A redshirt freshman kicker at Willamette University this week became the first active college football player to come out publicly as non-straight, revealing to Outsports.com that he’s bisexual and has a boyfriend. Conner Mertens first told his team and coaches at Willamette, a Division III program in a politically conservative area of Oregon, before going to the media. Mertens also tweeted out a letter explaining his decision and encouraging his peers.
“I refuse to apologize for being who I am. I am the same person that I was yesterday,” he wrote. “Don’t let society dictate who you can and cannot be simply because it doesn’t fit their perception of who you are supposed to be.”
Making an unpopular decision and accepting the ensuing criticism is part of the job of a university leader. Whether the topic is research priorities, academic freedom, athletics, or, as it turns out, snow days, there is always a range of opinion on a college campus. And there should be, provided the campus nurtures an environment where everyone feels safe entering into the debate.
When those opinions move from civil and respectful discourse into vitriolic attacks on an individual it can be discouraging and damaging – personally and institutionally. On Monday, about a dozen students, upset that classes were not canceled because of cold weather, took to social media to criticize the decision and to attack me – in comments that were vulgar, crude and in some instances racist and sexist.
People have asked me whether the attacks disturbed me.
Not necessarily on a personal level, because many of the comments could be dismissed as juvenile, notwithstanding the offensive language.
Not because the comments truly reflect my university. The outpouring of support from our students, my colleagues and others – including heartfelt apologies from several of those who posted comments – has shown our true nature.
What was most disturbing was witnessing social media drive a discussion quickly into the abyss of hateful comments and even threats of violence. I shudder to think what might happen if that type of vitriol were directed at a vulnerable member of our student body or university community.
The negative comments, as offensive as they were, are protected speech. But what is protected expression and what is the level of discourse we as educators expect from our students can be very different things. And the size of that gap – so evident this week – is what has been most disappointing. Racist, intimidating or culturally derogatory epithets have no place in any debate in any circumstance. Of all places, a university should be home to diverse ideas and differing perspectives, where robust – and even intense – debate and disagreement are welcomed.
How do we foster such an atmosphere? Only through an unwavering and unrelenting commitment to building truly diverse communities of students and scholars. One dinner with someone who doesn’t look like you and doesn’t sound like you can open new worlds of ideas. You can sit in a classroom and discuss situations in Egypt or in Syria based on academic readings. But, to hear these issues explained by a classmate from that country, from her or his personal experience, in his or her voice – this is when an academic exercise can become a moment of personal transformation. That is why we say diversity is the route to excellence.
And, in fact, we are a diverse campus at Illinois, with students, faculty and staff from every state and more than 100 nations. They are a key part of what makes our university special, a community of cultures and ideas that generate original thought, outstanding research and the excitement that comes with working with the top people in their fields. But this incident shows that we still have work to do.
On Monday, Jan. 27, we held classes, as usual, at the University of Illinois. And, I hope, we all learned something.
Phyllis M. Wise is chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Arizona State University on Thursday revoked its recognition of a fraternity that held a racially themed party on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. While some defenders of the members of Tau Kappa Epsilon had argued that they should not be punished for what they described as protected speech, Arizona State administrators cited several university policies that the fraternity had violated, including rules governing alcohol consumption and distribution, off-campus conduct that potentially threatened the safety of the campus, and engaging in discriminatory activity. The statement said that university officials were still investigating whether individual students should be punished under Arizona State's student code of conduct for the party, which featured the students dressed in stereotypical hip-hop clothes and drinking out of watermelon cups.
U. of Michigan administrators pledge to do more for African-American students, who took to Twitter last semester with grievances. Black Student Union responds by giving institution 7 days to meet demands or face "physical" activism.
A branch of Giant, a grocery store chain in the Washington, D.C., region, produced a circular to promote shopping by Howard University students returning to campus from break. The ad ended up offending many Howard students, Washington Business Journal reported, because it features a white woman and Howard is a historically black college. A spokesman for Giant said that "unfortunately an incorrect stock photo was used in the ad and we apologize for this oversight."
Aleeha Dudley, who is a blind student, has sued Miami University in Ohio, charging it with violating her rights under federal laws to access to educational materials. With support from the National Federation for the Blind, Dudley's suit charges the university with, among other things, failing to provide her books in Braille and with using course management tools that do not give her access to information (as other tools would). Her suit says that her grades suffer as a result, and the federation says that her difficulties are similar to those faced by many blind students. Miami officials have declined to comment on the specifics of the suit, but have denied wrongdoing.
With Utah unexpectedly at the center of a new fight over state bans on same-sex marriage, articles inThe New York Times and elsewhere have explored how the state is trying to defend its ban. One unexpected argument is to cite Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling upholding the right of public colleges to consider race in admissions. "Society has long recognized that diversity in education brings a host of benefits to students," says Utah's brief to the Supreme Court, citing Grutter. "If that is true in education, why not in parenting? At a minimum, the state and its people could rationally conclude that gender diversity -- i.e. complementarity -- in parenting is likely to be beneficial to children. And the state and its people could therefore rationally decide to encourage such diversity by limiting the coveted status of 'marriage' to man-woman unions." If this argument should go anywhere, it could present interesting challenges for Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia (a fan of gay marriage bans who dislikes the Grutter decision) and Ruth Bader Gisburg (a fan of the Grutter decision who dislikes gay marriage bans).
The U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a federal complaint alleging that Lehigh University failed to respond to race-related harassment on campus, the institution confirmed Thursday. The complaint, first reported by The Morning Call, was filed by a 1977 Lehigh graduate who says the university did not report vandalism of a multi-cultural residence hall as a hate crime. Instead, the complaint says, officials classified the November 2013 incident in which the house was allegedly egged and spray-painted with racial slurs as criminal mischief, which is not required to be reported under the Clery Act.
Lehigh said in a statement that it will “fully cooperate” with the investigation, “and will work with OCR to achieve our goal of making Lehigh a more diverse and inclusive community. Lehigh has a long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion and, with strong engagement by students, faculty, staff and the administration, has accelerated our efforts with a number of initiatives underway.”
A student's request at York University in Canada has set off a debate over conflicting rights, The Globe and Mail reported. The student is male and enrolled in an online course, and he has objected to a requirement for a group work project that would require him to meet in person with some students, including female students. He says a public meeting with women would violate his religious beliefs. The professor wants to reject the request, saying that to grant it would endorse a biased view of women. But the university says that the professor should grant the request out of deference to religious beliefs. The student's religion has not been identified.