Students, faculty speak out against racist emails, University response

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 - 6:58pm

President Mark Schlissel talks with protestors outside his home early Wednesday morning.

President Mark Schlissel talks with protestors outside his home early Wednesday morning. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

When news of the three racist emails from Tuesday night reached most of campus Wednesday morning, students, faculty and organizations immediately denounced the messages. Many, however, also criticized the University of Michigan’s response, which was similar to its responses to past racially charged acts on campus.

The emails, which were sent from three separate administrator uniqnames, claimed to address African-American and Jewish diversity in the subject lines. Engineering Prof. Alex Halderman and Ph.D. student Matt Bernhard were named by the culprit as the senders of the emails, however, it was later confirmed by Halderman he was not the sender. 

Two of the emails read: “Hi n*****s, I just wanted to say that I plan to kill all of you.  White power!  The KKK has returned!!! Heil Trump!!!!”

The other one reads: “Hi you fucking filthy jews, I just wanted to say the SS will rise again and kill all of your filthy souls. Die in a pit of eternal fire! Sincerely, Dr. Alex Halderman.”

The University’s Office of Public Affairs released a statement early this morning announcing the FBI will be working with the Division of Public Safety and Security in a joint criminal investigation.

“The university’s Information Assurance group also is involved in the investigation,” the statement reads. “The U-M Division of Public Safety and Security has increased patrols in the North Campus area where the College of Engineering is located. The content of the emails has been condemned by the university in general and by President Mark Schlissel specifically.”

In a written statement, Halderman denied being associated with the emails and said the act itself is not difficult to do.

“These messages were spoofed,” Halderman wrote. “Matt and I did not send them, and we don’t know who did. As I teach in my computer security classes, it takes very little technical sophistication to forge the sender’s address in an email.”

In response to the emails, parallels are being drawn to similar anonymous racist acts on campus earlier this school year, including multiple rounds of posters promoting white supremacy from September and October.

Early Wednesday morning, 40 protesters gathered outside Schlissel’s house on South University Avenue to demand action from the president. He came out of his home to address the demonstrators, affirming students’ protesting is crucial to combatting racism on campus.

“The most important thing you can do right now is stand together and call out this bullshit,” Schlissel said. “We’ll keep working together on this, because I really do need your help and I can’t promise you the world’s going to be better tomorrow or next week. I wish I could … I'm just as powerless as you to stop people from doing these things.”

The conversation has taken to Twitter as University sources and organizations post denouncements of the emails and, in many cases, criticisms of the University. Engineering senior Basel Alghanem tweeted his experience as a person of color at the University.

Alghanem wrote in an email interview that just because the route through which the hacker entered the email server can be closed doesn’t mean the problem of racism on campus will disappear.

“Closing an email server loophole doesn't fix the real problem, that members of our Michigan community … are being attacked, that they don't feel safe, and that this email isn't an isolated incident,” he said.


On the Michigan Students Twitter account, Trevor Jones, an LSA sophomore, briefly took over the account between 8:00 and 9:00 last night, criticizing previous tweets from same account. In multiple tweets, he wrote the University should meet these challenges head-on instead of tossing them to the side.

“The tweets from this account are unacceptable and as someone who has tweeted for this account before, the person currently tweeting did not do a very good job of handling the situation,” Jones wrote in three separate tweets. “This campus needs to address these issues. Ignoring these issues means being tolerant of these issues, and this is NOT ACCEPTABLE for the University of Michigan.”

Many professors addressed the emails in their classes on Wednesday. History Prof. Anne Berg sent a Canvas message to students notifying them she was available to talk for anyone who feels targeted on campus. In an interview, she said she sent the message to her students to make sure her classroom is a safe environment for students of color.

“I wanted to make sure if students … wanted to talk to someone, that I would be there and that they could come and talk to me so that they don’t feel left alone thinking this campus is going insane or something like that,” she said. “This is not who we are. We won’t let that happen. We are here to protect you.”

Postdoctoral fellow Austin McCoy studies racial justice in the United States, and focused his entire class today on unpacking the emails. He said the University has been the location of these past racist attacks because of the University’s public efforts to diversify its student population through its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, a 49-part plan spearheaded by Schlissel and released last October. He also cited the large amount of student activism on campus in the past couple of years as a reason why trolls continue to target the University.

Addressing the University’s earlier statement, McCoy said the University often goes through a predictable pattern of digital response and condemnation when racism emerges on campus.

“From the administration, I anticipate them sending out probably an email and saying that they condemn the acts and then that they’re investigating, but other than that, I don’t know what else the administration plans to do,” he said.

Engineering senior Greg McMurtry, president of the campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, echoed McCoy’s statements and referenced the posters from last semester as another instance of the University’s stunted response to acts of racism.

“(The administration is) not really using more than their statements in emails, which is disheartening because we had something similar happen in the fall semester so it’s upsetting and a little disheartening but at the same time, it’s expected,” he said.

In a Storify page, McCoy tweeted Schlissel ideas from his class discussion about the situation. He said there is a difference between formulating plans to combat racism and taking measurable action.

“(Students) see the DEI plan, ur emails, @umich diversity statements, but they only see that y'all can't prevent hateful acts,” he wrote on Twitter. “Multiple students of color said that it's going to take someone getting hurt before you took action.”

Elizabeth James, Afroamerican and African studies program associate, said she expects students to rise up and combat the hateful rhetoric displayed Tuesday night.

“Racism is based on fear of the other and hiding behind flyers and computers makes it easier in many ways for the perpetrators to behave in this heinous manner without being revealed for their shameless and reprehensible actions,” James wrote in an email interview. “Over the coming days, I believe we will see a rise in students mobilizing and speaking up about their concerns that this be a safe and secure environment.”

LSA junior Joshua Blum, chair of the Hillel governing board, said Hillel encourages the entire University population to speak out against racism toward all religions and races.

“We strongly condemn these emails and we hope that the University and people and all the students can come together and stand united against bigotry and hatred,” he said.

Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames referenced an email statement she sent from Hillel earlier today saying actions speak louder than words.

“While it’s important for us to make this statement that we did, condemning this language, I think it’s even more important that we are all working to bring our campus community together,” Shames said. “In our statement, we said that there’s no room for this kind of hate on our campus. I believe as we fill our campus with support and solidarity and a strong sense of Michigan community, then there will be no space for this kind of hate.”

Engineering freshman Gabriel Shlain, Jewish Engineering Association president, is in his first semester as president of the association. He said that as of today, he has been in contact with other engineering associations across campus and University administrators to form a bridge between students and administration.

“I kind of feel a little bit responsible to make sure everyone who is Jewish — not only Jewish, but Black — that they’re represented and that they know that something is being done and we’re talking to other organizations and that we’re talking to higher up people who are representatives of the University to hopefully prevent these things,” he said. “Right now, our main focus is to have a dialogue so that we can then plan our actions accordingly.”

McMurtry said administrators should start listening to its students when situations like these occur.

“One thing the University really needs to start doing is when students come with their concerns, (is) follow up with those students and say, ‘Hey. You brought these concerns. We did X, Y and Z. Is this good? Is this what you had in mind or is this not what you had in mind?’ ” he said. “Because currently, it’s just ‘Here’s what we’re doing. Do you think it’s good? Yes or no? Thank you for your feedback and we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing.’ ”