Tools Search Main Menu

Joel Seligman Response to Commission on Race and Diversity Interim Report

February 3, 2016

Let me express my gratitude to the Presidential Commission on Race and Diversity for its hard work and candor in addressing how we can make our campus safer and more welcoming for students, faculty and staff of all races.  Since the Commission was established on November 23, 2015, the Commission has met frequently, held eight public town hall meetings, collected detailed data, including inventories of existing programs that support an inclusive campus community, and prepared the attached Interim Report.  I want to particularly thank co-chairs Paul Burgett and Richard Feldman for helping lead an important, but difficult, conversation about race relations and diversity on our campus. 

Read the commission's interim report >>

During the past decade we have made significant progress in terms of the diversity of our campus.  I began as University President by characterizing diversity as a core value of the University of Rochester.  We have acted consistent with that value.  Between 2006 and 2014, the latest date for which we have data available, for example, the number of underrepresented minority faculty has grown from 37 to 76 (2.6 to 3.9 percent), the number of underrepresented minority staff in Grade 50 and above has increased from 139 to 333 (5 to 7 percent), underrepresented minority students across the university have increased from 674 to 1,053 (7.6 to 9.6 percent).  In those years the University has established an Office for Faculty Diversity and Development that administers a Special Opportunity Fund and works with Faculty Diversity Officers in each school to help ensure that the University’s inclusive community goals can be met.  As the Commission Report documents, there are numerous activities and programs, several started or expanded during the past ten years, to support minority students, diversity, student affinity groups of virtually every race, religion, or nationality and to increase outreach to the greater Rochester community, most recently illustrated by the commitment of the Warner School to act as superintendent of East High School. 

While we have made progress, there is more work to be done to make our campus safer and welcoming and supportive of all in our community.  Our commitment to persons of all races and to diversity is unwavering.           

I created the Commission in part in response to communications from students, particularly minority students in the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering, who emphasized that they felt fear as a result of “intolerable acts of racism that students of color endure.”  These fears had a documented basis.  In February of 2015, after academic living center housing privileges were renewed for Douglass Leadership House, which is located in our Fraternity Quadrangle, I was informed of a series of vicious and threatening statements that were posted anonymously on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media application.  These included statements that proposed “burning” people of a specific race and committing sexual violence against one named individual.  We referred these statements to the Monroe County District Attorney to investigate whether they violated the criminal laws.  The District Attorney issued a subpoena.   

In November 2015, approximately 100 students, faculty and staff held a peaceful protest march to communicate, among other things, their frustration that they had not heard further about this investigation. 

In November we again contacted the District Attorney, who reissued the subpoena.  It is our understanding that Yik Yak is now cooperating with the District Attorney in this ongoing investigation.

Throughout the fall 2015 semester, one additional hateful Yik Yak statement was brought to my attention, which stated in part that  specified races were “so damn entitled it makes me wanna stab them all asap.” 

Statements like this, whether in Yik Yak or any other means of communication, have no place on our campus.  It is one thing for people to disagree with each other.  It is quite another to threaten violence.  A first priority of every university must be to ensure the safety of all in its community.

I also created the Commission in response to concerns that some faculty and staff felt marginalized because of their race, a concern which earlier had led me to approve administration of campus-wide surveys of faculty, staff and students to assess our campus climate.  These surveys will be administered beginning in mid-February.

I believe that everyone has the right to feel safe and supported on our campus. But it is clear that on occasion through conscious racist communications and more often through unconscious ones, we have sometimes undercut the safety and security that all are entitled to feel.

Today, I accept several of the initial recommendations of the Commission and express my gratitude to those throughout the University who have taken other steps to strengthen the safety and inclusiveness of our campus. These initial steps focus on students.  Further recommendations with respect to students and to faculty and staff will be made in a final report after the faculty, staff and student surveys are completed.

          Specifically:

