As Slurs and Offenses Multiply, Colleges Scramble to Respond


September 9, 2013

As Slurs and Offenses Multiply, Colleges Scramble to Respond


The Etownian

Diane Elliott, director of diversity at Elizabethtown College, spoke at a campus forum on intolerance in April.

By Casey McDermott

On a whiteboard on Stephen Boyhont’s dorm-room door at Elizabethtown College, somebody scrawled “fag.” At the University of Texas at Austin, Taylor Carr was the target of racial slurs and balloons that appeared to be full of bleach. Danny Valdes encountered what he describes as “intense transphobia” at Dartmouth College, both on campus and online.

Reports of such incidents arise each semester at colleges around the country: Somebody discovers discriminatory graffiti or vandalism of a cultural center. An organization advertises a theme party that caricatures a particular race or ethnicity. Walking across the quad, or on Twitter, a student utters an offensive remark to another.

Students who have been the targets of such incidents and administrators alike say they know better than to expect utopian campuses, free from hostilities that persist elsewhere. Still, colleges face heightened expectations for civility and tolerance. Generally, their approach is to listen to affected students, conduct some investigation, sanction those responsible, and promote respect across the campus.

Responding effectively can be a challenge. With groups of students and professors reeling, administrators must try to condemn bias without infringing on free speech. Even an isolated incident on a relatively unknown campus can quickly gain national attention.

Except in clear-cut cases, such as when an incident is criminal, there is no ready response, says Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. Often, she says, “campuses don’t know what to do.”

Presidents have sent strongly worded campuswide e-mails, denouncing intolerance. Some colleges have canceled classes for a day of reflection, as Dartmouth did in April. Other campus leaders have formed task forces to review policies and recommend curricular changes.

The impact of such actions is difficult to gauge. And, of course, the student population is constantly turning over. Seniors who witnessed an incident and its aftermath graduate; freshmen arrive with varying levels of experience with peers from different backgrounds, says Ms. Hurtado, who has studied diversity and campus climate.

“We expect them all to know how to work with each other and get along, and there are all kinds of missteps,” she says. “Once you get a diverse student body, the problems don’t go away.”

Campuswide Challenge

At Elizabethtown, Mr. Boyhont discovered the slur on his door in February. He wasn’t the only one: The small liberal-arts college in central Pennsylvania received 21 reports of bias-related incidents last semester. Messages promoting white supremacy were also found in dorms, and the baseball team had reportedly held a “gay drinking day,” where partiers supposedly dressed and acted in ways they considered “gay,” like drinking fruity drinks.

As reports stacked up, the college sent 11 campuswide e-mails, decrying the incidents and asking for information. It also stepped up security in some dorms, ran educational programs through residence life, and held two forums and five “luncheon dialogues,” among other measures.

Prompt communication and action were key, and so was a multifaceted approach, says Marianne Calenda, dean of students. “It’s a communitywide challenge,” she says. “The whole community needs to be committed to making the changes and improving the quality of the experience here.”

Last month the college brought in the Anti-Defamation League to train faculty and staff with a program called “A Campus of Difference,” which the group has offered on approximately 900 campuses. Another session at Elizabethtown is planned for October. For incoming students, a theater company was scheduled to conduct an interactive workshop on diversity.

Elizabethtown also started offering an LGBTQ living-learning community this year, and it is exploring gender-neutral housing. In January, the college plans to hold a diversity conference.

On many campuses, orientation programs are infused with discussions of diversity and respect. At UT-Austin, as part of the longstanding Real Talk program—geared toward minority and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgerder students, but open to anyone—some upperclassmen have shared personal experiences with bias. Dartmouth explores such issues through its mandatory, yearlong First-Year Residential Experience. Elsewhere, training is online: Last year the University of Cincinnati introduced a tutorial on sexual and racial harassment, including hypothetical scenarios.

