Minority students disappointed in University’s response to bias incidents

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 - 7:29pm

President Mark Schlissel at a Central Student Government Assembly meeting in the Union in November 2016.

President Mark Schlissel at a Central Student Government Assembly meeting in the Union in November 2016. Buy this photo
Kevin Zheng/Daily

When posters promoting white supremacy were found covering the walls of University of Michigan buildings on multiple occasions last fall, students, including Art & Design senior Keysha Wall, tore them down. When Islamophobic messages were chalked on the Diag last spring, a group of Muslim students were some of the first to grab rags and buckets of water to wash the messages off themselves.

As bias incidents continue to occur across campus despite University-wide emails denouncing the actions of the perpetrators, students have started to question the effectiveness of the way the administration responds to the attacks. Many have also called out University President Mark Schlissel for not adequately affirming his support for what they believe is minority students on campus.

Wall, a member of the University’s chapter of By Any Means Necessary, expressed her disappointment in the University’s response to the posters targeting minority groups on campus that occurred earlier this year. She believes the perpetuation of bias-related incidents is contingent on the lack of administrative pushback against hate speech.

“We can say that these attacks began with the racist and fascist fliers that started going up last semester,” she said. “Every time they went up, it was students, myself included, who tore them down. During this, the University's official statement was that they would take no action against ‘free speech,’ although I think we can all agree that what those fliers were expressing was hate speech, not free speech. And so the fliers continued to be put up.”

Despite students’ expressions of anger regarding the chalkings and posters, the University legally could not remove either, as they were posted in areas meant for the dissemination of information. If government-financed state universities adopt speech codes preventing free speech, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union argue such regulations violate the First Amendment and constitute government censorship.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said though the University cannot remove fliers or chalkings on the basis of content, it did remove the fliers from places where postings are not allowed. He further explained how, as a place of higher education, the University seeks to combat hateful speech through education.

“The general philosophy is that the First Amendment right is interpreted broadly, by us and by the courts, to mean all kinds of speech, including writings or posters or chalkings,” he said. “We believe that the best approach to combat speech that is hateful, or that we think is inappropriate or that we disagree with, is the use of more speech and education. The educational component is a really important part of our mission and our responsibility, to help educate the young people and others who are part of our University community, and that's a role we take very seriously.”

Fitzgerald noted if speech contains threats or promises of harm, the University and law enforcement can get involved. He also pointed to the University’s bias response team as a unique feature that not all schools have to combat bias incidents.

“If I threaten to do something, physical harm to you, that’s a threat and is dealt with differently than speech,” Fitzgerald said. “Having a bias response team is not something that all campuses have, our own Division of Public Safety and Security and our own police force that is sensitive to and trains specifically for college campuses is not something that every campus has.”

In response to the racist poster incidents, student organization Students4Justice drafted a petition to Schlissel in September with a list of demands. These demands included requests for Schlissel to declare solidarity with students of color, schedule more office hours and time for students to voice their concerns to the president directly, and to display a Black Lives Matter flag — as means of addressing the humanity of Black students.

The petition was re-drafted in February after racist and anti-Semitic emails were sent out to University engineering and computer science students, and a prayer rug in the Shapiro reflection room was defiled. Though the University released official statements condemning the incidents, Wall believes administrators need to take more aggressive action in punishing the perpetrators.

“When those racist and anti-Semitic emails went out, and students, outraged and scared, marched to President Schlissel’s front door, he asked what he should do, what the University should do, what we wanted him to do, about the situation,” Wall said. “But the fact of the matter is that his concern was a long time coming, because this was not a new situation. Each time the University has done nothing to protect its students from violence, racism and bigotry. They do two things: They are letting us know we don't matter, and they are making it clear to racists and fascists and bigots that they won't face any repercussions for harming students.”

Walls explained that one of the ways students can protect their rights, and the rights of vulnerable people on campus, is to protest — even if the University opposes their methods. She affirmed how powerful students can be when they come together.

“Student strikes and protests are incredibly powerful,” she said. “I often think that we lose sight of the sheer amount of power we as the student body have when influencing what goes on here on campus, and also in the rest of the nation. Right now, we need to continue fighting for our most vulnerable peoples, especially undocumented students. We must also set the example for the University and the rest of the nation, and we cannot wait to only do so if the University gives us the OK to protest.”

