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President Joel Seligman Response to November 20 Student Petition

November 23, 2015

Ten years ago, I began my service here, emphasizing that diversity is a core value of our University.  I meant by that respect for all students, faculty and staff regardless of race, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or beliefs.  Our aspiration is to create a University that is welcoming and supportive of all in our community.

During the past ten years, we have made progress.  More remains to be done.  It is clear to me that the climate on our campus is not all that it should be.  Some of our students, faculty and staff have experienced instances of hostility, notably recently because of their race.    

I cannot ignore evidence that our campus climate can be improved. 

In recent months, there have been a number of racist postings in social media, most notably in Yik Yak, which provides anonymity to its users in their communications.  In one instance, there was encouragement of sexual assault against a specific individual.  Earlier this year, when a decision was made to extend the right of Douglass Leadership House to continue to operate in our Fraternity Quadrangle, statements were communicated that were racist and threatened violence.        

This is a part of a broader story which also involves faculty, administrators and staff.  Separately, some weeks ago, after receiving reports of some faculty and staff believing that our campus was not sufficiently supportive, I approved administering a campus-wide survey of faculty and staff to assess our campus climate.   This survey will be administered throughout our University beginning early next semester.  Results are anticipated to be available by May.

On November 20th, I received a petition from the Minority Student Advisory Board, the Spanish and Latino Students’ Association, the Douglass Leadership House and the Black Students’ Union requesting that I and the University administration “implement immediate and lasting changes that will reduce intolerable acts of racism that students of color endure at our university.”  Let me commend the students for the order and seriousness of this effort.  The students presented me in my office a list of proposals, each of which will be thoughtfully reviewed.  A march with approximately 150 students around campus was peaceful and entirely consistent with our tradition of academic freedom. 

Because the desire for improvement in our racial climate is fully congruent with University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, I am today announcing a series of specific steps to address the right of all in our community to be part of a community that is safe and supportive.  These steps will address the concerns of minority students, but are intended to be supportive of all in our community, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion or beliefs.                 

 

COMMISSION ON RACE AND DIVERSITY  AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER

I am today announcing the formation of a Presidential Commission on Race and Diversity at the University of Rochester and charging this Commission by the end of January to conduct town hall meetings and provide an initial assessment of four topics:

(1)               What is the state of our campus climate for all races today?

(2)               What programs have strengthened this climate?

(3)               What elements of campus life are not consistent with the healthiest campus climate?

(4)               What are the Commission’s recommendations to improve our community?

These town hall meetings will be scheduled for the River Campus, the Medical Center and the Eastman School of Music.  These town hall meetings will be open to the public.  The initial and subsequent reports will be made available to the public after initial presentation to me and the University Board of Trustees.

The Commission may base its findings and recommendations on written submissions or oral testimony from our students, faculty, staff, alumni, Board of Trustees and our community. 

The Commission’s work will continue throughout the spring semester and include preparation of a final report taking into account the faculty and staff survey that separately will be administered during the spring semester.

I am appointing Paul Burgett, Vice President, Senior Advisor to the President, and University Dean, and Richard Feldman, Dean of the College, as Co-Chairs of this Commission.  The Commission will be composed of administrators and staff, faculty and students.  Specifically, today I am appointing the following administrators and staff to the Commission:  Linda Chaudron, Associate Vice President and Senior Associate Dean for Inclusion and Culture Development at the Medical Center; Myra Henry, Director of Administrative Services for River Campus Libraries; Vivian Lewis, Deputy to the President and Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity; Anthony Kinslow, Associate Vice President for Human Resources; and Gail Norris, Vice President and General Counsel.  The Commission will include faculty members, one of whom will be a Co-Chair or a designee of the Faculty Senate and one of whom will be the Chair or a designee of the Medical Faculty Council.  I also will ask the Faculty Senate in consultation with the Medical Faculty Council to recommend two other faculty members.  The Commission will include students, one of whom will be Grant Dever, the President of the Students’ Association; one student identified by the College minority student leadership; one student identified by student leadership in the Medical Center; and one student identified by student leadership in the Eastman School of Music.  I will participate in the Commission as an ex officio member, attending town hall meetings and the organizational meeting of the Commission.     

