Campuses address bias-motivated incidents

Spurred by several bias-motivated incidents on campus, including the discovery of graffiti with the word “nigger,” students sang, chanted and marched in a Rally Against Hate on Wednesday, organized by Coalition for Campus Unity (CCU). Calls for lasting institutional changes, such as a grievance board and revisions to the curriculum, accompanied the wave of outcry.

This was Yale University last fall – but replacing “Coalition for Campus Unity” with “Stand With Us,” and “grievance board” with “social honor code,” changes the setting to Williams in February. Tweaking a few other clauses yields the narrative of any number of colleges and universities.

In the past year, nooses – long regarded as a symbol of racial intimidation – have been found in at least seven institutions, including the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Other examples of campus prejudice in the spotlight include a slew of blackface parties and a racially charged stabbing at UMass Amherst.

In speaking with students and administrators at three peer institutions, it is clear that, despite the apparent ubiquity of bias-related episodes, the myriad reactions to these incidents attest as much to the nuanced differences between campuses as the diversity that breeds vibrancy and tension.

Yale

Including the spray-painted epithet “nigger school” on a Pierson College wall and the words “drama fags” on a University Theatre wall that triggered last November’s rally, Yale has seen a spate of discriminatory offences in recent years.

According to senior Joshua Williams, the character of the incidents has evolved over time. “In previous years, a lot of the tension happened because there was a perception that groups on campus weren’t talking to each other,” Williams said. “Since the end of last year, there has been an increase in anonymous attacks and also an increase in people saying that it’s unacceptable to hide behind anonymity.”

In October 2006, Williams co-founded the CCU, an umbrella organization with more than 20 member-groups, in response to two racist satires in campus publications. The CCU’s inception is reminiscent of Stand With Us’ late-night Henze Lounge origin: “When we came together to discuss these incidents, there was a lot of energy and the sense that we actually need to fix this campus,” he said. A year and a half later, weekly CCU meetings still draw about 20 regulars. It remains to be seen whether Stand With Us will continue to follow the CCU’s precedent and disprove doubts about the movement’s staying power.

Since the graffiti incidents last fall, the CCU has been spearheading the formation a grievance board to help victims of discrimination. A committee is in the process of incorporating several tiers of feedback from both administration and students into the board’s makeup. While expressing frustration about working with bureaucracy, Williams is optimistic about institutional support for student diversity initiatives. “I think the administration is getting a lot better about helping us, declaring themselves allies through e-mails to the student body,” he said. Stand With Us leaders voiced similar appreciation of the increasingly affirmative all-campus e-mails from College administrators throughout the development of the movement.

In addition to the grievance board, the combined efforts of faculty, staff and students have yielded an array of approaches, including a response protocol for victims of discrimination, which is pending final approval, and revisions to the residential counselor and ethnic counselor programs. The University also held a series of four panel discussions, which ended last week.

Comprehensive measures notwithstanding, on Feb. 23, snow sculptures of a swastika and the insignia of the SS, a paramilitary Nazi unit, were found on two trees in the Old Campus. Following this incident, the Multifaith Council launched “Set a New Tone,” a poster campaign which united student organizations, including sports teams, social justice groups and religious communities, in calling for change.

“I think one day it’ll be important to look back at this time and see this hate speech, and this uprising of students across the country saying that they need to stand up for what they believe in,” Williams said. “It’s something worth fighting for and has been one of my most meaningful experiences at Yale.”

Amherst

Despite their long-standing rivalry, the Jeffs and the Ephs are bound in a common fight against discrimination, as highlighted in a Feb. 27 piece in the Amherst Student. On Feb. 12, one day prior to Williams’ 600-strong Stand With Us rally, Amherst students packed the Cole Assembly Room to overflowing for “Raising Our Voices: A Community Discussion on Intolerance and Inclusion,” which came to be known as the “Be Heard” event.

Students and administrators organized the roundtable, which was prompted by several incidents, including a noose in Alumni Gymnasium last summer, the harassment of Hampshire College students who attended a Gay Amherst Party (GAP) in November and anti-Semitic graffiti in the Cadigan Center for Religious Life. Unlike the urgency that prompted Stand With Us leaders to mobilize the campus in a large-scale rally a week and a half after the Williams E event, attention to detail predominated at Amherst: Be Heard was held several months after the GAP harassment to ensure that finals and the January Interterm would not affect student involvement.

One clear benefit of the deliberate planning process was the participation of Amherst President Anthony Marx and Edward Mills, head football coach, in the panel discussion. While Stand With Us identified top administrators and athletic teams as key liaisons, the accelerated timeline did not allow sufficient time for these parties to engage as thoroughly in the rally.

Marx had high praise for the Be Heard event. “That forum evoked and demonstrated a tremendous response and caring throughout the community,” Marx said. “It filled the room to capacity and beyond, and the energy and interest from that discussion has continued on campus.”

Discussion moderator and Association of Amherst Students senator Nick Pastan affirmed the forum but emphasized the need for action. “I wasn’t totally satisfied, but the discussion was a good first step,” said Pastan, a junior. “It didn’t achieve the level of discussion that I hoped, but many encouraging things emerged as a result.”

