Incidents of bias and discrimination are all too common on college campuses in the United States. In recent history, occurrences of racially-charged discrimination conjure memories of last year’s well-publicized protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University. And, as the academic year has started to gain momentum at American colleges and universities, there has unfortunately been a recurrence of discriminatory and racist behaviors. On Monday, Sept. 19, students at American University (AU) gathered to protest the response of the university’s administration to racially-charged incidents on campus. According to the Washington Post, two incidents occurred earlier in the month where Black students had bananas thrown at them and one student even had a rotten banana left outside her dorm room with obscene sexual images left on her whiteboard (The Washington Post, “‘Racism at AU is bananas’: Hundreds protest incidents on American U. campus,” 09.19.2016). These incidents have specifically targeted black women.
As evidenced by the protests, the response from the AU administration has been less than satisfying for students. Although the college was looking into the incidents, which were immediately reported, on Sept. 17 AU released a statement saying that they were not initially going to investigate the first incident as bias related, though this position has since been reversed (WTOP, “American University: Dorm incident not being treated as ‘bias-related,’ 09.17.2016). Later on Friday, the university’s administration announced plans for a town hall meeting for later that night; a course of action that seemed ill-prepared and gave students little notice to attend.
American University’s President Neil Kerwin also entered the conversation, releasing a statement condemning the incidents and stating that both cases either had been investigated (with involved students being held accountable through the student conduct process) or were currently being investigated. Then, on Sept. 23, AU’s Twitter page posted a link where people could send messages of support to AU students. AU’s Black Student Alliance (BSA) retweeted the link, stating that while they appreciated the gesture, the university needed to do more.
As a part of the protest on Monday and students’ response to the administration, American University’s BSA has been vocal and clear about what AU can do to make their campus safer and more inclusive not just for Black students, but for all students of color. In a letter to the administration the BSA suggested seven steps. First, the students involved should not only be held accountable through a less-than-transparent student conduct process, but rather be suspended. Moreover, alert students when acts of racial or any other form of hate violence occur on campus. BSA also demanded that the University fire any faculty members who joke about or call for violence against people of color, while hiring more people of color, preferably alumnae/i in their office of Campus and Student Life. The fifth point made by BSA calls for the University to implement a way in for students to file complaints against Public Safety Officers for “unnecessary enforcement and over-monitoring of social media.” Sixth, make counseling and mental health resources more accessible and reasonably priced. And finally, the BSA requests that the Vice President of Campus Life schedule a meeting with them, as she was absent from the town hall meeting (American University Black Student Alliance, “Seven Steps to Make American University Safer and More Inclusive, Twitter, 9.20.16).
These demands, together with the administration’s inadequate responses, highlight a significant structural flaw at American University in that there is no official system established specifically for responding to racial or other forms of discriminatory violence. Without such a system, the AU administration was not able to identify the nature of the two incidents, did not notify the campus in time about the follow-up meeting and failed to involve relevant staff members in the process. At Vassar, the Dean of the College division has established a Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT), which responds to reported acts of discrimination and violence. Convening weekly, the team is responsible for ensuring that affected students have access to appropriate resources, facilitating relevant campus dialogues and discussions and taking measures to improve campus awareness and prevent future incidents.
While we acknowledge the crucial role of BIRT for Vassar students and the campus at large, it must be emphasized that the system is defective in important respects. On April 8, 2016, it was reported that an anti-semitic graffiti was placed on a sign-up sheet at the dorm room door of a student living in Main Building. On April 14, BIRT sent out a “Not in My House” message alerting Main residents to the incident. It was not until four days later that BIRT sent out an all-campus email informing the larger community about this matter. An act like this would not only affect many individuals beyond Main residents, but also have an important impact on the entire community and campus climate in general. However, the very notion of “Not in My House” suggests the belief that if such incidents take place in the dormitories, then they should only be of concern to those living in the same building. Thus, the current BIRT system fails to recognize and address the broader implications of these acts, despite its later all-campus notification in this particular case.
In light of the events at American University, it has become especially imperative that Vassar critically reflect upon its own response system toward antisemitism, racism and other types of bias and hateful behaviors, in terms of fact sharing, supporting affected individuals and beyond.
Regrettably, the incidents and protests at American University have not received much media coverage and public attention. The absence from mainstream news media of acts of violence, bias and discrimination on college campuses is not an isolated issue. This August, when the University of Kentucky planned to sue its own student-run newspaper to avoid releasing information of a sexual harassment and sexual assault investigation against a professor, there was also a lack of mainstream media attention (The Miscellany News, “In silencing survivors, UKentucky threatens free speech,” 09.14.2016). Consequently, we at The Miscellany News wish not only to express our support for students at American University and to bridge the geographical gap between our two campuses, but also to recognize the importance to raise public awareness about these incidents and the appropriate responses to them.
At the end of every email sent out by BIRT at Vassar, there is a respectable message: “Vassar College strives to provide educational, working, and living environments free from discrimination, harassment, intolerant and hateful behavior.” But it takes more than words to realize this.
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least two-thirds of The Miscellany News Editorial Board