VP student life discusses Richard Spencer, IFC allegations, #UMDivest

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 8:00pm

The Michigan Daily sat down with E. Royster Harper, the University of Michigan Vice President for Student Life, on Wednesday to discuss current issues on campus. Topics talked about included the Wednesday morning's decision from Central Student Government to support divestment, the Interfraternity Council's ban of social activities and more.

The Michigan Daily: So we’ll start with one of the most relevant issues — last night, the Central Student Government Divestment Resolution passed. To begin, where do you go from here? There are a lot of students saying this motion will increase tensions on campus. How do you mitigate these tensions in the wake of this resolution and the events of the past year, especially when some students feel as if they are being targeted?

Royster: So, I’ve been thinking about a couple of things — one, it’s interesting to me that we start with the rock, that targets Latinx students, we start with the national climate that targets everybody, it’s just who’s in the queue to be targeted, and then we have our own experience on our campus, so far no one has been missed. And then we have our own internal conversations and debates about, really, a really complex issue. It’s the same kind of debate about a complex issue about controversial speakers — who should be on campus — so if our values around free speech, what we find right now is that we have another set of issues, contest, divestment, that is in the center of what we say as an institution we’re committed to … which is free speech, multiple points of view — sometimes that speech targets and hurts different communities. So I’ve been struck by when you pull out content, the tension for us has really been about when we have these areas that we fundamentally disagree about, we just don’t have a lot of experience debating the issue without hurting the relationships. And so whether it’s Richard Spencer, same issue, it’s the content, multiple points of view about the content, and same challenge — how do we engage in that decision without hurting our community and our relationship? With respect to divestment, and a resolution which really talks about investigating divestment, and lists three companies that the University should investigate whether or not they should divest, given their role in support of Israel and then beliefs about Israel’s role in respect to Palestinians. The University bases its decisions on its investments on finance, risk and rewards, so a principle here is, that’s the core of how the University makes a decision about what we will invest in or not — not for these other kinds of reasons, whatever they might be and however you might feel about them. It's similar to the University having value around freedom of expression, and it makes a decision or weighs that decision based on that value, content neutrally. So part of what I’m trying to say in a not very eloquent way: For us, as a community, we’ve had a whole semester of competing values. Legitimate competing values. What do we really believe about free speech and freedom of expression, even when the content is totally antithetical to our values and doesn’t represent who we are as an institution? So that’s the controversial speaker setup that we’re weighing. Now we have another one that really has to do with a value around investment, return on investment, using those dollars to support our mission and this other set of values, and a strategy being recommended that flies in the face of this value that we have. And so, it is hard because at the root of it, when you take out the content, it’s these two legitimate values that we are always trying to make some sense of.

TMD: In the wake of this resolution being passed, are you worried there may be more bias incidents against different communities because tensions are so high?

Royster: I hope not, and I guess here’s what we’ve been trying to do: We’ve been trying to, for every community that’s been targeted, create some support for those communities. We have Jewish students that are worried about their safety; we have Muslim and Arab students that are worried about their safety. So we have a pretty active Department of Public Safety right now trying to be attuned to and mindful of this, and this conversation in the context of a national conversation. In the context that someone external to us might decide to join this conversation and take a side and harm others. So I’m probably more concerned by that kind of harm than I am anything we would do to ourselves internally — that’s one — and I’m also concerned about the harm that happens when you are in pain and you reflect that pain in words. So there’s another kind of harm that I’m worried about that has to do with how we choose then to express the disappointment in some cases, and the pain that we feel around these kinds of issues. They happened around Murray, they will happen whatever the decision is about Spencer, they’re happening around this issue of divestment because they really all speak to our core values and our passions and our beliefs in a society, and in a community, and in an organization, that says you have the right to speak them. You have a right to debate them, with all the passion and words and points of views and experiences that you have.

TMD: On that note of competing values, and you have touched on this — can you walk us through the various contingency plans surrounding Richard Spencer’s request to visit campus? In either case, whether he is allowed or not allowed to speak, are there resources being afforded to students to help deal with his message?

Royster: So two things I would offer: one is that the decision hasn’t been made about him coming or not. The president and all of us are engaged in talking to students and communities to hear people’s points of view and their thoughts to weigh it. For us, the number one priority is safety, and for safety we mean physical safety, psychological safety, emotional safety, so of course we’ve been talking with other institutions that have had to host him, and they’ve had to host him because he says, “If you don’t, I’m going to sue.” The courts are pretty much saying if he sues he’s going to win ... You see, so that value is sitting right there. So of course there will be resources for students — the idea would be, depending on what the decision is, that we would come together as a community and decide how do we want to respond. To say to students, “What do you need?” If we have to do this, if we are forced to do this, if we are told to do this, then of course the question is, we are one community, this is not someone we’re inviting, this is not someone we want, so how do we respond and what are the needs? So there will be of course services for students, of course we would work with students around alternative planning, alternative events, the kinds of things that would help us stay together as a community if this should occur. And I guess that’s the thing that, so if my heart is heavy, quite frankly this morning, it is more about how we’re going to choose to respond to these things that are happening, that’s really more in our control than what’s happening. We’re not going to be able to control what people think, what they're passionate about and what they decide to do about it. Whether what they decide to do about it is to put forward the resolution, or what they decide to do about it is to say, “I want to come to your campus and spew my hate,” or what they decide to do about it is to put up some posters, “I want to write something on a rock,” “I want to put some graffiti on a door” — we’re not going to be able to control any of that. What we do get to control is then, how do we respond? How do we stay together as a community? How do I allow you all the space and opportunity you need to give voice to your beliefs and your thoughts, even if I find them offensive, without severing our relationship? How do we do that? So that’s the challenge for us, and what I am pretty clear about is we have to do that together. I don’t have a way of doing that. I do know if we use our collective influence and our collective power we are better as an institution.

TMD: To wrap up, what are some other priority areas you’ve been working on addressing this year?

Royster: Of course you know we have the same issue with respect to our Greek community, in particular our IFC, and their courage. They took a look, they said we don’t — despite all the work they’ve been doing — it’s not enough. There’s some things that are going on in our community that are unacceptable — so we’re going to name them, as painful as that is, as embarrassing as that has been. We’re going to name them. We’re not going to be so caught up in how we look that we don't name what’s going on, and then we’re going to move to go chapter by chapter, help that community, that chapter, think about where are you in relation to where you want to be, and then we’re going to put in place some support for those communities. I’m proud of that. It’s hard, too, because you are describing your own community. I am proud of them for that, I am proud of the students who were at divestment last night, those that spoke for and against because they cared enough to show up and have a position. It’s the same thing with the students who came to the Murray event; they cared enough, both the protesters and the host, to show up. So I think for us as a community we have to say, “OK, we sometimes don’t like what’s being discussed, we sometimes don’t even like how people show up, but they care enough to come, to engage, to be in that collective space together, to struggle with it, to say ‘I’m mad’ but I’m going to stay in this space with you even if I’m angry. For that I’m proud to work here, and be in the community.