Interventions are important as preventive measures, but also after an incident occurs, campus officials say. At Dartmouth, when a fraternity and a sorority held a “Bloods and Crips” party in July, playing up gang stereotypes, organizers were asked to attend a meeting with student members of the NAACP and staff from the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, to discuss why the party was offensive. The campus’s Greek Leadership Council is now considering guidelines for themed events.

To coordinate efforts after an incident, bias response teams have become increasingly common. Models vary—the University of Oregon, Ohio State University, and Lehigh University each advertise some kind of team—but many collect reports online. Some teams provide mediation services, or let students know how to report an incident to local authorities. The teams also often collect data on the prevalence of bias incidents.

Gauging Impact

Students who report incidents, however, sometimes find their colleges’ responses inadequate.

Last spring at Dartmouth, protesters expressed frustration with racism, homophobia, and the handling of sexual assault on campus. Feeling that many reports had been brushed off, Mr. Valdes characterizes the college as “silent and inactive” on bias. “You can’t have respect,” he says, “if the people who do harm to someone else aren’t held accountable.”

Mr. Boyhont, at Elizabethtown, also expected more—details of incidents from administrators, he says, and punishment for the baseball team’s “gay drinking day.” But over all, he has felt supported by his college. It quickly found him emergency housing, he says, when a former roommate made homophobic comments. And after he wrote a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper about the drinking event, the dean invited him to meet with the athletic director and the baseball coach.

Beyond students’ satisfaction, what signals progress for a college? Fewer reports might be reassuring, but more of them could signal students’ comfort in coming forward.

It’s hard for a college to see the whole picture, says Ms. Hurtado, in part because many incidents go unreported. Only a tenth of students who experience bias go to a campus authority, she estimates.

Regular climate assessments can be powerful tools for understanding, Ms. Hurtado says. Her institute at UCLA, for example, runs a Diverse Learning Environments Survey of students’ experiences and attitudes. But surveys do not provide a full solution, she says. To improve a campus climate, she recommends curricular measures, such as diversity requirements.

If society at large hasn’t figured out how to eradicate racism, homophobia, and other biases, some administrators say, it may be unrealistic for a campus to see such incidents disappear entirely.

But for their part, Mr. Boyhont, Ms. Carr, and Mr. Valdes all think colleges should keep trying.

Elizabethtown College Responds to Bias Complaints

The spring semester was a tumultuous one at Elizabethtown College, a small liberal-arts institution in central Pennsylvania. In response to 21 bias-related incidents reported there—including vandalism, slurs on message boards, and offensive remarks to students—campus officials took a multifaceted approach that included the following:

February 4, 2013

A day after racial slurs appeared on message boards in dormitories, Elizabethtown officials issue a campuswide e-mail “condemning acts of hate” and asking the community for information. It was the first of what would be 11 similar messages. The college also increases security in some dorms, a step it would take again after further incidents.

February 10, 2013

President Carl J. Strikwerda and student leaders hold the first of two forums to discuss the incidents, concerns about campus climate, and suggestions for change.

February 27, 2013

The college offers the first of several diversity-oriented educational programs through residence life, including information on how to identify and report incidents of bias.

March 11, 2013

Campus officials begin consulting with people at other colleges that have experienced such incidents, as well as outside experts.

March 20, 2013

In response to homophobic incidents, the college convenes a “listening session” with LGBTQ students, allies, faculty, and staff.

March 26, 2013

The campus holds the first of five diversity luncheons discussing, for example, immigration and LGBTQ issues in Pennsylvania.

April 5, 2013

A candlelight vigil organized by a student displays support for those who have been the targets of bias incidents throughout the semester.

May 14, 2013

Campus Diversity Advocates, an existing group of student, faculty, and staff volunteers who help report bias and support those affected, undergoes training sessions.

August 7, 2013

Faculty and staff participate in diversity training with representatives from the Anti-Defamation League. The college has scheduled another session for October to accommodate interest.

August 21, 2013

Elizabethtown revises its student handbook to clarify related policies. The college also opens a new living-learning community for LGBTQ students.


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