Two campus groups and the student between them

BY GABE NELSON

Published October 24, 2006

LSA senior Tony Saunders woke up in the middle of the night last month to the sound of a ringing phone.

When he answered, an angry voice called him names like "Uncle Tom," "racist" and "sell-out."

The voice belonged to a member of the Black Student Union, whose external relations committee Saunders chaired until he was stripped of his position in mid-September.

The two top leaders of BSU's executive board took away his title because Saunders had joined the controversial senior society formerly known as Michigamua.

Saunders is the latest in a string of society members ousted from their other student groups.

Saunders, also the campus president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council and a representative in the Michigan Student Assembly, was worried about a backlash when he joined the society in the spring.

When the society revealed this year's class in April, Saunders refused to include his name on the list of members.

"I withheld my name from public announcement precisely to avoid dragging BSU through this public confrontation now unfolding," Saunders said in an e-mail interview. "I would have thought the rest of BSU leadership would support this approach."

But the executive board of the BSU didn't take it the way Saunders had hoped.

Saunders told BSU Speaker Jessica Perkins that he was a member of the society in early September.

Shortly afterward, Perkins and BSU Vice-Speaker Sheldon Johnson called Saunders into a meeting. They told him he was no longer needed to serve as a committee chair.

Saunders has filed a complaint with the University's Office of Student Activities and Leadership.

BSU's decision to remove him violates the ideals of BSU's constitution and the All-Campus Constitution, Saunders said.

Saunders also said his dismissal was in violation of Student Organization and Recognition procedure, because the BSU constitution contains no clause governing the removal of a committee chair.

BSU declined to comment on the details of their decision to remove Saunders from the position, but defended its action in a statement.

"The Black Student Union maintains that its removal of Tony R. Saunders II from a leadership position in the organization was proper under the organization's constitution and all relevant university guidelines," Perkins and Johnson wrote in the statement. "Because the matter is currently the subject of an active, and as-yet-unresolved complaint under the Student Organization and Recognition process, the BSU declines to discuss the particulars at this time."

In April, the society announced its intention to reform. In addition to releasing the names of most members from the classes of 2006 and 2007, the group officially threw out the name Michigamua, which was coined a century ago to sound like a mythical Native American tribe.

But the society remains controversial to much of campus.

BSU is one of many student groups on campus that opposes the society because of its past.

The society used Native American artifacts and traditions in its rituals for decades.

The society also allegedly violated a 1989 agreement to stop using Native American culture. In 2000, the University kicked Michigamua out of its home in the tower of the Michigan Union for the alleged breach.

"We are in agreement with the Native American Student Association who stated they 'officially withhold support, both now and into the future, from any organization that maintains ties to Michigamua,' " Perkins and Johnson wrote.

Last December, the Native American Student Association asked campus progressive and cultural groups to sign a statement cutting all ties with the society.

"Since 1902, Michigamua has a documented history of discrimination, racism and cultural appropriation," the statement said. "Michigamua has also been repeatedly deceitful and noncompliant in both inter-community dialogues and official University contracts and agreements. This behavior runs counter to our organizational mission and commitment to a safe, respectful campus community."

Saunders said this policy does more harm than good.

"The society has been one of the most diverse organizations on campus for a long time, and it is important that this diversity continue to include black community leaders, as it has for decades," Saunders said. "By expelling and harassing students of color affiliated with the society, are they trying to turn it into an all-white organization?"

- Although Daily Editor in Chief Donn M. Fresard usually edits articles on the front page, he did not edit this story because of his membership in the group.