Royster talks Greek life winter rush process, racist Snapchat incident and national conversations on sexual assault
The Michigan Daily sat down with E. Royster Harper, the University of Michigan’s vice president for student life, for a conversation Wednesday afternoon on current issues affecting both campus and national climate. Harper spoke on national issues, such as campus sexual assault, recent Michigan legislation to improve resources for survivors; gun violence and the University preparedness. Royster also touched on campus news, specifically, the University’s decision to move to a winter rush process for Greek life and the racist Snapchat featuring two students in blackface with the caption “#blacklivesmatter” that was circulated this past weekend.
To begin, Harper spoke on issues of sexual assault and misconduct, highlighting actions the University has taken to hold perpetrators accountable. Recently, the Michigan state Senate passed legislation to improve resources and support for survivors, specifically by expanding the statute of limitations on reporting sexual assault, increasing the number of mandatory reporters at universities and placing more emphasis on holding institutions accountable for failing to report cases of assault and harassment. Before the vote on this legislation occured, however, the Michigan Association of State Universities, of which the University is a member, attempted to delay voting on the bills in a move state Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Kalamazoo, claimed would “delay justice, or maybe the hope is to stop it entirely.”
In response to O’Brien’s claim, Harper stated these allegations are wrong, arguing that by asking for more time to consider possible legislation, universities are seeking the ability to consider options before jumping into conclusions that may not be as effective.
“We want to have integrity in holding people accountable, and we need a time frame that allows for that,” Harper said. “Sometimes in reactions to horrific experiences, people are much more interested in doing something rather than being effective … I think we sometimes see that in the legislative process … really what it does is compromise institutions’ real ability to be effective.”
At the University, Harper said decision-making has revolved around considerations that would support survivors and keep resources confidential to allow for maximum choice for survivors. Harper also emphasized the importance of clarifying who the mandatory reporters include.
According to Harper, the University has hired a consultant to observe reporting mechanisms and provide feedback to administrators on what might be done differently. University President Mark Schlissel has also brought together a team, which includes senior leaders, to look at current training objectives and work to make improvements.
“This is not an environment that is going to hide or condone or not hold people accountable for their behavior,” Harper said. “We are using the expertise here, and there’s tons of it, being clear about expectations, providing the training, making sure that people who are mandatory reporters know that, encouraging others to report, and making sure that there are some confidential sources like SAPAC, like CAPS, for the rest of our community.”
Harper then moved on to discuss issues of gun safety and the University’s measures to ensure the safety of everyone on campus in the case of an attack. Last week, students across the country participated in walkouts in response to the deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. On campus and in Washtenaw County, various students have voiced their concern for the preparedness and prevention of mass shootings at their respective schools.
Harper emphasized guns are not allowed on the University’s campus and explained the administration has completed many trainings in collaboration with the Department of Public Safety and Security to prepare themselves for a variety of dangerous situations.
“The leadership team has done active shooter planning, planning for bombs, so we do a pre-planning,” Harper said. “We have gone down to, what I call Central Control, but a place called Emergency Operation Center, again to figure out who would be calling, what would you be saying, to make sure the people you ought to be calling you actually have their phone numbers — prior preparation really to prevent a tragedy.”
She also praised DPSS Executive Director Eddie L. Washington Jr. for his preventative mindset in regard to campus safety.
“We have a phenomenal director of the Department of Public Safety and he has a mantra that has been enormously helpful: ‘Prevent the preventable.’”
Harper mentioned the University’s collaboration with other schools to ensure DPSS is up to date with trainings. Additionally, she feels the University has prepared itself in the best possible ways it can if an attack were to happen.
“Our department of public safety talks to other schools, gets training from other schools. We’ve gone to training around this,” Harper said. “I feel in the ways you can be prepared, or the things you can do to be prepared, we’ve been doing a lot.”
Though she said she feels the University is well-prepared, Harper acknowledged the severity of the situation and explained the security systems implemented in various campus buildings. She also pointed out complete prevention is unlikely, but the administration and DPSS continue to ensure the likelihood is lessened.
