On Monday, The Michigan Daily sat down for an interview with E. Royster Harper, the University of Michigan’s vice president of Student Life. During a time of national conversations surrounding many important and polarizing issues, we asked Harper for her take on current Greek life reforms, sexual assault and misconduct, and free speech in the context of white supremacist Richard Spencer’s possible visit to campus next semester.
In November, Greek life at the University of Michigan experienced a social ban under “claims of sexual misconduct cases involving fraternity brothers, six incidents of reported hazing … multiple allegations of drugging members in undisclosed fraternity chapters and three specific hazing allegations … where fraternity members were put in alleged near-death situations,” according to fraternity leaders at a closed meeting attended by The Daily.
After the social ban was lifted, an action-oriented model for Greek life was established, hoping to turn Greek life into a less dangerous environment for participants. According to E. Royster Harper, vice president for Student Life, the Dean of Students Office, in partnership with the Director of Greek life, has been taking measures to improve community standards such as providing sexual misconduct training and implementing a position between Greek life and the Ginsberg Center.
“We’ve been trying through education, through training, a little bit of persuasion and then some concrete structural changes like adding positions, really trying to get the community to really rethink its culture and recommit to a culture that reflects its value,” Harper said.
More recently, members of Greek life attended a weekend retreat, Harper said, where topics of social responsibility and community values were discussed. She explained the most important part of the Greek life reform process has been to establish a partnership with students, rather than to regulate or direct students.
“The challenge I face is that none of us, including the Greek community, want the things that are unhealthy in the community to continue … On the other hand, we don’t want to talk about the community as though there’s nothing good in the community,” Harper said. “I am both encouraged by their own self-monitoring in saying that we need to stop the social activities because of all this going on, and that also frightens me because my experience has been when we self-correct, things are sometimes more dangerous than we know.”
In addition, Harper spoke on multicultural fraternities and sororities, specifically surrounding issues of police presence. In October, The Daily reported a disparity between the large amount of Black and Latino fraternity police citations and the low amount of police activity at predominantly white fraternities on MSU gameday weekend.
Harper said the disparity is one that mirrors national conversations on overpolicing and concerns the differences between Greek life organizations and private homes.
“The same behavior in front of a white Greek letter organization gets an entirely different response than if it’s a private home and there are lots of students of color,” Harper said. “That is an ongoing challenge for us as a university and as a community as we work with our students because they notice the difference, we notice the difference.”
Many students also feel a lost connection between the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan and Greek life. While Harper explained the difficulties in finding solutions to the issue, specifically for those often “overpoliced and underprotected,” she spoke of the importance in continuing to engage in conversations surrounding the issue and in strengthening relationships between different communities.
“I think what public safety officers are trying to do is to ensure public safety,” Harper said. “I think what students experience is, ‘But your response to ensuring that is different depending on how people look,’ and that’s true — that’s the national conversation. We just have to continue to do this work.”
Student Life Support
In terms of initiatives undertaken by Student Life, Harper first spoke on sexual assault, a topic that has become especially relevant as allegations are made against men in power around the nation and in Hollywood, as well as at the University of Michigan. Most recently, the trial of Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor who received 40 to 175 years for sex abuse, has sparked a larger sexual assault conversation among higher education institutions.
At the University, Harper explained through strengthening and improving staff at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, the Student Life administration has been working to change the dialogue surrounding sexual assault, so that rather than focusing all efforts on the punishment of perpetrators, more efforts are directed toward increasing and advocating for the reporting process through educational efforts.
“What we’re really talking about is a culture change,” Harper said. “The narrative has been around punishment. ‘Why wasn’t the guy punished, why wasn’t the guy stopped, who knew when?’ What we want to focus on is, certainly, when it occurs [to] have a strong adjudication process … But we really want our efforts to be around education and training.”
She explained the administration has looked over assessment data and surveys around sexual assault at the University, researching the reasons students may not report incidents of sexual misconduct and determining ways to strengthen training programs so as to encourage and improve reporting.
“We want to be effective in repairing harm and adjudicating, but the real goal for us is to not have it happen, and when it does, to have the kind of community where our students will come forward, know that they will be believed, and know then that we will work to resolve in a fair and equitable way what has happened,” Harper said.
While the encouragement of students to come forward with allegations is important, Harper highlighted the duties of those within her own office to act on allegations and to ensure investigations are handled properly.
