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Tensions, Protests, Incidents

In wake of election, black freshmen at Penn receive racist emails; students protesting Trump at Central Missouri have firecracker thrown at them; controversy over flag burning at Hampshire and more.

November 14, 2016
 
Photo by Carl Weber
Hampshire College's new U.S. flag, flying at half-staff

Students continue to protest the election of Donald Trump as president -- and racial incidents are being reported at numerous campuses. At many colleges, the divisiveness of the election campaign has been replaced by a period in which many minority students feel threatened.

Racial incidents take place all the time at colleges and universities and are hardly unique to the period just after Election Day.

But groups that track racial incidents report that an unusual number of such incidents has been taking place since Trump won the election.

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report late Friday saying that it had counted 201 "incidents of election-related harassment and intimidation" as of Friday at 5 p.m. The center acknowledged that it had not independently verified all of the reports.

The study found that the top locations for such harassment were elementary and secondary schools, followed by colleges and universities.

Kimberly A. Griffin, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies the campus racial climate, said that racism has been a significant concern well before the election campaign, but that the president-elect's success has shifted the way racism is expressed on campus.

"Really overt, violent racism in public spaces has become socially unacceptable in the last couple decades," Griffin said via email. "That doesn't mean it didn't happen, but people could agree that it was wrong and wasn't consistent with our values. We have a president-elect who campaigned on ideas that made what was previously socially unacceptable racism OK by everything from talking about mass deportations and building walls to accepting endorsements from white nationalist groups. The threats students are facing are often directly connected to his rallying cries and campaign promises. I don't think that Trump created these feelings and the rage we see, but his election normalized it and encouraged it."

When Inside Higher Ed reported on some of these incidents last week, some commenters suggested that many of the reports may be false or unsubstantiated. Many incidents being reported on social media have not in fact been verified. Many of them can't be, since they don't include names or institutions involved. There has been one case -- involving the University of Louisiana at Lafayette -- in which a student admitted to fabricating a claim. All of the incidents reported by Inside Higher Ed last week and those that follow in this article have been confirmed by campus officials or law enforcement as a credible report that was being taken seriously, although final determinations about the legitimacy of all of the reports have not been made.

Shock Over Messages Sent to Black Penn Freshmen

Students at the University of Pennsylvania were stunned Friday when black freshmen started to receive messages from an account with GroupMe (which makes it easier to send many people a text at the same time) from someone called "Daddy Trump" or "Heil Trump." The messages were full of racist slurs and talked about sharing information about a "daily lynching," complete with photos of such killings in history and images of violent acts today.

The freshmen had not signed up to receive these messages, and many were outraged and shared the messages with other black students at Penn, trying to figure out what was going on. University officials quickly denounced the messages -- even as they scrambled to figure out how their black students were being targeted.

As students shared what was going on via social media (see post at right), black students elsewhere became concerned as well.

Late Friday, the university announced that it had traced the messages to accounts in Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma then announced that it had suspended a student linked to sending the messages.

David Boren, Oklahoma's president, tweeted that there was sufficient evidence to justify a temporary suspension of the student while a full investigation continues. He denounced the harassment of the black students at Penn and called Penn officials to express his sympathy and concern.

On Sunday evening, Penn issued a new statement saying that the criminal investigation of the incident found no Penn students had been involved, but that three individuals from Oklahoma -- one of them the suspended University of Oklahoma student -- were responsible. The statement, from President Amy Gutmann and other senior officials, said, "We call on everyone to recognize that the events of the past few days are a tragic reminder of the overt and reprehensible racism that continues to exist within some segments of our society, and that we all need to unite together as a community and a society to oppose. We are deeply saddened that Penn students were the victims of this hate, to which absolutely nobody should be subjected."

Firecrackers Set Off During Protest at Central Missouri

At the University of Central Missouri, about 200 students -- minority and white alike -- held a protest against Trump Thursday night. During the protest, university officials confirmed, one or more people set off firecrackers at the perimeter of the protest, scaring and endangering some of those participating, although there were no injuries.

After the protest, President Charles Ambrose met with students who had been protesting and talked to them about their safety concerns in light of the firecrackers. He pledged that they would be supported in their right to protest peacefully.

Protests Continue With Controversy Over Flag Burning

As the week ended, protests continued in many college towns and large cities. High school students in many areas have been walking out of classes, and some college students have done so as well. The protests have featured plenty of anti-Trump rhetoric, some of it involving four-letter words. There have been scattered reports of pro-Trump students shouting "USA" or other things at some protests, but those opposed to the president-elect have largely been able to hold marches and rallies without interference from those who disagree with them or their colleges.

One tactic receiving criticism in two protests is flag burning. Some students objected last week when others burned American flags at American University.

But a debate over flag burning has become heated at Hampshire College, which is associated with having a left-leaning student body. At Hampshire, the debate isn't so much about the concept of burning the flag, which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in a 1989 decision as a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment. The debate at Hampshire is about burning a flag that doesn't belong to you -- and statements one can make with the flag that don't involve burning it.

Some Hampshire students, in group discussions after Trump won, said that the college's American flag should come down. Others argued that it should be lowered to half-staff, and they did so. College officials did not object but planned to raise the flag on Friday, Veterans Day, noting that the college wanted to honor a day important both to students and employees who are veterans.

