Yale, Missouri protests spark nationwide backlash on college campuses

In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, a member of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 gestures while addressing a crowd following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign, at the university in Columbia, Mo. (Jeff Roberson, File/AP)

Yale University, the University of Missouri and Ithaca College are all facing and have faced massive student backlash regarding racial incidents and subsequent administrative inaction. The examples of these movements have sparked student protest of racism throughout the United States.

Ithaca

Last week, Ithaca College students, led by the group “People of Color at Ithaca College,” staged a walkout/die-in demonstration – where activists laid down on campus, alternating between chanting and silence – that involved an estimated 1,000 participants. The magnitude of this protest is comparable to that of the University of Missouri and Yale University protests.

The similarities between Ithaca, Missouri and Yale don’t stop there.

Students have chanted a now well-known phrase around campus: “Tom Rochon: no confidence!” referring to the President of Ithaca College. Student action has been taken in a “vote of no confidence” for President Rochon, with the Student Government Association holding open voting for students on the matter. The voting period ends Nov. 30.

Ithaca senior Heather Crespin, quoted in a Fusion article, sums up the frustration for students at Ithaca.

“He (Rochon) has demonstrated that he’s part of the PR machine and has not responded…as a human being with empathy and as someone who is truly listening,” Crespin said.

Rochon has no intention of resigning, he told the campus newspaper, The Ithacan.

The events that have inspired student reaction at Ithaca began during RA training sessions with Public Safety officers in August. When an RA brought up the possibility of racial profiling, a Public Safety officer reportedly became protective, arguing that racial profiling is not a reality at Ithaca.

An officer also said that if they saw someone carrying a BB gun, they would shoot them. These events prompted two RAs of color to walk out of the training session, which led to a demonstration before and during a meeting between administrators, Residential Life and Public Safety that saw 30 RAs standing arm in arm, holding white signs with phrases written on them protesting what went on during those training sessions.

Noel Cazenave, a sociology professor at UConn, said he believes that widespread racial campus activism is correlated to police murders of people of color across the United States.

“There is more racial tension in the U.S. right now, and a lot of that has to do with the killing of African Americans by police and vigilante groups,” Cazenave said. “We could have a huge civil rights movement that could change things. The racial climate is not gonna get better unless police stop shooting African-American people. They’re having too much fun. No one is gonna take their guns away and stop them from going out and shooting negroes.”

A second troubling racial occurrence at Ithaca happened on Oct. 8 at an event meant to consider the future of Ithaca College. Tatiana Sy, a panelist that night and a female person of color, said that she harbored a “savage hunger” to succeed. After her comment, two white male panelists and Ithacan alumni then repeatedly called Sy a “savage.”

The third racial episode Ithacan students have rallied around involved a fraternity – Alpha Epsilon Pi – making a Facebook group for a themed party titled “Preps & Crooks.”

While the party was quickly canceled and the post on Facebook deleted, the racialized description of the dress code remains frozen in screenshots: “‘Preps’ is self-explanatory; come wearing your favorite Polo shirt, button down, backwards baseball cap, khakis or boat shoes! ‘Crooks’ refers to a more '90s thuggish style. Come wearing a bandana, baggy sweats and a t-shirt, snapbacks and any ‘bling’ you can find!”

Although students at Yale, Ithaca and Missouri have been protesting specific incidents, UConn student Haddiyyah Ali, a third-semester political science and Africana studies double major, said she does not believe the causes for protest to be coincidental. Rather, for her, racial hostility is deeply rooted in American history.

“Things have been happening to people of color on campuses forever,” Ali said. “I would like to say the overarching cause (of racial unrest on college campuses) is white supremacy in general.”

Julian Rose, a seventh-semester biomedical engineering major and a participant/organizer in activism at UConn with Ali, offered an alternative reason.

“I think it’s also internalized racism,” Rose said. “Growing up in a society like this, it’s kind of hard to escape, even if your parents told you the right thing to do, you have entire institutions telling you that ‘this group is not as good as yours.’ So when you internalize these things you can become blind to it.”

Yale

Yale University students have taken action after a string of racial issues on campus as well. In October, the Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) at Yale urged students via email to, “Take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have,” on Halloween weekend. A letter in response from Yale professor Erika Christakis called the IAC’s motives into question, alleging overbearing political correctness.

“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Christakis wrote. “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

Yale students protested Christakis’ response across campus and 700 students signed an open letter objecting to what she wrote.

In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Yale University students and faculty rally to demand that Yale University become more inclusive to all students on Cross Campus in New Haven, Conn. (Arnold Gold/New Haven Register via AP)

“Yale, for example, saying: ‘If you want to deal with racist Halloween costumes, just tell someone, and have a great conversation about it, we’re a bastion of education, blah blah blah,’ instead of saying ‘these racist Halloween costumes are not okay,’” Rose said regarding the situation. “Instead of putting the responsibility on students, which we see happen a lot, I think the administration should take an active role in dealing with these things.”

