In response to the racist and anti-Semitic emails sent to University of Michigan engineering and computer science students late Tuesday night, around 40 students gathered in front of University President Mark Schlissel’s house early Wednesday morning.
Students and faculty members, citing the recurrence of racist flyering last semester and racially motivated incidents on campus began to chant “action, not emails!” in front of the President’s house until Schlissel went outside to greet the demonstrators around 12:45 a.m.
Schlissel stood outside his home, speaking to the students and asking for the crowd’s ideas for how to respond to these situations.
“The most important thing you can do right now is stand together and call out this bullshit,” Schlissel said.
J. Alex Halderman, a Computer Science professor whose name was used in the emails, was also in attendance, emerging from Schlissel’s house to address the crowd.
Halderman called the remarks inexcusable and requested University response, something he also called for in his email statement to the Daily earlier in the night.
“This evening many EECS undergrads received emails with racist and antisemitic content that appeared to be addressed from me or from my Ph.D. student Matt Bernhard,” Halderman wrote in his statement. “These messages were spoofed. Matt and I did not send them, and we don’t know who did. As I teach in my computer security classes, it takes very little technical sophistication to forge the sender’s address in an email. This appears to be a cowardly action by someone who is unhappy about the research that Matt and I do in support of electoral integrity.”
Schlissel asked the crowd if this incident and other similar incidents of racism and racially-charged posters on campus should be reason for canceling classes or exams, as many students requested.
“Do you think that provokes the next terrible set of emails?” Schlissel said. “Do you think that means the bad guys won?”
Organizer Keanu Richardson, an Engineering senior, planned the demonstration outside Schlissel’s house to convey students “weren’t going to take it anymore,” but are also willing to work with officials on addressing the needs of students of color.
“It’s midnight, and we’re not looking for solutions at this very moment,” he said. “We are here to work with him and not harass him. If this message wasn’t delivered, the president expect us to be back on his doorstep.”
Many of the students spoke directly spoke to Schlissel about their personal experiences coping with racist incidents on campus.
“What is the point of an education if I’m so scared to get it?” one protestor asked.
Two police cars and multiple officers were also onsite.
Some students addressed Schlissel’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, released last October, in an attempt to increase diversity and create a more inclusive campus climate. Many were critical of the separate plans within the University.
Schlissel defended the DEI plan, citing the smaller steps it takes to make these improvements.
“We’re all held to the same standard of how we treat one another,” Schlissel said. “The idea of each school coming up with their own plan was the hope that they’d all feel like they own their own plan.”
However, protesters stated their desire for more collective action that could hold the University accountable as a whole rather than individualized plans within each college at the University and their dissatisfaction with their experiences.
“We want actual action,” another protester said in response to Schlissel’s remarks. “My parents were here 30 years ago fighting for the same things…and (now) I didn’t want my sister to come here because of the shit I deal with here.”
At several points during the interaction between Schlissel and the crowd, he stated he sympathized with the protesters but could never understand the experiences that people of color face regarding racism.
“We’ll keep working together on this, because I really do need your help,” Schlissel said. “And I can’t promise you the world’s going to be better tomorrow or next week; I wish I could.”
Richardson responded to Schlissel’s repeated question of “what can I do?” with a charge to listen to the students directly affected by racism.
“I would draw a parallelism with white guilt,” he said. “In an attempt to save a people or culture, you forget to include those people in on the conversation. We the students are here to ask him to include us … we know he’s doing something, but we just need to see what it is.”
During the interaction between the protesters and Schlissel, a number of people approached the crowd and began shouting pro-Trump slogans and yelled “Fire Goodell!” — a reference to Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League.
Students, who felt that this minimized the importance of their protest, responded by calling the men involved racists. Despite attracting several others to confront the heckler, most remained to continue listening to Schlissel address the concerns of the demonstrators.
University police chief Robert Neumann also addressed the crowd, noting the incident was being addressed by university officials.
“We are investigating this as a criminal issue,” Neumann said.
However, around 2 a.m., the Division of Public Safety and Security tweeted they would be investigating the emails as a hacking incident.
Central Student Government released a statement earlier in the night as well, acknowledging these incidents as racist and having no place on campus. CSG also called for action from the University administration.
“It is our hope that the Administration will unequivocally condemn these acts of blatant racism and pair any sentiments of solidarity with meaningful, tangible, and immediate action,” the statement reads. “We will communicate more information to the student body as it becomes available.”