Schlissel: Racist fliers at UM an ‘act of terrorism’

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — A week after racist fliers emerged on the University of Michigan campus, President Mark Schlissel made a strong public condemnation Wednesday, calling them an “act of terrorism.”

“In a way, these posters, (can be interpreted) as an act of terrorism,” Schlissel said. “The only way to combat that is with support and solidarity ... and to move forward with a community of allies.”

Schlissel made the comments during a question and answer period after he delivered his vision for UM during the annual leadership breakfast.

He recommended faculty and staff assure UM students they are highly valued and make sure everyone feels included, not just students who are targeted.

“The challenges our students are facing are psychological ones,” Schlissel said. “It’s living in a world where some people are made to believe that they don’t really belong, or that they are different or less-than.

The university president also linked the racial tone of fliers to that of the U.S. presidential campaign.

“We’ve seen that ... more broadly in society during this incredibly unusual and divisive political season. I think that’s contributing to the fragility and challenge that many of us face.”

The current presidential campaign features Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump — a businessman who has come under attack for his disparaging statements on groups of Americans including African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, women, the disabled and more.

Students later reacted with mixed thoughts about Schlissel’s comments.

Connie Freshcorn, a junior from Adrian, said terrorism is hard to pin down and usually involves acts that take people’s lives.

“But I get that he is trying to maintain a strong front against the (racist fliers),” said Freshcorn, adding many students have reacted just as strongly.

Graduate student Gabrielle Sarpy said she was surprised university officials even used the word “racist” was even used to describe the fliers since incidents in the past have been played down.

“It’s obviously racist,” said Sarpy, originally from southern California. “It’s violent. It creates a culture of fear on campus for students of color.”

She added she didn’t think the pushback would have happened had it not been for the work of black UM students, who last year created a hashtag and movement, Being Black at University of Michigan, and also joined with Black Lives Matter effort.

“It’s a backlash,” Sarpy said. “It’s people who’ve seen how powerful that work is and are trying to silence those voices.”

Schlissel has made other strong statements since the Sept. 27 incident, in which racist fliers were found at Haven and Mason halls. One was “Why White Women Shouldn’t Date Black Men,” and another tells “Euro-Americans” to stop “apologizing,” “living in fear” and “denying (their) heritage.” The bottom of the flier included the words “Alt Right,” and “Be White.”

In the wake of the incident, many students have demonstrated. Schlissel invited the campus community to a forum on Sunday to talk about it; he also demonstrated on the Diag with faculty on Tuesday and has tweeted about it, too.

“#Umich allies stepping up and proclaiming that hateful speech and racism have no place amongst the Wolverines,” Schlissel tweeted in a photo where he linked arms with students.

“No one should feel unsafe in our @umich community,” Schlissel said in another tweet. “Help me spread ideas, not hate.”

Schlissel’s comments come the day before the university hosts a summit to release a months-long, multifaceted approach for the university to improve campus diversity. African-American students represented 4.9 percent of the 43,651 students on campus in 2015, according to Rob Sellers, vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs.

However, Schlissel said during his speech that enrollment numbers for 2016-17 were expected in the next week, with an increase in underrepresented minorities, first generation and Pell-eligible students.

“Though we are still not where we want, or need, to be,” Schlissel said.