Conditions intensified on Yale’s New Haven campus when the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) reportedly would not allow women of color into their party on Halloween. Witnesses at the party stated that brothers in the frat said, “No, we’re only looking for white girls,” “We are looking for white girls only, white girls only” and other similar phrases, according to the Washington Post, who spoke to students there on Halloween night. One white male student, who wished to remain unidentified, said “I did not see one black girl at the party.”

Neeme Githere, a Yale student, took to Facebook to publicize the event. The status garnered thousands of likes, and gave way to comments that reported similar incidents, including Latino/a students who said that they had been asked for passports at the door of an SAE party before.

“I’d just like to take a moment to give a shoutout to the member of Yale’s SAE chapter who turned away a group of girls from their party last night, explaining that admittance was on a ‘white girls only’ basis; and a belated shoutout to the SAE member who turned me and my friends away for the same reason last year,” Githere’s status read.

These events, coupled with numerous instances of swastikas drawn on campus, galvanized the Yale student community. The week before Tim Wolfe resigned at Missouri, students at Yale fervently called for an administrative response to racism on campus, receiving none for a week until Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway apologized for a lack of reply and acknowledged what students were going through in a letter.

“Students should not have to become community organizers just to receive acknowledgement and respect from their administrators. It’s disheartening to feel like so few people in power have your back,” Aaron Lewis, a Yale student, wrote in an article on Medium. “Yes, we are angry. We are tired. We are emotionally drained. We feel like we have to yell in order to make our voices heard.”

Commentators, liberal and conservative both, have said Yale students for being overly sensitive.

“One of my favorite tweets from the week – I've lost track of the tweetist – was ‘When did students go from protesting the Vietnam War to protesting being offended?’” Colin McEnroe wrote in a column for the Hartford Courant, arguing that Yale students were essentially making a mountain out of a molehill.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) concurred with McEnroe.

“FIRE is concerned by yet another unfortunate example of students who demand upsetting opinions be entirely eradicated from the university in the name of fostering ‘safe spaces’ where students are protected from hurt feelings,” Haley Hudler wrote in a post on the Foundation’s website.

Ali and Cazenave both took exception to this characterization of Yale student activism.

“I call it white liberal nonsense,” Ali said. “The fact that as a white liberal you’re so much more worried about freedom to marginalize than you are my freedom to be who I am, tells me that this white liberalness is all about you, and not about reaching out to any other groups.

“To say because people once had to protest war, that means no one should ever be able to protest racialized stereotypes, is just bizarre, because what type of oppression Olympics are people playing at here, like you only get to pick one injustice to protest? We’re supposed to be completely liberated, not halfway.”

“So called white liberals have to be very careful with this illiberal argument, I think they’re getting snookered,” Cazenave said. “White conservatives and their allies condemn such protests, white moderates say students are overly-sensitive, and now the latest buzz word from white liberals about racial conflict is that such actions are ‘illiberal.’”

The Black Student Alliance at Yale has outlined a list of demands, including collecting data on instances like this that happen at fraternities, diversity training for students, staff and faculty, required classes in Afro-American or women’s studies and increased diversity in faculty hiring, among many others.

Missouri

A video shows Missouri University President Tim Wolfe sitting silently in a candy red convertible at the Homecoming Parade on Oct. 10 as student activists pointed out historical racism at the university since its inception, only to be prodded by Wolfe’s driver. The line of black people blocking the procession of cars at the parade was challenged by surrounding white people.

Whites cheered when police cleared people out of the road. This, along with a series of racist incidents and racist personal experiences on the University of Missouri, Columbia campus, were part of the student and faculty unrest at the school. 

The university administration was then completely silent until over a month of protests, and a highly publicized hunger strike from graduate student Jonathan Butler brought Wolfe to apologize for what happened at the Homecoming Parade.

Activists continued calling for Wolfe’s removal after the apology, though, as well as making other demands, saying he did not respond adequately or recognize racism on campus. It was not until the Missouri football team – with the support of their coach and the athletic department - boycotted game action that Wolfe stepped down.

The New York Times wrote of the situation:

“Timothy Wolfe’s resignation on Monday from the presidency of the University of Missouri system will not resolve the racial tensions that forced him from office. His tone-deaf style certainly inflamed the problem at the flagship campus in Columbia. But racist acts and utterances aimed at black students and black faculty have been an issue there for many years.”

The Missouri Students Association President, Payton Head, authored another viral Facebook status on Sept. 12 about his personal experience with racism, saying: “I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at this university, making me not feel included here.”

