Six months later, students bristle at hiring of controversial housing director

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 - 7:22pm

It’s been a little more than six months since John Seto, the former police chief of Ann Arbor, took over as the University of Michigan’s housing security director — and some students still aren’t comfortable with his appointment.

“Students should have input into that aspect of control in their life,” Rackham student Pete Haviland-Eduah, vice president of Students of Color of Rackham wrote in an e-mail interview. “As a person of color, I am concerned with his hiring because of what happened with Aura last year.”  

For many community organizers in Ann Arbor, time can often be marked as before Aura and after Aura. In November 2014, Aura Rosser, a 40 year-old Black woman, was fatally shot by Officer David Ried, a white Ann Arbor police officer, in what was determined to have been self-defense

The shooting, and subsequent decision to not indict Ried, sparked protests and petitions amid national outcry against police brutality that began with the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The incident is still the motivation for many Black activists in the city; the Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives, initially Ann Arbor to Ferguson, was founded in the wake of Rosser’s death in November 2014.

The key distinction in Ann Arbor, however, is that activism related to the shooting as largely remained restricted to organizations operating in Ann Arbor at large, rather than student groups on campus. Save for tweets by the Black Student Union and organizations partnering in solidarity, there didn’t seem to be many large-scale apparent effects focused on the student body.

That is, until last summer.

Seto was the police chief of Ann Arbor at the time of Rosser’s death, and steadfastly defended the police officer in question throughout the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s short investigation. He also oversaw the introduction of diversity awareness training and body cameras to the city police force, while affirming that Reid acted in self-defense.

Seto retired from the Ann Arbor Police Department the July after Rosser’s death, with a resume totalling a 25-year-long career in law enforcement  — a career that began in University of Michigan Housing. When the Division of Public Security and Safety announced at the beginning of the 2015 school year that Seto would return out of retirement to lead his old department as the director of Housing Security, University officials applauded his decision. Eddie Washington, the executive director of DPSS, cited Seto’s partnership on student safety initiatives in particular at the time of his hiring.

“Throughout his service, he built a strong record of leadership, community engagement and collaboration,” Washington wrote in an e-mail interview with the Daily.

More than a semester later, though, Seto’s position at the University remains a point of contention for student activists. Rackham student Maryam Aziz, an Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives organizer, denounced Seto’s hiring last summer, and said on March 9 she still stands by her critiques of his stances.

“It’s the fact that he’s unwilling to acknowledge or affirm people’s assertions that he took part in her death,” she said. “Even bigger than him, it’s the fact that someone who is in a position of power in the city can invalidate people’s concerns.”

Seto declined comment on cases he worked on for the city.

For some students, however, the issue goes beyond the specific case at hand, and to a potential larger disconnect between DPSS and students of color.

Rackham student Alina Kazmi, SCOR’s political action chair, said she recognizes that Seto had proper experience for the job, but added that she takes issue with the lack of student consultation during the hiring process.

“This is not the only time students have a lot of questions around a pretty significant moment for the University,” she said. “The only reason we could see was that there is not any transparency in the hiring process. You would think they don’t just pull someone out of thin air. From what I can tell, from the University’s perspective, John Seto was a great pick because he had a longstanding relationship with the University. Aura Rosser didn’t, though she was a community member.”

Aziz agreed, and questioned whether students of color had an adequate voice in a matter as personal as housing.

“If police are here at a public university to make people feel safe, how are students, administrators, non-law-enforcement people at large involved in saying ‘this is how you make me feel safe’ in spaces here?” she asked.

At a policing forum hosted by BSU and SCOR last Saturday, however, Seto disputed reports of discomfort, maintaining he has experienced an easy transition back to the Housing Security office.

“I have yet to experience any discomfort from students,” he said. “I am here to listen and connect with members of the community.”

Haviland-Eduah, who organized the forum and introduced the event, wrote in an e-mail interview that Seto's comments were indicative of the need for more student involvement in DPSS processes.

“This lack of awareness only underscores the importance that now more than ever, we need work with administrators across the campus to create levels of accountability and institutionalize student involvement in hiring processes that have the potential to impact student life tremendously,” he wrote.

Nonetheless, for undergraduate students at large living in University Housing, there seems to be a different gulf in understanding — though many are aware of Rosser’s death, Seto’s name is unfamiliar to most.

LSA senior Brittany Dowe, a resident advisor in Martha Cook Residence Hall, is a diversity peer educator in her hall. Dowe works closely with University Housing in developing workshops on inclusivity and identity, but had no knowledge of Seto’s association with the University.

“Going through my training, we never heard about him or met him,” she said. “We always interacted with people a couple units down.”

LSA freshman Mariam Doudi lives in South Quad Residence Hall, and said she was never educated on civil rights issues in the city, let alone the connections to University life.

“In my time so far, those aren’t issues that have been emphasized to me as important,” she said.  

Over the past year, DPSS as a whole has made several efforts to reach out to students as a part of University President Mark Schlissel’s diversity initiative. In addition to events put on by student organizers such as the policing forum, the division created a new position, diversity program manager, and Washington is in the process of creating a student advisory board contributing to all offices within DPSS.

Despite these reforms, University safety officers themselves acknowledge students of color may still not be able to fully trust law enforcement. Bryan Baker, DPSS liaison to the Division of Student Life, said at the forum security officers’ uniforms can make students feel uncomfortable.

“From personal experience, I’ve had people that haven’t come up to me, or shied away from me and that’s OK,” he said. “But we’re making an effort to build those relationships in residence halls especially.”

Though Haviland-Eduah does not live in University housing, he wrote that Seto’s role at the University pushed him to ask more questions about students’ input with DPSS.

“I think about what could happen if I have an interaction with the police, and I want to trust that I will have a good interaction, but that’s not always the case, especially as a Black man,” he wrote.