An announcement of the full membership of the Commission will be made within the next few days. 

An initial organizational meeting will be held no later than December 4.        

                         

YIK YAK

At our campus and elsewhere throughout the country, anonymous social media such as Yik Yak frequently have been controversial.  On many occasions, the messages sent through these media are innocent or helpful.  On some occasions, here and elsewhere, the anonymity of the messaging system has emboldened senders to disseminate hateful messages that they would not circulate in person or if their identities were known. 

Yik Yak itself is aware of this potential and voluntarily has agreed to “geo-fence” or disable its apps around 90 percent of the nation’s high schools and middle schools.

Yik Yak also has created filters to prevent full names from being posted and to request that senders reconsider messages which contain specific key words before they are sent.

I am not satisfied that Yik Yak has been sufficiently responsible in working with our university and other universities and colleges to address hate speech.    

I today am charging the University Commission on Race and Diversity to recommend by January 31st whether we should bar Yik Yak  from use over University facilities. 

While no step that we can take to bar Yik Yak from use over University wireless networks will prevent users from sending or receiving messages through alternative means, our participation in the dissemination of hate speech is not required by the First Amendment. 

A university or college has a responsibility to create a safe and welcoming community for all of its members.  The challenge here is to harmonize that responsibility with modern technology and freedom of expression. 

 

THE UNDERLYING ISSUES

The fundamental purpose of the creation of the Commission on Race and Diversity is to address the broader questions of how we best can create an environment that is safe, supportive and welcoming for all in our community.  We cannot be blind to the reality that certain members of our community because of their race are the object of unacceptable hate speech on our campus and elsewhere.  I have charged the Commission with an aggressive schedule precisely because I believe these issues are serious and deserve our focused attention.  At the same time, decisions which bear upon our entire community and also implicate the core value of academic freedom must take into account the views of all at our University and not be made in undue haste.

Nonetheless, even before the Commission’s initial report, there are specific steps that now can be taken that and that I am directing to be implemented:

First, for some time, the undergraduate College has been working to develop a Bias Related Incident reporting system, similar to our CARE system, which provides reports about students who may need emotional or academic support.  This system was scheduled to become operative in the near future.  I today am directing David Lewis, Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, and Gail Norris to work with the College to implement this system no later than the beginning of the next academic semester in January 2016.

Second, last year, after a formal launch at the White House, “It’s on Us,” a national campaign of public awareness and education to prevent campus sexual assault, was the focus of student efforts on our campus, including a notable video.  I today am directing Norman Burnett, Assistant Dean and Director of our Office of Minority Student Affairs, and Beth Olivares, Dean for Diversity Initiatives and Director of our David T. Kearns Center, to support efforts by the Students’ Association, students at the Eastman School of Music and others to create a comparable effort to address hate speech based on race.  Racism has no place at the University of Rochester.  We should take the lead in creating a national model in fighting racism and championing respect for all in our community.

Third, I today am directing Gail Norris to review our Student Code of Conduct to determine whether additional provisions should be added to address hate speech.  The Office of General Counsel recently completed a review of our Sexual Misconduct Policy.  A review of our Discrimination and Harassment Policy is now in order.

Fourth, I am directing Richard Feldman to review Part 3 of the November 20 student petition and discuss with the students who presented to me this petition what steps the College now can take to address these concerns. 

These are initial steps.  I look forward to the Commission on Race and Diversity addressing further initiatives that can strengthen our community.

I would be remiss if I did not articulate the profound disappointment that I and so many associated with our University feel when we see or read the ugly and mean-spirited statements that have been posted through Yik Yak and other means on our campus.  Words matter.  They can wound.  I urge those who are inclined to send this type of message in a public medium to bear in mind that ugliness begets more ugliness.  This is not the climate in which we want to live.  Mutual respect and mutual pride is what all of us should most want to strengthen at the University of Rochester and at each institution in our lives.  Working together we can further strengthen a University that is welcoming and supportive of all in our community.