MSU president: 'We will be responsive' to racially charged incidents

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Michigan State University seeks a "safe, inclusive and respectful campus," the school's president said in a letter Tuesday, addressing recent controversial or racially insensitive incidents that have spurred anger on campus and plans for a student protest.

“These situations have disrupted a sense of safety that should exist for everyone. Building inclusive communities is at the core of our values, and the impact of recent events cannot be underestimated,” MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. wrote.

Samuel Stanley, president of MSU, told students in an emailed letter Tuesday: “I want to personally let you know the concerns of our campus community are being taken seriously."

“I want to personally let you know the concerns of our campus community are being taken seriously."

Stanley referred to incidents all reported in the last week: a professor’s online survey that included comments perceived as racially incendiary, a suspected noose found in a dormitory and vandalism reported at the Jewish student center.

"Investigations by both the MSU Police Department and our Office of Institutional Equity are taking place, and we are providing support to those who are affected. We will be responsive to these issues and will not ignore the effect they are having on our community. It is important to hold ourselves accountable for being respectful, culturally sensitive and informed."

A supposed noose made of toilet paper hanging from the door of a Michigan State University door room. The photo, posted on Facebook, went viral since it's Oct. 18 posting and sparked first-year president Samuel Stanley to release a statement to the campus community condemning it and other racially charged incidents.

The letter came a day after Saleem Alhabash, an associate professor of public relations and social media in the MSU College of Communications Arts & Sciences, took down his controversial survey following outcry. The questionnaire was sent to some students starting last week in an effort, Alhabash said, to evaluate social media posts involving race, ethnicity and cultural issues.

Each of the comments in the survey were drawn from social media, he told The Detroit News.

A screenshot a student shared with The News showed one message that used a racial slur for African-Americans. 

Students were asked to rate the comment with responses ranging from “not at all funny” to “not at all positive.”

Some students objected on Twitter to the study.  

“I don’t care about the context of the study, y’all thought this was gonna go over well less than a week after y’all minimized a noose on a door?” one tweeted.

On Friday, a student living in Bryan Hall posted a picture on her Facebook page of what she described as a toilet paper noose taped to a door. “There are only 4 black people on this floor,” the student, Iyana Cobbs, wrote. “And yes, our door is the ONLY door that had this on there.”

Some students believed MSU officials’ initial notices about the incident appeared to downplay the incident as a joke.

In a follow-up campus community email this week obtained by The News, Ray Gasser, executive director of residence education and housing services, said students who came forward described the issue as a part of a Halloween prank, but “I should have fully shared this in my email update on Sunday to better clarify that we were representing the information shared with us, and in no way would MSU or our department regard a noose as” such.

On Tuesday, the MSU Black Students’ Alliance described the two incidents as racially insensitive and called on the university to take more action.

“When will enough be enough?” the group said in a statement. “When will the university begin to establish and maintain measures of accountability when it comes to events like these that attack marginalized members of its community?”

Alhabash said he removed his survey, which is part of his research on digital aggression involving identity issues, immediately after receiving complaints.

“The intent of the survey was not to stir any controversy or negative feelings,” he said. “I fully apologize that this has caused the impact it has. … It is unfortunate that it unfolded in this part way.”

Gasser’s email said his department immediately acted and reported the dorm incident to MSU police and the Office of Institutional Equity.

In his letter Tuesday, Stanley said: “Any member of the MSU community found responsible for a bias incident will face disciplinary action in accordance with university policies.”

Stanley also said he planned to "continue to work with students and others in the campus community as we undergo a strategic planning process, including an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. Your feedback will be critical to this plan moving forward."

But others say the incidents underscore the need for stricter diversity and cultural guidelines, as well as better communication with students.

“I think it’s very important that we all get together and speak out since MSU has a history of these types of events taking place on campus,” said Makenna Carpenter, a freshman from Bloomfield Hills. “Everyone is disappointed in the university. I know the majority of people just want change.”

The response prompted Carpenter and other students to plan a protest 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Hannah Administration building on campus, calling for “No More Covering Up Hate Crimes.”

“Their response time to condemn those incidents is so slow,” the 18-year-old said. “It’s disappointing. … This university should be protecting us.”

She pointed out MSU Hillel reported vandalism last weekend, as Stanley referenced in his letter Tuesday.

In a Facebook message, the center for Jewish student life said two men trespassed on the property and destroyed a Sukkah, a structure that represents temporary dwellings ancient Israelites constructed and typically is displayed during the Sukkot fall holiday.

MSU Hillel said on Facebook that East Lansing police were working with them to help identify the pair.

The incident was “devastating,” said Carpenter, who is Jewish and has frequented the space. It also forced her to consider whether she or her brother could be targeted because of their faith. 

“Not being able to feel safe somewhere, that’s scary,” she said.