Royster talks Greek Life, building name changes and new CSG leadership

Sunday, April 15, 2018 - 5:38pm

Vice President for Student Life E. Royster Harper speaks with The Michigan Daily for the final interview of the semester Friday afternoon.

Vice President for Student Life E. Royster Harper speaks with The Michigan Daily for the final interview of the semester Friday afternoon. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

On Friday afternoon, The Michigan Daily sat down with Vice President for Student Life E. Royster Harper for the final interview of the term. The conversation included discussions on recent administrative approval to change the names of C.C. Little Science Building and Winchell House, Greek life winter recruitment, and the recent CSG elections.

TMD: Seeing as the recent approval to change the names of C.C. Little and the Winchell House in West Quad took place after many protests from various students and student organizations on campus, it can be said the names of various buildings, plaques, etc. at the University impact student life on campus. In an interview about the renaming recommendations, President Schlissel said “We don’t want the names of things to be changing as fashions change.” Do you suspect this will be a common occurrence or is the bar too high after Little and Winchell to change building names?

HARPER: I think this will be rare; I think the president has been pretty clear that it’s a serious decision to change a name and that he has set up a process that causes us to be really thoughtful about that. The History and Traditions Committee takes a look at it, has a set of principles they’ve laid out and then they make a recommendation to the president. I don’t think this will be every year, every now and then; I don’t think that at all. So, I think it will be rare and I think it will come after a lot of assessment and a lot of conversations and discussion. I actually think the students that brought this forward did an enormous amount of work: There was a seminar on C.C. Little, there was a petition on C.C. Little, they (protesters) had a website with lots of data. So, I think they did a fabulous job around the educating.

TMD: When decisions regarding the renaming of certain campus landmarks arise, how much of an influence does the Office of Student Life have in determining the outcome?

HARPER: Our job really is to hear what students are telling us about the experience they are having, take those observations seriously and ask ourselves, given what we’ve heard, what’s a responsible repose that respects students’ autonomy, respects their right and allows us to then to be the kind of institution we claim to be. So we have a five-year strategic plan around inclusion; we have students in the residence hall saying, ‘I’m going into a space named after a man who actually says I’m less than human, father of...eugenics.' When a student comes forward like that and says, “It does something to me (because of) where I live,” then our obligation and responsibility is to take that seriously. Where I find we have to be careful … is that the job is not to get in front of students or to decide what is not working for me is not working for students or if I’m having a good experience at Michigan, as an administrator, students must be (having a good experience). Our job isn’t to do that but to really listen to students and figure out given what they’re saying what needs to change.

TMD: Two weeks ago, the Board of Regents voted unanimously to remove the name from the C.C. Little Science Building. However, many on campus still refer to the Central Campus Transit Center by Little’s name. Do you believe the University has a role in addressing the usage of Little’s name in student vernacular if some students of color still believe using his name to describe the station is discriminatory as they did in recent articles and the Transit Center protest covered in The Daily?

HARPER: It’s a challenging observation for me because I actually don’t think that it is wise or is going to be effective for the administration to sort of go around trying to check out who’s referring to the transit center as ‘Little.’ I think that’s work that students have to do among themselves, and also self-correcting that students have to do. You can imagine that we might decide that there are lots of words that students use that I prefer that they not use and they make references, quite frankly, that I would prefer that they not make references to; but our goal has not been, nor has it been a strategy, to go around and sort of “word police” in that way. I think we have to explain, educate and then help each other stop referring to the transit center in that way.

TMD: Following the announcement that recruitment for fraternities and sororities on campus would be moved to winter semesters starting in 2020, many members of Greek life spoke out against this decision. Although this decision was in the works before the IFC  (the Interfraternity Council)  ban and you made it clear it was not reactionary, many students are arguing this decision serves as a sort of punishment following the ban. How involved was your office with Greek life when making this decision, and can you explain any measures your office might have taken to consult or listen to feedback from Greek life leaders and members during the decision making process?