Protests were quelled once by police during September, but continued on with both students and faculty. Butler’s hunger strike inspired the football team to boycott play, and if they hadn’t played in their upcoming game against Brigham-Young University (BYU), the university would have had to pay a fine of $1 million dollars, according to their contract with BYU, although further economic damage is inestimable. On Nov. 9, two days after the football team declared its boycott, Wolfe resigned, under pressure from students, faculty and administrators alike.

Cazenave pointed out the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the intense student activism at the University of Missouri.

“There’s a link between the Black Lives Matter movement and what’s happening on college campuses. These are the same people who, when they go home, are worried about being shot by the police,” Cazenave said. “What happened in Missouri is 200 miles west of Ferguson. That’s no accident.”

Ali hopes Wolfe’s firing wasn’t a purely symbolic move.

“At Missouri, what I saw is that the removal of their president was a part of a very long list of demands,” Ali said. “What I don’t want to see happen is for them to turn to students of color and say – because right now they have a black president interim –- hey, we got you a black guy, so let it go,’ when there are so many other concrete, specific changes that students want to create the safe space on campus.”

Rose spoke to the antagonistic lack of an administrative response.

“I think administrators are just not sensitive enough to these issues, therefore they’re not reacting or being even preventative in trying to change this campus, because they could do a number of things in a power position to try to prevent racist acts from happening,” Rose said.

Solidarity at UConn and across the U.S.

Protesting racism at UConn has taken on an urgency since the situations at Yale, Ithaca and Missouri have played out. Last year, two incidents at the “spirit rock,” – one where Alpha Kappa Alpha, an historically black sorority, was the target of racial and gendered slurs from the fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha, another where the word “Black” was painted over from the original phrase “Black Lives Matter” – ignited campus protests.

This year, further examples of racism, both online and most recently toward an Egyptian student named Mahmoud Hashem, who had the words “killed Paris” written under his dorm room name tag, coupled with the wish to show solidarity and understanding with the students of Missouri, Yale and Ithaca, have brought the issue of racism back to the forefront on the Storrs campus.

There are many facets to this conversation. Ali made note of the role of fraternities in these instances, as well as years past, mentioning the University of Oklahoma SAE chapter chant: “There will never be a n----- in SAE!”

“At Yale, their administration is saying this is a liberal space, we’re not going to police costumes, that’s what it (racism) looks like at Yale,” Ali said. “At Missouri, which has a very different history, it looks like outright – you are the n-word. At UConn, you see Greek life, which has always been a microagression towards people of color… their history and nature of organizations have to be taken into question.”

Rose looked to the corporatization of the American university as a factor in the recent wave of campus activism, especially in terms of administrative response.

“There are financial obligations to run a university, and if we’re speaking frankly, the majority of the students here (at UConn) are white,” Rose said. “The majority of students here have a certain type of privilege, and that’s where the money’s being generated from, so if you alienate a certain group it’s pretty risky, in terms of admission, applications, the support that you get from funders, so the administrators are dealing with that, and they’re dealing with that pressure of ‘how do I address the concerns of this group of students without alienating a whole army of funding and support?’”

Ali, Cazenave and Rose are confident that things are changing at UConn and throughout the U.S. due to increased attention from media and students. For example, Herbst has addressed students directly through email as well as through the press on the topic of diversity in recent weeks. 

Furthermore, many administrators showed up to the Islamophobia solidarity event on Monday of this week and Herbst sent out an email supportive of the event the same day. Cazenave did criticize Herbst for the timely hiring of a “Chief Diversity Officer” immediately after Wolfe’s resignation, as well as her letters in support of protests the day of their happening, calling it “slick and calculating rather than caring.”

When asked to compare the protest movements at Missouri, Yale, Ithaca and UConn, both Ali and Rose said that the intensity of UConn’s have been a bit less for various reasons.

“I don’t think the activist community at UConn, or people of color at UConn, understand the weight that we hold in this space,” Ali said. “It’s just like business as usual here. We never felt like it was this wild change, and maybe that’s in the demands, maybe that’s in the organizing, but it’s a learning experience moving forward.”

Rose blamed it on both a lack of unity on UConn’s campus and a lack of cohesive demands.

“When a racist event happens, like the rock painting, one group will react to it – probably the group that’s mostly affected by it, or other similar groups – and that group is told by the bigger UConn community that they’re being overly sensitive…because people don’t realize the degree to which this is affecting us,” Rose said.

“If there’s any ambiguity to the demands that we make, which is what happened last year, that leaves it up to interpretation, and therefore, it leaves it up to inaction,” Rose added.

Racism solidarity and protest events are taking place at many institutions of higher education recently and presently, including Loyola University Chicago, John Hopkins Univeristy, Claremont McKenna College and Smith College, to name several.


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.