Other social groups have attempted to harness the power of student activism. In an October meeting in the Michigan Union, Students4Justice leader Vikrant Garg, a Public Health student, said the administration needs to acknowledge the large amount of emotional and physical labor student activists put into their work. He also explained how, through student activism, Students4Justice attained a space in the Union to organize and reflect after meeting with Schlissel.

“We looked at the administration to be people who are receptive to student activism and student influences, and open to change,” Garg said. “There is a lot of unpaid emotional, physical and academic labor from students of color and other marginalized students on this campus — so this space that was created, was created in response to student activism on this campus and that has yet to be acknowledged by the administration.”

To show their disappointment in the administration’s response to recent bias incidents, members of Students4Justice have called for more protests as well — the most recent being the Campus Day Silent Protest on Feb. 17. This event was coupled with the release of a document titled, “Letter to President Schlissel #SchlisselWYA,” which voiced the group’s dissatisfaction with Schlissel for not answering its demands or voicing solidarity with its cause.

The group expressed frustration that Schlissel responded to a petition from supporters of President Donald Trump last fall who stated they did not feel safe on campus, but has not yet responded to their demands for a more inclusive campus.

“When our demands were first presented to you over dinner, the demands were glossed over and forgotten,” the letter reads. “Interestingly enough, according to your post-election interview with NPR in Fall of 2016, you reached out to the students who supported President Donald Trump after a simple Google document, #NotMyCampus, was sent out. It is very frustrating as an activist to not be acknowledged despite the time we dedicate to change on this campus for marginalized groups, whereas it takes a single Google document for primarily white students with oppressive opinions to grasp your attention.”

The letter also criticized Schlissel’s lack of understanding regarding his role of power in the University, and accused him of relying completely on his Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion plan — released last October — to avoid discussions of race.

“You need to understand your own identities and the power you have in creating a culture that is not oppressive for marginalized students,” the letter reads. “Instead, you lean on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan to prove your commitment to diversity.”

The DEI plan was put into place with the goal of achieving a diverse and inclusive campus over the next five years, through initiatives including the increase of staff diversity, retention of under-privileged students and the assurance of equal compensation for all races, genders and identities. The overall plan comprises 49 unit plans created by all school, colleges and departments at the University. Two student panels consisting of 25 undergraduate and graduate students each convene every month to discuss new strategies and ideas with DEI leaders.

Fitzgerald noted the plan was conceived as a sort of “ground-up initiative,” and students are still encouraged to voice their ideas and opinions to improve its quality.

“The plan was intended from the very beginning to be one that is updated and evolved; it was never thought:‘Here’s the five year plan, follow that and we will see you in five years,’ ” he said. “Updates and adjustments along the way are expected, and student input is critically important to that effort.”

In an interview earlier this month, Chief Diversity Officer Rob Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion, explained that though the plan can’t prevent individual hateful incidents on campus, it will, over a period of time, create a more inclusive environment.

“We have a whole lot of incidents that are sparks, and these sparks are being thrown on a floor that is full of gasoline, and so these fires are raging,” he said. “(We) cannot prevent the sparks. What the DEI is trying to do is create an environment where those sparks do not lead to explosions and fires. The fact of the matter is it’s going to take a while before we see all of the changes.”

Wall believes though the plan appears cohesive and proactive on the surface, it does not address how the University responds to bias incidents — one of the core concerns of groups such as BAMN and Students4Justice.

“I think one of the main problems with the DEI plan is that it mainly outlines more ways in which the University will ‘look into’ racist and biased/bigoted events,” Wall said. “Many of the points highlight looking at numbers, doing surveys or opening more lines for people to report bigoted events. These things seem proactive on the surface, but the fact is the problem has never been the need for more accurate numbers, or the University not knowing about the issues that have been plaguing the campus; the problem has always been how the University responds to these incidents.”

Wall explained the importance of ensuring students of color, LGBTQ students and immigrant students feel safe and a part of a diverse, inclusionary campus.

“We cannot be indecisive or weak in our actions now, and it is absolutely the onus of the University to prove that these are values that it upholds,” she said.