After he suspended classes for a day and launched an investigation into anonymous hate speech directed at Western Washington University’s students of color, WWU President Bruce Shepard got an earful from critics.
While many people on campus supported his decision, others told him he’d overreacted, or said the threatened students should have brushed off the anonymous comments.
“I think that’s the wrong way to think about this stuff,” Shepard said Monday. “I think that really misses the point.” The point, he believes, is that racism is widespread, and that it’s wrong to ask people of color to deal with it by growing a thicker skin.
Tuesday marked WWU’s first regular day since Shepard suspended classes Nov. 24, a day after anonymous hate speech directed at Western students spread on social-media sites.
And while Shepard says it was “absolutely the right call, given what we knew,” he has asked an outside consultant to review the decision and the events leading up to it.
One student was arrested, and the investigation is now closed, Shepard said.
Shepard said he’s been concerned for several years that higher-education institutions haven’t been doing a good job of combating racism and inequity. In April 2014, his call for greater racial diversity at Western prompted a backlash among conservative critics. And even before the November incident, Western had started to offer equity and inclusion training to faculty and staff, a smorgasbord of classes aimed at improving empathy and reducing subtle and overt discrimination.
One class, for example, has participants work through a series of exercises that reveal the biases they hold, and teaches how to guard against those biases.
Since the incident, enrollment in the voluntary classes has increased dramatically, Shepard said.
“Some of these conversations are going to fail, maybe even blow up in our face,” he said. “I don’t care. That’s how you learn.”
So far, there’s no plan to expand that training to students. But Shepard said that will likely come later this year. He’s waiting to hear from a consultant, and to compile the results of surveys on campus climate that are associated with the training.
The November hate-speech incident occurred shortly after student-government leaders talked about opening a discussion on whether the school’s mascot, a Viking, was inclusive.
Soon afterward, profanity-laced hate speech directed at students of color began appearing on social media. One of the posts, on the anonymous social messaging application Yik Yak, said: “Let’s lynch her.”
Those words, investigators believe, referred to student-body President Belina Seare, who is black.
On Nov. 30, Bellingham police arrested WWU sophomore Tysen Campbell, who is white, and charged him with malicious harassment for the online threat. A court date has not yet been set.
Campbell also remains suspended from WWU, and his case is being reviewed as part of the student conduct process.
Seare has declined to speak about the incident publicly, except during a brief news conference Nov. 25.
Although Shepard believes suspending classes was the right call, he’s sorry his email message — which he wrote in the wee hours of the morning and sent campuswide around 6 a.m. — struck the wrong chord among students who believed their lives were in danger.
Students said they were dismayed by Shepard’s characterization of the campus as generally safe.
“It isn’t the clearest piece of prose I ever wrote,” Shepard said, adding that he was told by police he couldn’t be more specific about the nature of the threat.
Given his training as a political scientist, Shepard — who has served as Western’s president since 2008 — said he believes the students’ response to the insults and threats is part of a much larger, society-wide movement against what he describes as the “utter banality of racism” — the everyday slights, as well as outright expressions of hatred, aimed at people of color. Now, Shepard says, people of color “are unwilling to settle for the status quo.”
He believes universities need to do a better job of preparing all students “to be successful in an increasingly diverse world.” That means developing a better sense of empathy — a quality that, not incidentally, is also sought by employers, he said.
Shepard said he thinks the country is waking up from a period of time when it believed it had solved its most egregious racial issues — a post-racial period, when color wasn’t thought to matter.
Events of recent years — including a string of police shootings in which white officers shot unarmed black men — have turned that idea on its head, he said.
At the same time, the widespread availability of social media means some believe they can say anything they want, no matter how outrageous, and get away with it because the comments are anonymous.
“I’m glad, when I was 18 and saying stupid things, that there wasn’t a way to broadcast that,” he said.
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