Yik Yak and Douglass Leadership House (DLH) were addressed in drastically different ways by University President Joel Seligman on Wednesday, as he issued an official response to his Commission on Race and Diversity’s Interim Report, released the same day.

The report answered the list of demands issued to Seligman in November by a coalition of students from DLH, the Minority Student Advisory Board, the Spanish and Latino Students’ Association, and the Black Students’ Union, which also staged a peaceful protest on Nov. 20. The Commission was created three days later.

In his response, Seligman accepted several recommendations from the Commission, including a measure that all but guarantees Douglass Leadership House (DLH) permanent residence on the Fraternity Quad.

He chose not to ban the anonymous app Yik Yak, on which users have posted racist remarks and threats, from University servers. To ban the app, he said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference, would be “to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and would not be in the best interest of the University community.

The Commission had voted 14–2, with one abstention, to recommend banning the app.

On Wednesday evening, coalition members planned to protest the President’s decision not to ban the app at the sophomore class’ dinner with Seligman. A member of DLH told a Campus Times reporter before the dinner that the demonstration was canceled because administrators had found out.

Seligman said at the press conference that he was aware of plans for protests.

“It is a symbolic act that would not increase safety on campus,” Seligman said of banning Yik Yak, adding that other methods, such as working with the Department of Public Safety, would yield more tangible results.

He said he asked protest leaders “to take a breath, step back,” and ask themselves whether further demonstrations would be the best course of action, considering the other portions of his response. Yik Yak would still be accessible to students through non-University Internet if it was banned.

Part of his reasoning for not banning the app was also that his job entails representing the entire UR community, not only the vocal minority calling for the ban. Several messages thanking Seligman for his decision were posted on the app throughout Wednesday.

Seligman said that Yik Yak is now cooperating with the Monroe County District Attorney in its investigation of several remarks made on the app, including those that discussed “‘burning’ people of a specific race and committing sexual violence against one named individual.”

Students’ Association President Grant Dever, who serves on the Commission, voted to ban the app.

“After hearing from students at our Town Hall meetings,” he said in an email Wednesday night, “I felt that the right decision was to show support for the petitioning students by preventing access to Yik Yak via our internet connection. That being said, I am responsible solely to the student body and do not have to evaluate the situation in the same way as the President of our University.”

As an alternative to banning Yik Yak, Seligman plans to work with the University’s General Counsel and the District Attorney; invite a representative of Yik Yak to campus; and charge undergraduates to downvote hateful or threatening posts on the app.

The permanent residence of DLH will be addressed through a new system of evaluating eligibility for student groups to reside in the Academic Living Centers (ALC) on the Frat Quad. DLH occupies an ALC, as do Sigma Phi Epsilon and Drama House.

“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,” Seligman wrote in his response.

The Commission’s report asserted that DLH will likely meet whatever expectations are established and thus remain on the Frat Quad. When asked at Wednesday’s press conference if he agreed, Seligman said, “I’m sure they will.”

Dever commended Seligman for his action on ALCs, saying, “If you do not understand the value of DLH on our campus, you sincerely need to attend their programs and talk to their membership.”

Making DLH a permanent fixture on campus and banning Yik Yak were featured prominently in both the coalition’s demands and its general talking points.

News of the Commission’s recommendations and those that were accepted by Seligman came early Wednesday morning in a special edition of the Weekly Buzz, which linked to the Interim Report and Seligman’s response.

A new campaign to combat campus racism, in the same vein as last year’s “It’s on Us” campaign against sexual assault, is in the works, too: “We’re better than THAT.”

With the campaign, UR may take the lead in fighting college racism nationally, Seligman said at the press conference. “If I had one dream,” he said, racism “would have no place on any campus.”

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 spearheading the effort, Seligman wrote, and 70 other people have expressed interest in helping out, including Dever. A working group has formed to further the campaign.

The group’s goals involve added emphasis on race in future freshmen orientations—which includes “a common reading that will provide some grounding for incoming freshmen”—and the establishment of a multimedia presence on campus to combat racism and hate speech, according to the Interim Report.

“The group believes, based on student input and our own understanding of the magnitude of this work, that the campaign should be inescapable, and affect every member of our community,” the Report reads.

The campaign will use videos and online resources, and feature a promotional video contest, open on Feb. 8, for a 200-dollar prize and the opportunity to have one’s video shown in various school events.

Addressing student demands for increased funding for cultural centers and activities, Seligman accepted the Commission’s recommendation to create a Diversity Programming Fund. The Fund will be available “to groups of all races, religions, sexual orientation, or nationality,” Seligman wrote, and “will be established with a 30,000-dollar initial budget coordinated by the Paul J. Burgett Intercultural Center.”

The Fund is “designed to support programs and activities that enhance an understanding and appreciation of diversity and inclusion and to support culturally-based programming,” the Commission’s report says.

Plans to expand staff support in the Burgett Center are also underway, Seligman wrote, as are plans to “provide additional enrichment fund support for the Office of Minority Affairs and the David T. Kearns Center.”

The Burgett Center will be relocating this fall to a “renovated student life space located in the Frederick Douglass Building,” according to the Report. “As the renovations move forward, we are developing a staffing plan for the next several years. In the coming year, we anticipate requesting an additional full time staff member to assist with a new LGBTQ Resource Area, Safe Zone Trainings, and other intersectionality and intercultural programming and training.”

While the Commission concluded that “it is not feasible to change the structure of the Frederick Douglass Institute to make it a department,” as students had demanded, Seligman wrote that “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, [and] the implementation of a new study abroad program aligned with this major and completion of an additional tenure track tenure position.”

Seligman also answered the coalition’s call for the University to emphasize its Bias-Related Incidents reporting program “as they have the CARE Program.”

“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,” he wrote in his response.

Seligman said the Commission will likely continue its work until May and added that it will release a final report later in the year. A survey about race and diversity on campus, intended to be issued to students, faculty, and staff, will be used to augment the Commission’s final report. More information about the survey will be distributed in an email on Feb. 11, Seligman said.

“These are substantial steps forward,” he said of the actions detailed in his response. “And it’s just the beginning.”

“I do believe that President Seligman is genuinely committed to combatting racism on our campus and that there will be more changes to promote an inclusive and empathetic environment, where every student feels welcome and safe,” Dever concluded.

Tagged: Race

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