Brett Graham: Administration’s response to Spencer is cowardly, misguided

Sunday, November 26, 2017 - 4:07pm

In four years here, I have never really played the role of outspoken critic as it pertains to University administration. That is, though I may have strongly disagreed with any number of decisions made by University President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents, I never truly questioned the fact that they were responsible, thoughtful public servants who had the best interests of the University community at heart. I trusted that they were doing their best. Last Monday, that changed with an email

President Schlissel’s announcement of his decision to “begin discussions with (white supremacist) Richard Spencer’s group” about coming to campus was indicative not only of abject cowardice, but a fundamental lack of understanding and a consistent disregard for the wishes of the student body.

Perhaps the first question to be asked is why send out such an important email on the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving break? Well, it’d be just about the same answer as why they tend to raise tuition over summer break or why the Federal Communications Commission released a plan to pull the rug on net neutrality so quickly, so quietly, on the same day — because winning an argument is a whole lot easier when the opposition is out of town, or at the very least not looking. Our University administration, comprised of people who at least nominally work day in and day out for our education and well-being, is hiding from us. People don’t hide when they’re proud of the decisions they’ve made.

Some credit, though, has to be given to the Board of Regents in this instance. They, at the very least, had the courage to turn a blind eye to the concerns of the student body in person, during an emergency meeting called that evening. Bravo. Of the eight, only one, Denise Ilitch (D), had the decency to challenge the decision.

That Richard Spencer’s filth has no place within a hundred miles of this campus is indisputable. He is a racist, anti-Semitic, despicable excuse for a human being, a troll whose fame is owed to failed attempts to speak on college campuses like our own, each one further endearing him to a fan base of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members. Still, President Schlissel has made three arguments to justify his decision, each more misguided than the last.

There’s the argument that “denying the request would provide even more attention to the speaker and his cause and allow him to claim a court victory.” Two things, however, need to be recognized here. One, not all attention is good attention. A story about his request being denied starts a debate, while a story about his request being accepted starts a riot. Two, Spencer’s suit against the Ohio State University, when they refused his request to speak last month, is still pending and is by no means a definite win. Even if it is, there’s merit in taking a stand in court on behalf of your student body. Former University President Lee Bollinger did so in two 2003 cases to defend the University’s affirmative action policies and won one.

Go to court, President Schlissel. Demonstrate that the only way Spencer should ever be welcomed on this campus is because a court of law is compelling us to do so and not because the University administration is unwilling to stand up for our values in court. I’m sure the Bursar’s Office can find enough to cover the legal fees after all the tuition hikes carried out since I started here.

Then, there’s the assumption that “we must allow” all speech to protect our democratic society. First Amendment absolutists will point to Supreme Court cases that have affirmed the right to hate speech, but these cases have dealt with public spaces; on college campuses, the law is still in a gray area. Spencer isn’t organizing a march down Main Street or across the Diag, he’s submitting an application to the University. Therefore, the University has a right to scrutinize how its space is used, based on (1) whether or not a potential speaker could present a new and valuable perspective and (2) whether or not that perspective will cause harm, mental or otherwise, to its student body.

If I were to submit a request to use Hill Auditorium for a three-hour lecture on everything wrong with the New York Mets bullpen, would anyone question the University’s ability to deny that request without infringing on my rights? Of course not; I’m not an expert on anything and that doesn’t offer anything of real value to this campus. No one could stop me from giving the same lecture, though, in the middle of the Diag. Spencer’s case is no different. He’s not an expert in any field, nor is he an authority on anything. Calls for “ethnic cleansing,” chants of “blood and soil” and claims that Hispanic and Black people are genetically inferior are neither new nor valuable. 

To qualify these ideas as reasonable perspectives different from our own is to elevate them. When the administration makes space on campus for them, it is a clear signal to minority populations on campus that those ideas have merit. So now these two rights have come into conflict. Personally, I’d bet on the side with the law school ranked eighth in the country to put up a decent fight.

Finally, there’s Schlissel’s “foremost priority,” the safety and security of those on campus. The simple fact of the matter is that where Richard Spencer goes, violence has consistently followed, and his presence will act as a magnet to hate groups across the Midwest. Neo-Nazis and Klan members will be in the Diag. In this case, safety has to mean more than physical well-being; students of color or of Jewish faith cannot be expected to simply “ignore him” or revel in the “power of a room mostly empty,” without suffering in terms of mental health. If I need to further explain why it would be difficult for one of these students to feel welcome and safe while walking to class under these circumstances, you need to reexamine your capacity for empathy.

Schlissel’s arguments are insufficient. The way in which they were presented was cowardly. This administration is shrinking away from a fight and ignoring the students they purport to care about. Richard Spencer is on his way to campus. His lawyer said “Hail to the Victors!” to a reporter. That should make everyone on this campus sick to their stomach.

I cannot remember being any less proud to be a Michigan Wolverine. There’s more to be said on this, and from more diverse voices than my own. But for now, we need to call out Schlissel’s email for what it is: a disgrace.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.