“It is a constant issue that we’re thinking about, I know the department has gone out to classes, and has gone out to departments. I know they look at buildings to secure them. We certainly have a system where we can lock buildings down pretty quickly. All of those kinds of things are designed to help us reduce the likelihood that someone would be harmed. You and I know you can’t prevent it, there is not enough preparation to prevent it, but you can reduce the likelihood.”
Greek life winter rush process
Wednesday, the University announced recruitment for Greek life would be moved to the winter term starting in January 2020, rather than the current fall rush process. Despite the previous Interfraternity Council social ban, Harper stated this decision is not related to current work to improve risk management issues.
“This is not about hazing. This is not about alcohol. This is not about sexual misconduct. This is about making sure that the students that are in the 11th grade now, when they come, that they have a really good experience, a fabulous first-year experience, and the research tells us that winter recruitment has a positive impact on academic success,” Harper said.
With specific emphasis on the first-year experience, Harper explained the goals of this decision are to allow for students to establish a pattern of academic success, develop strong and healthy relationships and give students a chance to participate in a diverse community with others who are different from themselves. She also hopes first-year students will have the opportunity to explore Greek life, which she considers a lifelong commitment, before making the decision to rush.
Harper explained the expansions of learning communities and theme communities will help to compliment this improvement of the first-year experience. She hopes more students will have opportunities to take part in more extracurriculars and community service to feel more engaged and connected to the University.
“When students have a chance to pause and to think about it and to think about their interests and to test out some possibilities, they discover they have a passion for something else and that they want to make their contribution in a different way,” Harper said. “This is really designed to have us pause.”
Harper stated the University had winter recruitment processes in place during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and in 2015 a subcommittee was gathered to investigate options on delaying recruitment. By implementing the new recruitment stage in 2020, Harper said, the Greek community will be given time for training and understanding of the new process.
Harper reiterated her argument against conversations that this change in the recruitment timeframe serves as a punishment to the Greek community.
“There has been some sort of framing that this is about punishing the Greek community. So we’re going to punish them by doing something 20 months from now? That’s a little dumb,” Harper said. “It is really about how do we ensure that the students we’re inviting to our community can do well.”
Harper also discussed the University’s actions and responses after LSA sophomore Lauren Fokken released a racist Snapchat with herself and a friend in blackface with the caption “#blacklivesmatter.”
Harper explained the Snapchat was inappropriate and against the University values. However, she was grateful for the number of students who reported the incident to the Bias Response Team on campus. The next step for the individuals involved is to see what consequences they would face at the Office of Student Conflict Resolution.
“We were of course concerned, so we were clear about our values that is not welcome here,” Harper said. “Lots of students sent it to the Bias Response Team, which we enormously appreciate so we knew what was going on. There was an outreach to the students that were involved and they were in several conversations trying to understand why this behavior isn’t okay — it also happened to be a student employee — so of course it has different implications. Students were talked to. It is a case then that will make it to OSCR, our coding office, to look at what are the implications, how do we hold students accountable?”
The Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs also held open office hours Saturday and Sunday for students who were impacted by the Snapchat to discuss how they were feeling. Harper touched on the widespread effect of ignorance and how the University needs to deny its place on campus as an entire community.
“Those are the kinds of things that we do when this kind of ignorance and racism shows up on our campus,” Harper said. “It’s very painful, for the students are subject to it, it’s very painful for all of us as a community that doesn’t condone that kind of behavior, and it is painful I believe for the students who engage in it.”
She furthered this sentiment and explained the importance of not only condemning racism but, in her opinion also allowing an opportunity for individuals to learn.
“Once this happens on our campus, then we have to decide as a community what kind of campus do we want to be,” Harper said. “We have to condemn it absolutely, then we have to leave space for people to change, to grow, to understand what is inappropriate about it, and to make restoration, and that’s what we try to do in the OSCR process. Bring students in who engage in this behavior, have a dialogue about it, try to help them understand its impact, sometimes have them talk with the folks to whom it impacted."
She also addressed the dilemma she faced in her own role as vice president for student life and balancing accountability with room for restoration.
