EMU administration whiffs opportunity to build bridges with concerned students

Image by Pwojdacz via Wikipedia

Monday, Nov. 7, 2016

College is supposed to be an opportunity to learn, explore and grow as one transitions from a high school teenager to a young adult. New ideas blossom and unknown worlds are revealed. College is a place where mistakes are made, and lessons are learned under the watchful eye of professors and mentors. But at Eastern Michigan University, exploring one’s identity and making those mistakes has been meant with threats of criminal charges and expulsions.

Last Monday, a second racial slur was discovered on a campus building. Rightfully so, students, who already felt little was being done by the administration to address the previous incident, were upset. Days later, students took to the Student Center on campus to peacfully protest, occupying the building overnight.

As an EMU alumnus, I was appalled by the response from not only EMU’s Deptartment of Public Safety, but by EMU President James Smith as well. Both have turned a learning environment into an institution of oppression.

Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Calvin Phillips was also in attendance during the protest and addressed students after holding a meeting with officers and members of the executive team. His words to students were nothing more than polite irony.

“I understand how some of you may feel, and I do not negate that what so ever, but you are in violation of University policy,” he told students, according to The Eastern Echo. “What I want is to emphasize that you are more than welcome to leave the building now with no concerns of us going into student conduct, but I also want to make sure you all clearly understand where you are about to go by continuing these actions.”

This was an opportunity for Phillips to bridge the chasm between students and the administration. Instead, he felt it was necessary to alienate an already alienated community of students further.

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EMU Deptartment of Public Safety Chief Robert Heighes addressed the students next saying the officers wouldn’t go “hands on” with the students, according to The Echo, adding “that students were on camera and the department would be pursuing criminal trespassing charges.” He gave students 20 minutes to decide what actions to take—several students remained.

The next day, Smith said no legal charges had been filed, according to The Echo, but didn’t comment if charges would be filed at a later time.

The correct answer would have been “no legal charges will be filed,” but Smith whiffed that one. He could have followed it up with something such as, “This is a hard time for the EMU community, and I understand students are upset. Their concerns about campus safety and the inclusiveness of Eastern’s community will not fall on deaf ears. The protest that occurred in the Student Center is a testament to their dedication to create a diverse and safe campus for all. Rest assured we are doing everything in our power to address the two racist and deplorable incidents that have occurred on campus.”

But Smith didn’t say any of that, instead, defaulting back on a generic university statement better suited for board members and regents upset that the status quo of obedience could be showing the faintest sign of listing. Already, the university is already pursuing violations of student conduct against several student protestors.

The administration’s response to a peaceful protest only further solidifies the feeling of upset students that the administration cares little for their concerns. The university has no problem taking their tuition money, but they don’t want their concerns. This was a missed opportunity and students upset by the lack of action by the administration have every right to continue to be angry—not that they needed any justification.

I imagine in the coming months if the university does little to assuage the concerns of its students more protests like this will happen. Will the Department of Public Safety continue to be “hands off” at these encounters or will it take a UC Davis turn for the worst? My only suggestion to students thinking of protesting going forward: wear a mask.

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