HARPER: This idea of winter recruitment (and) its impact on the Greek community was actually taken up by a task force that we put in place 2015-2016. … That task force created a subcommittee that had the leadership of the Greek community then and lots of students. They did an assessment of winter recruitment and actually came out with the very recommendations we made. (The task force said,) … “Here’s the benefit of changing the timeline for recruitment and here are the things we are concerned about,” so that was done. Also, as part of that task force a consultant came, worked with students, talked with students and got an assessment. … (In addition,) the Office of Greek Life staff … looked at national data and what had happened at other schools. The one thing I’m (clear) about is the impact of that decision on the Greek community. I’m also clear on their engagement and their involvement, and was pretty persuaded that nothing would happen that would change that point of view because both IFC and Panhellenic national organizations have a point of view about this. My question to myself is, “Did I engage students? Absolutely.”

TMD: What is your response to students in Greek life who feel their voices were not heard in the decision-making process?

HARPER: I think what students mean sometimes when they say, “You didn’t consult us,” is, “You didn’t consult me, you didn’t ask me,” but the student body is more than “me,” so I feel really confident about (the administrative decision). The second thing for me then is this question of, “Is it appropriate?” or “Is that a decision you should be consulted on?” Because not every decision — even though it affects students — is the (entire) student voice, (but instead is) the only voice that needs to be considered or … ought to be considered.  What we’re really talking about is how is it that we strengthen the experience of first-year students; there are many more first year students than students who chose to participate in the Greek community. So … in my mind, the Greek community’s input about this decision would be around the ways in which it impacts them, not all first-year students. The responsibility for first-year students, their education, their onboarding, their transitioning really does not reside with the Greek community.

What is unfortunate is that some have decided that this decision to delay recruitment is a punishment for them. … If this was about punishing students or the Greek community, there really would’ve been a closer time when that would’ve happened. It wouldn’t be about a decision we were already working on that we are not going to implement until 2020.

TMD: Many students on this campus have called the recent CSG election one of the more divisive contests in recent years. What are your impressions of the results and what would you like to see from CSG in the coming year in terms of issues addressed at the University and for the student body?

HARPER: Daniel (Greene) and Izzy (Baer) are the leaders that the student body selected. They selected (them) based on their platform and what they may or may not know about him and her, about the president and vice president. My job now is to work with them, to achieve the goals that they set out for themselves. It would be inappropriate – talk about “not my business” – it would be inappropriate for me to decide for the student body who their leaders are. Certainly I’ll work with them. Certainly we will talk about (inclusivity) as they decide who their executive team is going to be. I will remind them about being inclusive, about making sure that all the voices are heard. We’ve met already, and I have sort of a standard spiel which is, “You represent all the students at the University: those that voted for you and those that did not. You don’t get to choose. That’s the difference when you’re in a leadership role. When you’re in a leadership role, you have to remember your impact, because that role comes with status and it comes with power.” 

And so, I’ve certainly read the comments about how divisive (the election) was and students’ concern, and I think that’s work students will need to do. We’ll support it. We will help it. I think it (the CSG administration) will benefit from dialogue, but that’s work students need to do among themselves. It’s not work appropriate for me to do or Student Life to do beyond supporting, coaching, helping … It’s not my job to do it for them or to be in front of them. It’s really to help them figure out how to do that in a way that has integrity and is respectful, and I am excited about the chance to work with them and to help them.

TMD: In addition, almost every platform during the election brought up the lack of diversity among the current CSG elected representatives. Although the recent CSG demographic report claims the representation is becoming more diverse, areas such as socioeconomic status and fluctuating race and ethnicity percentages remain. What is your role in improving diversity in CSG and how do you plan on reforming CSG to give more marginalized communities voices?

HARPER: For me, it’s the questions. It’s asking them to think about that and to problem solve, but it’s not to provide the answers — that’s not leadership to me. … If we believe we have really talented students – and I believe that – and we are admitting students that have done a lot of work in their high schools …  (and) challenge the status quo, then we have to create a kind of environment that allows (an increase in representation) to happen … and that’s not me. It’s not me telling or doing. It is me raising the issues and to be able to say, “How are you thinking about this?” and the accountability is around “Have you thought about it? Have you met? What else are you hearing?” It really is to create the space that they can take the issues and put them on the table and we can problem solve together, and that usually doesn’t happen if you are criticizing or blaming. Most people need help more than they need a critique.