“That’s the challenge in my role. It is both about holding people accountable and creating space for them to change and grow.” Harper said, “Sometimes when you’re hurt, when I’m hurt, I’m not interested in anybody changing or growing, I’m interested in them being punished, but we don’t want to be only that kind of community.”
While allowing an opportunity for growth is important to Harper, she acknowledged the importance of calling the Snapchat out for what it really was.
“I think we have to talk about that (the Snapchat), and name it for what it is: It was racist, it was inappropriate, it does do harm,” she said. “We have to name it before we can do something about it, and when we do something about it we have to create space for the person to still be in the community.”
Harper said she understands the impact racist incidents have on minority communities and emphasized the importance of speaking up to ensure those groups are not negatively impacted. She also said actions of violence, whether they be sexual, ethnic or racial, all come from the same place of disrespecting another individual or group’s humanity.
“It does mean there are some students who are carrying a bigger burden around, and that’s why all of us have to say something so that the people that are targeted are not harmed,” Harper said. “I believe it’s the same kind of disregard for other people’s humanity and for their bodies and their minds and their intellect that causes a person to do sexual violence – (it) comes from the same place of, ‘I get to decide who ought to be in the community.’ Who put you in charge? Who put you in charge of deciding who is the ‘other’ in the community?”
In February, the Latinx Alliance for Community Action, Support and Advocacy released a list of demands to the administration with steps they felt needed to be taken to better support the Latinx community. The demands arose after several racial incidents and a boycott against the lack of Latinx representation across different University levels. It has been about a month and a half after the initial demands were released, and Harper commented on the University’s efforts toward implementing La Casa’s requests.
“We have been meeting with La Casa members and faculty members of the Latinx community, I would say for maybe at least a month, and sometimes twice a day,” Harper said. “Going through what the concerns are, and in some cases bringing people in to help us understand what we’re currently doing.”
She also said the administration was looking over the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Campus Climate survey released last fall to better understand the experience of Latinx students at the University.
“Last Friday, we looked at the climate data, what does our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion student data tell us about the experience of Latinx students, and what they are experiencing in relation to other students,” Harper said.
Harper explained the administration is also working to consolidate the different demands and come to an understanding of how they will proceed with actionable steps. She praised the members of La Casa for calling attention to issues their community is facing and acknowledged the administration's willingness to work with them on creating solutions.
“It would be premature for me to say this is where we are because we are in the process of figuring out together where we are,” Harper said. “I think that the Latinx community has raised some important issues. That is one of the things really I admire about our students here that they will see a concern and raise the issue, and what I love about the administration is that we are responsive. So we are engaged in that discussion dialogue process right now to better understand and then to figure out given what the needs are what it is that we are able to do.”
Commuting and accessibility
In terms of accessibility for students, Harper spoke on current resources available to students, as well as the University’s push to make these resources more widely known and available. In response to students on campus calling for more accessibility, including commuter students and those who face financial strain in paying for on-campus and finding off-campus housing, Harper stated administration has been working more closely with individual schools and colleges to provide resources.
“We have many more resources than students know about,” Harper said. “With our communications department and each of our units, we’re trying to get better at making sure students understand the resources that are available. Right now, we’ve asked the schools and colleges and others who are providing resources to tell us what is the resource, who is it for, how many people does it involve, and trying to get a catalog of what’s available so we can figure out how we make this more apparent and transparent to students.”
Harper also discussed providing resources to first-year students, explaining while administration is working to make the depth and breadth of resources more transparent for students, freshman orientation can often be too busy of a time to highlight all of these resources. Harper said the problem is often caused because of the immense quantities of options.
In addition, Harper spoke on the importance of listening to students and explained that, while it may not always be possible to resolve the issue in the ways students are asking for, there is always room for progress and improvement.
“As the vice president, when I hear from students of color or students with disabilities or underrepresented minority students or low-income students or high-income students for whom this place isn’t working, I take it seriously,” Harper said. “I first try to listen then I try to understand, I take the concern seriously, because sometimes it affects a small population, sometimes it’s a large population, but to me all of those students are important.”