Condemning hate incidents: Amplifying the issue or addressing it?

Don’t minimize the issue to save face

Caroline+O%27Connor%2FCollegian
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Condemning hate incidents: Amplifying the issue or addressing it?

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian

Caroline O'Connor/Collegian

By Maxwell Zeff, Collegian Columnist

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During the fall semester of the 2018-19 academic year, there were 19 incidents of hate reported on the University of Massachusetts campus. There were swastikas, homophobic and transphobic slurs etched on a student’s door in the John Quincy Adams Tower. The phrase, “Hang Melville N——” was written on bathroom mirrors in the Melville Hall dormitory. Flyers for a white nationalist hate group were posted across campus.

Multiple times last semester, the entire UMass community received emailed statements of condemnation from the Chancellor’s Office regarding particularly horrific incidents. These statements include a brief summary of the incident, a description of how the administration was handling the event, information about support resources for affected students and a clear condemnation of the incidents. These emails went directly into the inboxes of over 28,000 UMass students, an unmatchable bully pulpit that local news organizations can’t replicate. In one statement issued on Nov. 13, 2018, regarding the previously mentioned defacing of a student’s door, Chancellor Subbaswamy pronounced, “Too often this semester, I have shared with you a message like this, condemning acts of hate. I do so because it is important that those individuals who are the objects of such bigotry know that they are not alone – that every one of us who cherishes the rich diversity of our community stands with them and rejects the hatred spewed by a handful of anonymous cowards.”

These emails were always unfortunate to receive but virtuous of the University to send. The administration was addressing the problem, being up front with its students. However, on Jan. 24, the UMass Chancellor’s Office issued a different message stating, “Going forward, we will refrain from regularly issuing campus-wide statements of condemnation. In this way, by no longer amplifying their expressions of hate, we hope to deny the perpetrators of these cowardly acts the attention they crave.” The email went on to say the University will retain transparency through publicly recording all incidents on the online Track Acts of Hate log.

So, what happened? How did these emails go from importantly supporting victims of bigotry to amplifying expressions of hate? These emails were sent within three months of each other, so it seems unlikely that the campus climate changed much within this timeline. But one thing that has changed is the public image of UMass.

Last semester, hateful incidents and student protests on campus received a great deal of local and even national news coverage. An embarrassing story from this fall about the UMass administration telling a student to remove a “F— Nazis” sign from their window because it wasn’t inclusive enough made great waves in national news. It is safe to say it was not a great year for University public relations.

But in spite of all this negative news, Chancellor Subbaswamy revealed a promising, bright future for UMass in an interview with the Boston Globe in early January in which he reveals his hope to turn UMass into an elite university or, in his words, “Cambridge West.” This plan seems to go hand in hand with UMass’ recent rise to the No. 26 public university in America.

A University on its way to becoming one of the best in the nation doesn’t typically want embarrassing news outbreaks regarding hate crimes, students protests and unfortunate administrative decisions. So, has the administration decided it is better to remain silent regarding incidents of hate rather than provoke mass uproar with letters of condemnation? After all, student newspapers and local media don’t reach the student body in the same way that an email from the Chancellor’s Office in every person’s inbox does. It is an unfortunate reality that without the administration taking initiative, overall student awareness of hateful incidents on their own campus would plummet. This could be a possible control strategy of UMass.

However, UMass Executive Director of Strategic Communications Ed Blaguszewski said otherwise. “You need to strike a balance,” he said. “It’s always a judgement call between making sure people are provided support, that there is awareness, but not to give a platform to people that then consumes the community and derails us from our educational business at hand.”

He continued, “As the Chancellor indicated [in the statement from Jan. 24] we don’t want to amplify this bias and hate if we can avoid it.”

Blaguszewski went on to explain how the language of the message from Chancellor Subbaswamy does not mean the emails would completely stop, but rather they will try to figure out “what the best and most effective communication is depending on the circumstances.” He also noted that “We’ve always tried to provide support to the affected students. People don’t work at the University of Massachusetts without caring about the students. It’s all about the students.”

But is it all about the students? UMass sociology professor and social stratification expert David Cort expressed that “It would be wise for the administration to consider how their decisions affect different groups disproportionately.” Professor Cort went on to articulate how tackling the problem of hate at UMass must start with a more serious commitment from the University to increase diversity. “Symposiums and discussions on racism are great, but they’re not going to change the minds of those who feel ill-willed about minorities,” he said. “They’re going to delete the emails. They’re not going to go to events. Changing the makeup of the student body is, yes going to be expensive, but going to be much more effective.”

The entire nation has seen an increase in hate in recent years, and UMass certainly has experienced it’s fair share. The administration must employ new strategies to fight hate and ensure every member of our community feels accepted. Granted, this is easier said than done. The University is bound to make mistakes, and this recent decision to discontinue statements of condemnation was surely one of them. These statements may amplify expressions of hate, but more importantly, they address hateful acts head on and hold the school accountable. As the University reaches toward the elite universities, I ask that it does not do so at the cost of its own virtues. Condemning hate may be messy, but it is the right thing to do. Transparency is not a state but a degree, and the administration’s transparency has been greatly diminished by replacing community-wide notifications with discrete logging on a subsection of a UMass website.

Maxwell Zeff is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]