“The President has been very explicit with all of us that the buck stops with us,” Harper said. “His expectation is that staff in Student Life are trained, that they are reporting and that I am acting when I hear something. That has always been the expectation, but he sort of turned up the volume.”
In explaining the efforts of the Office of Student Life in improving training and education, Harper also emphasized giving voices to survivors — something that becomes especially important in times when countless individuals come forward. She expanded on her commitment to ensuring all students, staff and faculty recognize their right to be present at the University free of the possibility of sexual assault and misconduct.
“Part of the reason why we have to be so vigilant now is because imagine you come out of high school, you come to college, you sort of learn in college (to) put up with it — why wouldn’t you go into a career and put up with it?” Harper said. “So in some ways, we’re hoping that if we are just focused and really get this culture right, it will then ricochet (as you go) into a career and you say no.”
On the topic of a potential visit from white supremacist Richard Spencer next semester and the current issues surrounding free speech on campus, Harper addressed the removal request of biology professor John Vandermeer’s “Black Lives Matter” sign from his office window two weeks ago.
Harper acknowledged the University’s request to remove the sign was a mistake. However, she emphasized if it was purposeful, the University would be contradicting its own position on free speech — especially since it is the basis for allowing someone like Spencer on campus.
“If the taking down of the sign was based on content then we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth because we have a commitment to free speech, and it’s everybody’s free speech,” Harper said. “It’s Richard Spencer’s free speech, and Black Lives Matters’s free speech.”
Harper furthered this sentiment and said the power of free speech lies in the fact that it belongs to everyone.
“There is a strong commitment, there is an unwavering commitment to free speech, and that’s everybody’s,” Harper said. “That means that (Spencer) can come, and I can protest his coming. He can say swear words, and so can I. That’s the power of the right to speak. It applies to everyone. Though sometimes we would rather not hear what the person is saying because it’s so offensive or racist or homophobic, they still have the right to say it. (However, Vandermeer) has the right the put up the sign.”
She also warned of the danger that not standing true to the idea that everyone has the right to voice their opinions can lead to the University coming across as insincere.
“There can’t be two standards for free speech without us being hypocritical as an institution,” Harper said.
Harper also addressed the topic of student housing and the added financial burden it continues to place on students each year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Ann Arbor’s median rate for rent increased 14 percent from 2010 to 2015 — lying at $1,075 as of the last survey. As the Vice President of Student Life, Harper is in charge of the Beyond the Diag initiative, which helps students find off-campus housing.
Harper explained while the University cannot control the prices of off-campus entities, there are discussions taking place about refurbishing existing on-campus housing options and even building new ones altogether.
“One of the ways we’ve been thinking about it is, is there something we can do in terms of additional housing for students, and how do we repair and replace what is here so students want to live on campus and should we be thinking about additional housing?” Harper said. “We can control that cost in a way that we can’t control the market.”
She also said for some students who are on financial aid, housing costs can be especially stressful. According to Harper, the Office of Financial Aid coordinates the amount of funding it offers based on the Ann Arbor housing market. Nevertheless, she acknowledged students who are not on financial aid still need viable options.
“It’s hard to manage the market, so the Financial Aid Office does look at what the rates are and adjust financial aid so that works for a student if you’re getting financial aid,” Harper said. “It does not work for you if you are not (on financial aid).”
Harper discussed the different areas she was excited about developing this upcoming semester. One of these areas was the change she hopes the University will enact in regards to preventative measures against sexual assault as a result of the Nassar trial at MSU, and the broader #MeToo movement.
“I am looking forward to how we will change based on what is going on at Michigan State University and Nassar,” Harper said. “I’m looking forward to that because I think that the #MeToo movement is a reminder that half the population is having a very different experience.”
Harper also stressed the importance of continuing self-reflection on both group and individual levels. She pointed out even though Greek life has its share of difficulties, she appreciated, as an organization, that they were able to take a step back and address the problems at hand.
“Even as challenging sometimes as the Greek community can be, those young men said, ‘Time out, we’re seeing something and we’re going to take a time out,’” Harper said. “I want to be both affirming of that and encouraging of that and say ‘Okay, how can we help you interrupt this behavior that we know is fueled by alcohol?’”
On an individual level, Harper explained the changes that need to be made have to come from acknowledging the humanity within one another.
“Some of these changes are changes we have to make have about who we’re going to be as human beings, really,” Harper said. “They’re not the kinds of changes that a rule will fix.”