But sometime Thursday night, the flag was removed and burned. So when students and others arrived Friday morning, there was no flag flying. Beth Ward, secretary of the college, sent an email to the campus criticizing those who had burned the flag and saying, "Hampshire is home to a multiplicity of perspectives and life experiences, and among us are both students and employees who have served (and currently serve) in the military. However, this morning we discovered that the flag was burned overnight and, as a result, veterans and others in our community will come to campus to find the flagpole empty. We are deeply saddened that we are not able to fly the flag today in their honor, and we acknowledge the anger and hurt many will feel both because the flag is absent and the reason for its absence."

The college quickly obtained a new flag to raise, and on Saturday, the college's board agreed to again fly the flag at half-staff.

"Flying the flag at half-staff is a time-honored way to convey mourning, and many have suggested that, in addition to those occasions specified under the U.S. Flag Code, our flag remain at half-staff as an expression of collective grief for the violent deaths that are occurring daily in this country and around the world," said a statement from the board. "And, indeed, our campus has been directly affected on multiple occasions: among us are students and employees who have lost their homes in bombings, had family members murdered for their political convictions or because of the color of their skin, and who cannot safely return home due to war or threats to personal safety."

"As fiduciaries of a vibrant learning community, the board is committed to supporting spaces for multiple perspectives, nuanced dialogue, and mindful listening to flourish," the board statement added. "One way to facilitate such space is for the flag to be experienced as inclusively as possible by all members of our community. After discussion among the trustees in tandem with some community participation, the board has come to consensus to fly the flag at half-staff, both to acknowledge the grief and pain experienced by so many and to enable the full complexity of voices and experiences to be heard. This is an effort that will require time, trust, broad participation and mutual respect; and while this is underway the flag will remain at half-staff. We have faith in our community's ability to engage in this process of discernment with integrity, insight and compassion."

A Controversial Facebook Post

At the University of Rochester, a lecturer in computer science resigned on Friday as undergraduate program director in his department after controversy over a comment he made on Facebook mocking a protest called "Not My America" that students held on campus Friday to protest Trump's election.

Ted Pawlicki, the professor, wrote on the event's Facebook page, "A bus ticket from Rochester to Canada is $16. If this is not your America, then I will pay for your ticket if you promise never to come back."

The post has since been removed but has circulated online, along with comments -- some of which are critical of the professor and say he showed bias against those protesting. Other comments, however, say that to call his comment a bias incident is the sort of overreaction that led many Americans to support Trump in the first place.

A university spokeswoman said that the professor's resignation as undergraduate program director was voluntary. She released this statement: "The university is aware of a faculty Facebook comment that caused concern and for which the faculty member has since apologized. Freedom of expression is a foundational principle at the University of Rochester and for all citizens of the U.S. Students and faculty alike are free to express their views." Pawlicki did not respond to an email request for comment.

Encouraging a President to Speak Out

Many college presidents have been issuing statements since the election, pledging support for equal opportunity and offering extra support, discussions and so forth.

At the University of Northern Colorado, such a statement wasn't issued, and 27 faculty members released an open letter encouraging Kay Norton, the president, to do so.

"Over the last few days, we have witnessed, with growing horror, a spike in the number of both bias-related incidents and outright hate crimes on college campuses across the United States …. Indeed, we have heard reports of bias-related incidents on UNC’s own campus," says the letter. "We have also witnessed, with some hope, a number of statements from university presidents, chancellors and other officials in higher administration, proactively condemning such acts and reaffirming the critical importance of tolerance and student safety. We have seen examples of this from such diverse places as Colorado State University, Oregon State University, the University of Virginia and the University of Illinois. We are disheartened that the University of Northern Colorado cannot yet be included on this list."

On Friday, as the letter was spreading, Norton released a video.

In it she said, "Elections are necessarily about a winner and a loser. But our university community is not about winners and losers. It is, in fact, a family. And like all families, we may disagree -- even vehemently -- with each other, but in the end we come together because we are members of the family and all members of the family are welcome and necessary. And I want you to know the University of Northern Colorado cares about and cares for every member of our campus community -- faculty, staff and students -- and we reject the idea that behavior that isolates and stigmatizes any member of this community is acceptable to the rest of us. We are family."

Officers Placed on Leave at Virginia

Three University of Virginia police officers have been placed on leave after they used the intercoms in their cars to shout "Make America Great Again" (Trump's campaign slogan) at students they encountered after the election results became clear.

Michael A. Gibson, chief of police, sent a message to students: "I was disappointed to learn of reports that UPD personnel allegedly used the public address system in their vehicle inappropriately following the results of the election in the early morning hours on Wednesday. UPD is investigating this incident and takes this matter seriously. Please be assured that UPD remains committed to the highest professional standards in law enforcement and will work tirelessly to enhance the safety of our living and learning environment."

 

'Bye-Bye Latinos'

At Elon University, many students and faculty members were stunned by images posted to social media showing a message on the corner of a classroom whiteboard two days after the election: "Bye bye Latinos hasta la vista."

A faculty member found, erased and reported the message. President Leo M. Lambert sent a message to the campus. "I want to say emphatically that this incident is reprehensible and directly in conflict with Elon’s values of inclusion and treating each other with dignity and respect," he said. "Elon will not tolerate harassing, denigrating or intimidating actions that create a hostile environment. It should be obvious to all that our nation is deeply divided at this time and we face great differences in our society. Now, more than ever, we need to show kindness and respect toward one another, especially to those members of our community who are feeling vulnerable."

Smith Jackson, vice president for student life and dean of students, later sent another message to the campus saying that after the president's email, "a student stepped forward, took responsibility for writing the message and is deeply remorseful. The matter is being adjudicated through Elon’s Office of Student Conduct."

 

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