statements.
University of California at Berkeley
Some say Berkeley has been the poster child of college campus activism this year — the pushback against controversial speakers has been widely documented in the media. Notably, while activism has escalated to violence, much of it has occurred in the campus vicinity, not specifically at the university.
Billy Curtis is the director of the Gender Equity Resource Center at University of California at Berkeley. Strictly in terms of reports, Curtis said, there has been an uptick, but quickly explained that like with incidents of sexual violence, as there are increases in education and awareness, there are more reports. It’s unclear whether there are more incidents or more reports.
Another challenge UC-Berkeley faces, according to Curtis, has to do with protocols for a response. Many victims and members of communities that are targeted feel the chancellor needs to respond.
“We’re trying to figure out always, when does the chancellor respond? What does that response look like? How do people feel cared for, seen, heard, tended to?” he said. “I think that’s the biggest challenge because too often what we’re really dealing with isn’t necessarily just a campus climate issue, we’re dealing with our sociological problems of the United States.”
UC-Berkeley is taking steps to make the campus more inclusive and address the needs of students from marginalized communities. The Division of Equity & Inclusion provides a variety of programs and services.
On Sept. 1, the division launched the Campus Climate, Community Engagement and Transformation unit, whose mission is to focus on “reshaping and influencing policies and practices that increase opportunities, advance social justice and create equitable experiences for all groups, with a special focus on marginalized and underserved populations.”
The initiative’s website also highlights results of a spring 2013 campus climate survey, which showed 1 in 4 community members have experienced exclusion on campus. It also showed undergraduates who are not African American overestimate the inclusivity of the climate for the group. For instance, 89 percent of Asian students and 87 percent of white students rated the climate as “respectful” or “very respectful” for African Americans; African Americans rated the climate as 47 percent for the categories. Additionally, on the survey, a top concern was not having channels through which to report discrimination and the notion that faculty judge students based on their perceived identities.
That being said, in fall 2017, 2.9 percent of enrolled freshmen at UC-Berkeley were African American or Black, 9.9 percent were Mexican American or Chicano, 3.7 percent were labeled “other Hispanic/Latino.” White students constituted 24.5 percent of the freshman class.
Other initiatives through UC-Berkeley’s diversity division include a Campus Climate Speaker Series, which brings scholars and activists to campus to address related issues, and Innovation Grants, which provide funding for projects focused on increasing equity and inclusion on campus.
Still, UC-Berkeley has seen hate acts in the past year. In September, posters listing 13 specific community members and identifying them as “terrorist supporters” were found on campus, according to The Daily Californian. Some of the victims in the past had vocalized their support for Palestinian divestment from Israel.
In a statement sent to the university community, UC-Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ condemned the acts. She highlighted the school’s Principles of Community, among which are a commitment to respect the differences and commonalities of all people.
“Berkeley is better than what these incidents reflect,” the statement read. “Many things contribute to the fact that we are the nation’s number one public university, and a strong component is the care, respect and esteem which we have for our fellow campus community members. As we move into the events of next week, please join me in upholding these values.”
Four days after the posters were found, conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at Berkeley. According to The Daily Californian, Yiannopoulos was originally invited to speak by the student group the Berkeley Patriot — a conservative group on campus — as part of the “Free Speech Week,” in which several conservative speakers were coming to campus. Amid confusion surrounding the event and the Berkeley Patriot actually filing a complaint with the Department of Justice, claiming Berkeley was infringing free speech rights, the event was canceled. Still, Yiannopoulos — and other speakers — came to campus and were met by a crowd of protesters.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Pranav Jandhyala — a news editor for the Berkeley Patriot and who founded the organization that invited Ann Coulter — explained the situation became too complicated and the group had to pull out of the event.
“It became a situation that we just had to get out of because of the complications,” Jandhyala said.
Meanwhile, the Yvette Felarca, an organizer for Berkeley’s By Any Means Necessary pointed to the need for a sanctuary space.
“To protect the community (and make) it a sanctuary campus, that means actively defending it,” Felarca said.
The University faced its own slew of controversial speakers — the latest being Charles Murray, known for “The Bell Curve,” which argues the correlation of IQ and race. McCoy said speakers like Murray use student anger as a platform.
"I'm not really going to say much about what's his name –– Charles Murray –– I don't really care about Charles Murray, I think he's irrelevant," he said. "I think he's just trying to use protests, I think he's trying to use student anger to rebuild his career. So, think about this. He has to use students to get a come-up."
LSA senior Ben Decatur, co-chair of the AEI Executive Council at the University, defended Murray’s right to speak on campus.
“If the hosts of tonight’s program, in collaboration with University representatives, believe that the protesters are interfering unduly with the speaker’s freedom of expression, those protesters will be warned by a University administrator,” Decatur said. “If warnings are not heeded and interference continues, the individuals responsible may be removed from the building.”
Berkeley freshman Justin Kim serves on the Hall Association at UC-Berkeley. In an interview with The Daily, he described the controversy surrounding Yiannopoulos’s visit to campus. He said there were police and blockades for the entire week around Sproul Plaza, where the event took place.
In terms of how the school responds, Kim explained the Berkeley Police Department and administration have worked together to send email advisories about crimes on campus to the community.
“During Free Speech Week, or when it was supposed to happen … even leading up to it, we got notifications to avoid the area,” he said.
He noted that Christ released a statement, which stated the university is committed to free speech, as exemplified by the speakers on campus, even though they put forth ideals that “run counter” to those of the university.
“To provide the security necessary to protect the community, we have had to close buildings, relocate students and workers, bring to campus a police presence that some find intimidating, and spend money that we would have much rather put toward our academic and research mission,” the statement read.
Kim explained earlier in the fall there was an event in which UC-Berkeley students could ask Christ any question. There is also a way for students to write letters to the chancellor, which are directly delivered by the president of the Associated Students of the University of California — the UC-Berkeley student government.
Regarding hate acts and the reactions they prompt, Curtis explained the campus climate shifts based on the level to which the incident rises.
“Someone writing something on a residence board in a residence hall on one floor, I may be aware of it, but it usually doesn’t rise to the level of impacting a larger community because it’s a one-off — unless there are enough instances in the residence halls that are targeting folks, and students are feeling like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of racist things, or a lot of anti-Semitic things said,’ and that’s happened over the years,” he said. “But all of a sudden it starts to bubble up.”
Graffiti on a building, he explained, will rise to different levels because it is far more public and more people see it. He said it creates a different level of response.
Curtis also noted UC-Berkeley has been in the media as a result of certain speakers coming to campus and impacting the campus climate. Students, for example, can report that they feel unsafe and unwelcome on the campus in response to an event like that.
He explained that while many programs and offices work to educate the campus and make it more safe, inclusive and accessible for marginalized groups, racism and other forms of bigotry are still prevalent in the United States. Due to a variety of reasons, he explained, the campus climate changes.
“It’s not static, we’re not working in a place where everyone remains the same forever more, or there’s little turnover,” he said. “We have large turnover because our student body turns over, and they’re coming from their communities and their experiences … and in the modern era — the modern era of information and social media — we’re now impacted by things that happen in the virtual world. The things we may create on campus don’t necessarily stop or even mitigate the stuff around hate and bias acts; (the two) can work in concert but I’ve not seen it stop.”