Western Pennsylvania universities are reassuring incoming students that college campuses are no place for hate and ramping up efforts to foster safe environments as national conversations intensify around racism and bigotry.
On Friday, Pitt sent a letter to students that included a call to action to commit “to mutual respect, civility, self-restraint and concern for others.”
“In the days after the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., I am reminded of the burden of hate and violence,” wrote Kenyon Bonner, Pitt’s dean of students and vice provost.
“I call upon you to do more than pursue personal bests,” Bonner continued. “I call upon you to aspire to be the global citizens and leaders that our campus and the world needs.”
On Wednesday, a week before freshmen move-in day, Carlow University held a “prayer service of healing and unity” in the McAuley Chapel on the fifth floor of the University Commons at its Oakland campus.
“More opportunities for group dialogue will begin within the next weeks,” Carlow President Suzanne Mellon wrote Monday in an email to the Carlow community. “As students arrive on campus this week, let’s all reach out to welcome all those who will be members of our community. We must continue to act and speak out.”
Around the country, higher education officials have expressed concerns that far-right extremist groups have found fertile ground to spread their messages and attract new followers. For many schools, the rally in Virginia served as a warning that these groups no longer will limit their efforts to social media or to fliers furtively posted around campus.
Earlier this week, Texas A&M University canceled plans for a “White Lives Matter” rally in September and the University of Florida denied a request for white nationalist Richard Spencer to rent space on campus for a September event. Spencer and his supporters are promising court challenges.
The Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas, a self-described “alt-right” nonprofit educational group, says it’s offering legal assistance to students caught hanging up posters or flyers containing “hate facts.” The “alt-right” is a fringe movement loosely mixing white nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigration populism.
Expecting more rallies to come, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is planning a series of training events to help campus police prepare.
The Anti-Defamation League counted 161 white supremacist “fliering incidents” on 110 college campuses between September and June. Oren Segal, director of the group’s Center on Extremism, said the culprits can’t be dismissed as harmless trolls.
Matthew Heimbach, 26, leader of the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker Party, told the Associated Press that dropping leaflets on campuses is a cheap way to generate media coverage.
“A dollar worth of paper, if it triggers the right person, can become $100,000 in media attention,” Heimbach said.
Officials from several Pittsburgh-area universities told the Trib they weren’t aware of any “fliering incidents” or “alt-right” groups targeting their campuses.
“We’re not presently aware of any activity of this type,” Pitt spokesman Joe Miksch said.
At Seton Hill University in Greensburg, officials will continue to respond to concerns around intolerance through programs that bring diverse groups together to discuss complex issues, spokeswoman Jennifer Reeger said.
Among examples: a campus ministry program started last year to provide education about all types of religious beliefs; a weekly interfaith Prayer for Peace service; and an international personal story exchange program to promote tolerance and empathy.
“We value diversity and the benefit brought by multiple cultures and perspectives living and learning together in our search for truth,” said Reeger.
On the eve of Saturday’s rally, young white men wearing khakis and white polo shirts marched through the University of Virginia’s campus, holding torches as they chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans. The next morning, many donned helmets and shields and clashed with counter-protesters before a car drove into the crowd, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others .
“Together, we must take action to fight the hatred that was displayed in Charlottesville whenever and wherever we encounter it,” Mellon of Carlow wrote on Monday.
“We must actively counter hatred with acts of goodness — and denounce racism directly,” Mellon continued.
Campus leaders say they walk a fine line when trying to combat messages from hate groups. Many strive to protect speech even if it’s offensive but also recognize hate speech can make students feel unsafe. Some schools have sought to counter extremist messages with town halls and events promoting diversity. Others try to avoid drawing attention to hate speech.
“We work very hard, no matter what the circumstances in the outside world, to maintain an inclusive environment on campus where people feel safe to express different viewpoints in a respectful and peaceful manner,” said Robert Morris University spokesman Jonathan Potts. He said he was not aware of any white supremacy or “alt-right” groups causing issues at the campus in Moon.
The Associated Press contributed. Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.
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