VP E. Royster Harper reflects on legacy at University

Sunday, November 24, 2019 - 4:54pm

E. Royster Harper, Vice President of Student Life, shares her thoughts on the IFC recruitment process in an interview with The Daily in Fleming Administration Building Friday afternoon.

E. Royster Harper, Vice President of Student Life, shares her thoughts on the IFC recruitment process in an interview with The Daily in Fleming Administration Building Friday afternoon. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

For the last time before her retirement in January, The Michigan Daily sat down for an interview with E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for Student Life. In the interview on Friday afternoon, Harper discussed IFC-affiliated fraternities recruiting freshmen against University policy, controversy surrounding the senior honor society Order of Angell, protests against the University’s sexual misconduct policy and reflections on her 20-year career at the University.

The Michigan Daily: A Michigan Daily investigation found some IFC-affiliated fraternities recruited freshmen students against University policy. In addition, the investigation found that at least one IFC-affiliated fraternity used freshmen pledges as sober monitors for at least one party without these students completing the required University training. What are potential negative consequences of students participating in unofficial rush and pledging processes? What are potential negative consequences of students serving as sober monitors without proper training? What does University administration plan to do to address these issues?

E. Royster Harper: The whole point of having the new policy in place is to really give first-year students a chance to get anchored academically and socially. In part because we know that when students have more of an opportunity to get settled into college, they’re less likely to be susceptible to behavior that puts them in harm’s way. So, I’m deeply disappointed if that is actually going on, and we have reason to believe that it is going on. You can imagine also how ineffective and concerning it would be to have first-year students acting as sober monitors, not likely to approach an upperclassman and insist on the kind of behavior that causes students to be safe, and they’re certainly not likely to confront an upperclassmen in a fraternity that they want to be a part of. 

So, what we’re trying to do and are having conversations about now, because we believe in self-governance, because we’ve tried to do this work with IFC, because we believe that they are acting in good faith and with integrity. … We are looking at and working also with the Nationals and with the police about what the consequences of this kind of behavior will be. There is a process that the Greek community uses when there are violations of policies and procedures. So of course, we will be taking a look at that. What the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life is certainly looking at is following up on reports that come through the hazing hotline. … But I want to be careful that I don’t accuse them of doing something that they’ve not done. So, now the issue is trying to figure out, where is the truth? Because there’s two narratives out there, one that we’re hearing from the fraternities, and one that we’re hearing from places like The Daily and the hazing hotline and other places. So, the first thing we have to figure out is what happened, because there are two stories.

TMD: In the last few months, several multicultural student organizations have published statements publicly condemning the senior honor society Order of Angell, which they claim is an organization historically rooted in indigenous appropriation, elitism and secrecy. What are your thoughts on the ongoing controversy surrounding the Order of Angell, especially given you were the VP of Student Life during the Students of Color Coalition’s occupation of the Union Tower in 2000? 

Harper: I’m deeply disappointed. I feel strongly that we have a lot of work to do with student organizations who believe that it is both legal and their right to tell other students or condemn members of their organizations for other groups that they want to be a part of. I think students should decide what groups they want to be a part of. And that, if these are members that care about the organization and want to be in the organization, that they have a right to do that. I think that Order, over the years, has looked at its history, made changes related to this history, changed some of their traditions, to reflect the changes that they have made. And that to continue to not accept that they made changes is inappropriate and unkind. … And what I have said to students who come to me really torn about this, who want to be in both organizations, I say to them, “You have a right to be in both organizations.” And I don’t believe it’s appropriate for one organization to say to another student, “You can’t be in my organization,” or to shame another student, or call out another student, because they have multiple interests and multiple organizations that they want to be. So, we have a lot of work to do.