Chief among the proposals on the table is a Multi-Cultural Center. “Students have been discussing the location and focus of a Center and I look forward to hearing their views and perspectives as we decide how best to move forward with this important consideration,” Marx said. Pastan added that the proposal “has been floating around for a while [but] has really taken off in the wake of the event.”

Pastan detailed other recommendations from students and administrators, such as leadership training, student/professor lunches to discuss identity politics and a call to departments to hold diversity-oriented events, but noted that he had hoped for higher student involvement in these undertakings. “I think that the average Amherst student is disheartened about the incidents, but that doesn’t mean that students are seriously galvanized against them,” he said. “There are a handful of very passionate students that are trying to take up initiatives – but most like to comment on what other people are doing without taking a real position.”

In contrast to Stand With Us leaders as well as College faculty members, who emphasized the need to harness the heightened energy and activism into permanent institutional change, Pastan was concerned that Amherst’s solid, administrative approach may hinder student commitment to the cause: “Forward thinking is good and necessary at this junction of Amherst’s history, yet I worry that students [won’t] be able to continue to avoid the difficult issues as a result of this strategy,” he said. “I hope that our series of dialogues will engage students and force them to cut through the political correctness and fear with which students approach these incidents.”

CU-Boulder

A satirical op-ed piece from The Campus Press, a student-run online paper at the University of Colorado at Boulder, printed on Feb. 18 and entitled “If it’s war the Asians want – it’s war they’ll get” by assistant opinions editor Max Karson, was lambasted as racist both on campus and on the Web. A copy of the article was circulated on the Koreans of Williams listserv and posted about on a WSO discussion board.

Despite existing protocols for bias-motivated incidents, this editorial was a new ball game for CU administrators. “When a student writes and a student-newspaper prints an unfortunate, poorly executed piece of satire, it creates a different situation that really challenges the balance of our core values: free speech and diversity,” said CU Chancellor Bud Peterson.

Two days after the op-ed ran, three Campus Press editors, including Editor-in-Chief Cassie Hewlings, responded in a letter. “Karson’s opinion is satire and is a commentary on racism at CU published in our opinion section, not presented as fact or incitement, and not published to intentionally incite controversy,” they wrote. “We apologize for any ambiguity of the satire that may have been misconstrued.”

In response to the outrage towards both the Karson column and an op-ed by staff writer Lauren Geary titled “No hablo ingles – try speaking English, this is the United States,” the Campus Press board committed to several immediate actions: providing enhanced coverage of the episode, establishing a student diversity advisory board, scheduling diversity workshops for writers and adopting an opinions policy.

“I’m actually very pleased with our new opinions policy – and the advisory board because these were ideas thought up and adopted entirely by the managing editors staff and not handed down from the journalism school,” Hewlings said. Campus Press also plans to amend its ethics policy to include diversity coverage, and to hold a forum on community respect and free speech.

Comparably, the Williams community has been grappling with similar enforcement-tolerance issues with calls to implement a social honor code to curtail what some have termed a culture of discriminatory speech. The First Amendment as well as the constitutionally inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been invoked in conversations between proponents of self-regulation and advocates for specific consequences for bias offenses.

The CU editorials elicited a variety of sentiments. “On a campus of over 30,000 [students], there are plenty who are very upset, plenty who support the Campus Press, plenty who don’t care about any of this and plenty who don’t know anything happened,” Hewlings said. Among the more prominent reactions was a resolution from the UC Student Union legislative council formally opposing both pieces, a letter from nine Campus Press editors denouncing the decision to run Karson’s article and a rally to show unified opposition.

Administrators, in turn, have outlined approaches to address the issue and to foster inclusiveness at the University. “There is no magic formula and we wouldn’t say we do any better or any worse than most institutions with our admission profile and academic mission,” Peterson said. “We have, all of us, a lot of work to do.”

Hewlings agreed. “There is definitely a silver lining to this whole situation: the movement to hold the University accountable for the promises to address the lack of diversity at CU made in 2005,” she said. “Many of the students who were angered by the articles are now working together with Campus Press to shed light on the diversity issues on campus.”

Bringing lessons to Williams

Against the backdrop of other campuses as well as the College’s recent history, one element stands out about Williams this semester: the sheer magnitude of the response. Despite the small student population, the Stand With Us rally was far better attended than similar events on other campuses.

Dissenting voices have also been more vocal at the College. While the Pact Against Hate and Indifference garnered over 250 signatures in a matter of days, so did the petition against a social honor code that was initiated a few weeks later.

Contrary to conceptions of the apathetic Eph, this challenge has channeled energies in the direction of constructive and lasting change, emulating the sensitivity to detail present at Amherst, while maintaining an authentic Williams spirit.

The Yale experience offers insights about the possible continuation of bias-motivated incidents, even in the face of concerted efforts to combat them. Dean Merrill espoused such realism: “The issue is not so much achieving the impossible task of ending such incidents entirely, but rather getting rid of egregious behavior,” she said.