Originally published for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Since the beginning of the fall semester, a series of racist intrusions has unsettled the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the surrounding town. The most recent was on Tuesday, when posters were found on campus that read, "We must secure the existence of our race and a future for white children. Make America White Again."
Students have responded with protests of the message as well as of the university’s response. The administration contends that it’s nearly impossible to discourage culprits who may not be associated with the university. And banning the material from campus would bring the First Amendment into play.
At a time when racist fliers have been reported on more than 120 campuses, the tension between Michigan and its students holds lessons for academic leaders nationwide.
In August swastikas and phrases such as "Jews Die" were spray-painted in a skate park in downtown Ann Arbor. At the beginning of September, on the Rock, a landmark close to the campus, spray paint was used to scrawl "F— Latinos" and "MAGA," for Make America Great Again, a campaign slogan of President Trump.
Later in September, in the West Quad Residence Hall, the doors to the rooms of three black students were vandalized with the N-word written on the students’ name tags.
In response, the university’s president, Mark Schlissel, tweeted that "Racism has no place" at Michigan. The campus police department is investigating the latter incident, said Diane Brown, a department spokesperson.
Meanwhile, a poster was found in downtown Ann Arbor saying, "Free Dylann Roof," the gunman who killed nine black people in a Charleston, S.C., church. He is currently on death row.
Following these various incidents, protests erupted on campus. On September 20, students marched with signs bearing the hashtag "#BBUM," for "Being Black at the University of Michigan." The protest took place after student leaders met with Mr. Schlissel to offer suggestions for preventing hate speech. Tyler Washington, a freshman, told The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, that her ideas "were not acknowledged" by the president. Some students complained that the campus police force wasn’t updating students enough about the investigation.
A few days later, a group of students blockaded buses to disrupt the flow of campus traffic. And a graduate student named Dana Greene knelt for almost 24 hours in solidarity with NFL players who have been taken a knee during the national anthem. He was joined at various times by other students and faculty members.
‘Culture of Fear’
Students and faculty members have demanded that the administration identify and punish the perpetrators in the racist incidents. Attacks that are "nameless and faceless" create a "culture of fear," says Elizabeth James, faculty adviser of Michigan’s Black Student Union and a program associate in the department of Afro-American and American studies. As it is, students of color don’t know whom to trust, she said.
Meeting those demands can be difficult, however, when some cases are considered crimes and others merely "biased incidents," said Ms. Brown. When a crime is committed, such as when name tags are vandalized, the campus police will "conduct a full investigation,’’ she said. Otherwise, the Office of Student Conflict Resolution or the Office for Institutional Equity will investigate. Off-campus cases of vandalism are handled by Ann Arbor authorities.
Rick Fitzgerald, a university spokesperson, said that it’s difficult as well to identify individuals who aren’t associated with the university. Public kiosks for posting fliers are available 24/7, he noted, and even if those posting racist material were identified, he added, "I’m not sure there would be a violation involved."
American University, in Washington, experienced a similar incident last week, when someone attached cotton to Confederate flags at various locations. Surveillance images appeared to indicate that the culprit was someone from off-campus.
Students and faculty members have also asked that the administration be more "accessible to people," said Nando Felten, a sophomore who helped organize the bus-stop protest. He said that Mr. Schlissel should have shown up at Mr. Greene’s protest, given the strain on the student — he was "kneeling for 21 hours and peeing in a bottle under a canopy."
Ellen Muehlberger, an associate professor of history, echoed Mr. Felten’s request when she tweeted that she’d be glad to see President Schlissel join in:
Mr. Fitzgerald, the university spokesman, said "there isn’t any misunderstanding from our president and all the leadership at the university" that the racist acts "are inconsistent with our values of the university and they have no place here."
On Tuesday, Mr. Schlissel denounced the incidents at a breakfast for student leaders. He called the attacks "expressions of racism and bigotry," commended Mr. Greene’s protest, and said hate speech has "no place at the University of Michigan."
Another difficulty the university faces in dealing with these incidents is the tension between prohibiting offensive speech and not stifling free speech. Michigan is a "different environment, with lots of different perspectives, and navigating that is not automatic," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
University officials cannot remove fliers, even if they contain hate speech, from designated posting areas considered "content neutral," he said.
Mr. Felten said that while the university has a responsibility to uphold free speech, "it crosses the line when people are being affected by this," when students "don’t feel safe to study and learn."
When these incidents were occurring, many Michigan students were taking their midterm exams.