  • The Office of the Dean of Students has taken the lead in implementing a Bias-Related Incidents reporting program as part of our CARE Report system and has created a Bias-Related Incident Executive Team to coordinate responses and/or communications with the University community when necessary.
  • Norman Burnett, Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs, and Beth Olivares, Dean for Diversity Initiatives and Director of the David T. Kearns Center, are helping to create and implement a campaign to address racism on our campus similar to the national campaign last year to combat sexual assault known as “It’s on Us.”  To date 70 individuals have met with a working group and expressed interest in helping prepare a proposal by mid-March using the motto “We’re better than THAT.”  The campaign will focus on education programs throughout the campus and using video, website and social media.   
  • We anticipate that further space will be made available for student groups in our community generally after the renovation of the Frederick Douglass Building and the completion of the Paul J. Burgett Intercultural Center.
  • Currently cultural groups at the College receive allocations from the Students Association.  A new Diversity Programming Fund open to groups of all races, religions, sexual orientation or nationality will be established with a $30,000 initial budget coordinated by the Paul J. Burgett Intercultural Center.
  • Each year offices throughout the University go through an annual budgeting process.  In the coming year, plans are underway to expand the staff support in the Paul J. Burgett Intercultural Center and to provide additional enrichment fund support for the Office of Minority Affairs and the David T. Kearns Center.
  • Several steps are being taken to strengthen the Frederick Douglass Institute, including expansion of the existing curriculum on African American Studies, the addition of new fellows, the implementation of a new study abroad program aligned with this major and completion of an additional tenure track tenure position. 
  • The College has taken the lead in changing the process of evaluation eligibility for student groups to be housed in our Academic Living Centers to align more closely with the eligibility standards for our fraternities.  In both cases, current occupants will have the right to continue in a designated house as long as they satisfy specified ongoing expectations, such as those of occupancy and alignment with College Communal Principles.
  • I anticipate by the final report further progress with respect to the Student Code of Conduct after I receive recommendations from the University General Counsel.

The most heated and divisive conversation to date has concerned Yik Yak.  The Commission recommended nine steps that can be implemented if Yik Yak continues to operate on the University wi-fi network.  The Commission also recommended that Yik Yak communications be banned from use of the University wi-fi networks. 

At this time, I will support several steps to eliminate racist communications from Yik Yak being transmitted through the University wi-fi networks, but I will not now support a ban.

No one should understate the significance of these hateful statements.  No one should be singled out to be “killed,” “stabbed” or otherwise violated or injured on our campus.  These types of hateful statements not only cause pain, but undermine our sense of community. In the case of Yik Yak, an anonymous social medium, the person posting such hateful messages could be sitting next to you, living down the hall in your residence hall or simply passing through our campus.

Nonetheless, to ban Yik Yak from University wi-fi networks would be ineffectual and counterproductive.  Hateful statements could still be posted to Yik Yak using a user’s own wireless network provider or on other social networks using aliases or assumed names. Significantly, to ban Yik Yak from our wi-fi networks likely would end our ability to secure Yik Yak’s support in helping identify those who send hateful statements and to strengthen filters to exclude hateful or threatening messages. 

I believe a ban would be misdirected.  A ban would  reduce our ability to hold those individuals personally accountable for their hateful messages.  This should be a priority, rather than attempting to block an app in which the overwhelming preponderance of  posts are neutral or positive.      

Banning Yik Yak is not merely a symbolic act. Academic freedom is also a core value of our University. If I were to ban Yik Yak from using the University’s wi-fi networks, I would begin a new and unbounded process by which my defense of the free expression rights of our faculty members, the student newspaper, speaker selection, faculty hiring would be undercut. 

It is because of these types of reasons that only a small handful of other universities and colleges have banned Yik Yak.   

Under current circumstances, while the number of hateful statements transmitted through Yik Yak during the last six months is small and has declined, I will directly or through the leadership of the College implement a series of steps to move toward the elimination or virtual elimination of any further hateful and threatening messages communicated through Yik Yak.  These steps will include: 

  • I will directly or with our General Counsel have further communication with Yik Yak to specifically address strengthening filters to exclude hateful and threatening speech.
  • I will invite a representative of Yik Yak to our campus to speak to our community about how their app is taking steps to ensure that they do not communicate hateful and threatening speech.
  • I will charge the College with encouraging “down-voting” any hateful or threatening messages that do nonetheless appear in Yik Yak and to coordinate this effort with our new Bias-Related Incident program.
  • We will continue to contact the Monroe County District Attorney and Yik Yak whenever a hateful or threatening message is communicated that may violate the criminal laws.

The issues addressed by the Commission on Race and Diversity are among the most profound and complex that we as a University and our nation as a whole today face. They have been complex and often divisive in our country for centuries.  The Interim Report of the Commission provides a basis to amplify our commitment to making our University a safer and ever better institution.  This is not easy work.  But we all benefit from the candor and hard work of those who are members of the Commission and the hundreds who have attended Commission town hall meetings.  I commit my support to furthering the determination of all those at our University to making our campus one that is supportive and inclusive for all members of our community. 

When I began as President some ten years ago, I stressed that the challenge of achieving diversity based on mutual respect and mutual trust would be a never ending one.

With this Report and with the future Final Report of the Commission on Race and Diversity, we take substantial steps forward.