You also cannot be a sponsored student organization and engage in this behavior. The Center for Campus Involvement works with student organizations, and works to make sure that they have policies and procedures that are in alignment, that don’t violate people’s constitutional rights, that you don’t give up just because you choose to join an organization. ... We just got to keep working with the student organizations and this sort of calling people out has ebbed and flowed. There was a time when that was going on, and then it stopped, and it sounds like now that’s back, the trend, and I think it’s unfortunate and wrong. … Our work as an institution is to help the student organizations come to understand and consider a different way, and to look at the criteria that they’re putting in place that I suspect doesn’t have anything to do with advancing the mission of that organization. Because, I don’t see the relationship between what some groups are trying to do and Order’s prior behavior.  

TMD: We know we asked you about the University’s use of cross-examination in sexual misconduct cases during our last interview. Since then, students have protested on the Diag, continuing to claim direct cross-examination between the accuser and the accused is “cruel.” What is your response to these student activists? 

Harper: First of all, of all the cases that we’ve had, they’ve all been separated. You can be in separate spaces, you can do it by voice, you can do it by text. So, what is being alleged has not happened in reality. I am struggling right now with pockets of protest where the protesters decide what they think is best and then impose it on others. So, there are some who think, “I don’t want a lawyer there, I didn’t go to the police because I don’t want a court hearing where somebody is hammering me, and if you make me go through that, I’m simply not going to tell you.” Numbers of reporting are so low. So, what we’ve been trying to think about, is there a third truth? Is there a way that we can ensure that survivors get what they need and have a sense of agency? The federal government is going to make some rules, and we’re going to be bound by them, and they’re coming soon. So, it may end up being a moot point. And the court, we wouldn’t be having cross-examination at all had the law not forced us to. 

So, what I’d like to say to the students who were protesting is three things. One: you keep helping us get it right. Because what’s right for one survivor may not be what’s best for another, and we’re trying to have a space where survivors’ sense of agency is what we’re honoring. There is evidence, researchers and scholars say what’s being imposed on the University and imposed on survivors is the worst thing we could possibly do. It is not something that the University chose to do. So, the protest needs to be focused on where the power and the decision-making is. The University’s intent would never be to create a process or set of policies that harmed the very students that we’re trying to make sure get the kind of support that they need. We’re hearing both narratives, and depending on who you talk to, you will get just the opposite request. And so, how do we individualize this? Are there multiple options? And more importantly, how do we reduce the number of sexual assaults on campus and get students to come forward when they are assaulted? How might we create options that give students a reasonable but multiple ways of engaging in the process, without expanding the time, honoring due process, all of those things we’re trying to try and hold in balance?

TMD: Take us back to when you first started as VP of Student Life at the University. Compared to your expectations of the role then, what about your time here has been the most unexpected? Challenging? Rewarding?

Harper: I think for me, the most rewarding has been to work with students and to see over time how that has changed and to see how some of the things that students have really wanted to make this place more supportive and better for them has happened. Our new Multicultural Center, the changes in housing, the fact that we do have alternative resolution for students. The fabulous Union that’s going to open, the number of scholarships that are available, the fact that we have a program for students in foster care (Blavin Scholars), all of those things that have changed in these 19 years to make this place more affordable and accessible for a broader range of students. That’s probably what has brought me the most joy, to see many more different kinds of students here and them thriving and doing well. I think a big change has been students expectations about what the University will do or provide. 

Probably for me the hardest, has been, I think, as an institution, we get better and better, and I guess I want an acknowledgement that we are better than what we were. And yet, I know students only know, it’s only what they get that they really know and understand. And when you’ve been around a while you’ve seen the changes. I know our support of survivors is much stronger than what it used to be. I am proud of the fact that this is a responsive administration, that students’ protests are important and they shape the University and help shape policy. This is a University that responds to our students, that expects them to look for ways that we can get stronger and better, and then we respond to those. 

If I had a wish … it would be that our faculty, staff and students could see ourselves more as one. And the problem is something we’re working on. So, if IFC is taking in first-year students and hurting them, we all need to be upset about it. We all need to be saying, “Don’t put a sign out for the Michigan, Michigan State game that harms and makes fun for people that have been harmed.” Don’t do that. That’s not who we are. So, it’s a little bit more of us caring enough for each other, to be honest about those things that are in violation of our values.