Bankole: Universities need plan to take on hate

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

When racially offensive materials are found on college campuses we need administrators to do more than issue a press release. We need a plan of action to combat such incidences.

That’s because the recent racist materials and graffiti that were discovered at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti sought to do one thing: undermine the value of racial diversity and to devalue the lives of black students and other people of color.

The message from the fliers discovered Sept. 26 at UM was to make black students feel like they don’t belong.

The attempt to torment black students and make them feel inferior to their white counterparts was also reflected in the KKK graffiti found Sept. 20 on an administrative building at EMU.

Because these racist incidents are happening at a time when colleges are being asked to make inclusion a cornerstone of their mission, it is all the more important for university administrators to have a plan in place to deal with such issues.

EMU president James Smith in a campus message condemned the graffiti as a “racist and thoughtless act which runs completely counter to the values of our highly diverse EMU community.” He also promised a thorough investigation by university police to determine who was behind it with a $5,000 reward for tips leading to the culprit.

Luke Adrian Thompson, a second-year African-American student and member of the EMU student government, wants more than just condemnation.

“I believe the administration could do more to foster an inclusive atmosphere on campus. I would endorse a day or week in which diversity is the focus in all classes on campus,” Thompson said. “Also more campus wide discussions would be beneficial for our students, faculty and staff in order to have an important dialogue about the issues we face as a community. I would invite our elected leaders to join us in these conversations.”

EMU spokesman Geoff Larcom said the administration’s objective is to support “our students, employees and community by engaging in opportunities for broader dialogue about racism and the issues behind the racist incident.”

He said the administration and faculty are planning a daylong program on racism, diversity and inclusion on Nov. 2.

At the University of Michigan, while campus police are investigating the reported fliers, more than 300 faculty members have already signed a petition in support of black students and condemned the hate speech.

UM president Mark Schlissel, who held a town hall Oct. 2 with students, called the fliers an “act of terrorism” and said that “hateful messages have no place at the University of Michigan. They are an attack on all of us who value constructive dialogue and a welcoming university environment.”

Schlissel said, “Behavior that seeks to intentionally cause pain to members of our community is reprehensible. It violates basic human decency and goes against the values of our university. Many students have told us that they are in great pain. They experience these messages on a very personal level and in the context of violence and discrimination happening across our nation.”

Schlissel, who was appointed in 2014 and has made diversity and inclusion a central part of his mission, announced an $85 million commitment Oct. 6 to boost racial diversity at the university.

The university’s provost, Martha Pollack, organized a show of solidarity Oct. 4 with faculty members at the campus to protest the tormenting fliers. She said the university has been working diligently for the last year to address issues of diversity and inclusion.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald last week said the school also launched the Expect Respect campaign regarding civil discourse on campus. Development of the campaign started before the racist materials emerged, and the timing of the incident has given it a boost.

“The campaign promotes free speech that is inclusive,” Fitzgerald said.

Wayne State University Police Chief Tony Holt said his department is monitoring what is happening on other campuses.

“We are observing how different law enforcement agencies on campuses are responding to these incidents. These cowardly acts, hidden under the cloak of anonymity, are reflective of a larger issue taking place in our society,” Holt said. “We must always send a message that these acts to intimidate other students and make them feel insecure and inferior on campus will not be tolerated.

“But we also need an open dialogue on issues of race in our campuses because the key issue here is not building the bridge after these incidents but before they occur.”

Mark Bernstein, a regent for the University of Michigan, said universities must encourage different viewpoints.

“We have a lot to teach on our campus and beyond about honoring divergent views but doing so constructively with respect and decency,” Bernstein said.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM weekdays at noon. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.