Calls continue for ‘U’ to remove Ross’s name from campus buildings in ongoing debate on free speech

Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 7:38pm

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Design by Michelle Fan

As students arrive back on campus, some in the University of Michigan community are once again calling on the University to sever ties with real estate developer Stephen M. Ross — the largest donor in the University’s history — following the controversy surrounding a re-election fundraiser he held for President Donald Trump in early August. 

When reports of the fundraiser broke, Ross’s name trended on Twitter nationwide, with many calling for boycotts of SoulCycle and Equinox, two luxury gym companies owned by Ross. Soon after, the companies released statements saying they did not support the fundraiser and are not affiliated with Ross's political contributions. 

Amid growing backlash, Ross defended his fundraiser to the Miami Herald, explaining he hoped to engage with political leaders on job creation and the economy while calling himself “an outspoken champion” of various social issues.

Within the University community, opinions on the matter were divided. Some expressed it would be wrong for the University to disavow Ross based on his politics, while others believed Ross’s association with Trump did not align with the University’s values. 

Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School of Business, sent an email to the Business School community after the news broke in August, emphasizing the school did not endorse the fundraiser. Yet some community members felt the school’s response was inadequate, including Business alum Kumar Rao, who started an alumni open letter — which has about 600 signatures at time of publication — asking the University remove Ross’s name from buildings campuswide. 

Last week, another alum created a Change.org petition with the same demand, this time open for anyone to sign. Created by University alum  Logan Drummond, the petition has more than 200 signatures as of Wednesday night.

Drummond explained he created this petition because he believes Ross’s support of Trump may impact student well-being on campus. 

“Particularly for marginalized students at U-M, walking around and seeing the Ross name and knowing its associations with Trump now, it’d make them feel less welcome,” Drummond said. 

When asked about Rao’s open letter in early August, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told The Daily all donors’ political views are their own. In response to Drummond’s petition, Fitzgerald wrote the University’s stance on the issue remains unchanged. 

“Regarding calls to remove Stephen Ross's name from the Ross School of Business: We will not do that,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We don't exclude or include people from our university community based on their political views.”

Like Rao, Drummond said he finds the University’s response lacking. 

“I see this petition as working in conjunction with (the alumni open letter) to increase the pressure,” Drummond said. “I hope to get a snowball rolling to increase the effects of both.”

The recent controversy surrounding Ross’s support of Trump continues a series of incidents concerning free speech on campus, a debate playing out on college campuses nationwide. In March, Trump signed an executive order to protect free speech at universities in response to some who believe conservative views are suppressed. 

When contacted in early August, LSA senior Maria Muzaurieta wrote on behalf of the University chapter of College Republicans the situation has led to unfair “slander” against Ross. College Republicans did not respond to requests for updated comment by time of publication. 

“Stephen Ross is a respectable and charitable Republican who has the right to affiliate with and fundraise for our nation's president, Donald Trump,” Muzaurieta wrote. “We respect the rights of celebrities and businessmen alike to associate with whichever political figures they support and we believe that this extends to Stephen Ross and President Trump.”

In response to those who disagree with renaming the Ross School of Business, Drummond emphasized he does not believe the issue is a violation of free speech. He said he sees Ross’s support of Trump as an endorsement of Trump’s rhetoric, which Drummond labeled as hate speech that should not be protected. 

Drummond questioned whether the University’s donors have too much of an influence over University policy. 

“Doesn’t this limit the free speech of students in a way?” Drummond said. “It makes our well-being lesser than that of wealthy donors.” 

On behalf of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, Public Policy junior Camille Mancuso connected the situation to an issue of values instead of free speech. 

“University building names and donors are a reflection of the school’s values,” Mancuso wrote in an email to The Daily. “Stephen Ross’s support of Trump reflects values of racism and white supremacy. These are not the values that we hold as an organization, as individuals or as a school community.”

In March 2018, the University’s Board of Regents voted unanimously to rename the former C.C. Little Building and the Winchell House in West Quad following months of advocacy. University administration decided both cases met the “heavy burden” required for building name changes.

As a University professor in the late 1800s, Winchell wrote racist academic papers maintaining white people were biologically superior to other groups. While president of the University in the early 1900s, Little was a supporter of the eugenics movement, the anti-immigration movement and later the tobacco industry. 

Notably, the renamings were reviewed by the President’s Advisory Committee on University History. Conversely, the recent calls to rename the Ross School of Business involve a figure associated with the University who is still actively contributing to the University. 

In the past, there have also been other debates on free speech related to speakers on campus. In 2013, author Alice Walker was uninvited from speaking at the Center for Education of Women’s anniversary event, as her work included criticism of Israel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A letter allegedly from Walker’s agent claimed Walker’s invitation was rescinded after sponsors of the event threatened to withdraw funding, a claim the center has denied. 

The issue of free speech was at the forefront again in 2017, when many community members protested after the University considered allowing white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on campus. Ultimately, Spencer halted his attempts to speak on campus. 

However, those like Rao and Drummond who wish for the Business School to be renamed may face difficulty in achieving their goals. 

Kaylee Mondrella, an LSA junior pursuing a Business minor, expressed she thinks the petition will not be successful. She wrote she believes Ross has every right to associate with whomever he pleases and to spend his money as he sees fit. 

"As a student, I'm just thankful Mr. Ross decided to spend money on the business school here," Mondrella wrote. "I don't see the petition as necessary. I'm sure many students on this campus are passionate about the issue, but there won't be enough of them to force any change. I think many students are indifferent about the topic."

Despite the University’s firm stance on the issue and waning campus interest in the controversy, Drummond said he plans to continue advocating for the name change. Drummond explained his next steps are to reach out to other University donors for support. 

“I think putting pressure on U-M through them, I think would be the most effective way besides student voices and petitions,” Drummond said. “Because unfortunately, the financial aspect of an issue influences U-M more than moral issues sometimes.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the University decided not to host Spencer, when in actuality Spencer stopped trying to speak on campus.