After controversy regarding the flags in Hirst Lounge, an email Monday from two UR deans said the flags’ days in Wilson Commons may be numbered. 

We believe that our community is capable of imagining and creating a better representation of our global diversity than what we have through the flag display in Hirst Lounge,” said the email, which was signed by Dean of Students Matthew Burns and Dean of the College Jeffrey Runner.

The most recent controversy regarding the flags was sparked on approximately Nov. 18, when the flags for this year were hung. The Hong Kong and Taiwan flags were hung separately from the others, and initially listed on the Wilson Commons Student Activities (WCSA) website as sub-national entities. 

This is because, for the first time, the flags are organized according to United Nations guidelines. The Hong Kong and Taiwan flags were hung separately because they are not recognized by the UN. In previous years, they’ve been hung in alphabetical order, selected based on the travel visas UR received.

The term “sub-national” referring to Hong Kong and Taiwan was changed on the website after students complained. 

The two flags, still in their own section, are now labeled as “Other Countries and Regions” on the website. They are the only flags in that category. The other categories are “Flags of UN Recognized States,” “Native American Sovereign Nations,” and “US Territories.” 

The UN guidelines, chosen in fall 2018 by a committee that included students and administration, played a role in another flag controversy earlier this semester. The Palestine flag was left off a previous list on the WCSA website because the committee was accidentally using a list of recognized member nations, rather than recognized nations, as reference. The error was corrected shortly after a student outcry.

The more recent flag controversy seems to have arrived with more baggage.

According to Dean Burns, the flags were changed so recently because Nov. 18 to Nov. 22 is International Education Week — when the new flags are usually hung. 

But on Nov. 19, a Reddit user posted in the subreddit r/HongKong, claiming that UR moved the Hong Kong and Taiwan flags to the sub-national section of the flag lounge “after several protests on campus were disrupted by Chinese National Students.” 

There has been no public indication that any protest was disrupted by students this semester, but the reddit post got around 2,100 upvotes, and a screenshot posted on the popular UR student Facebook group Overheard at Rochester garnered 121 reacts. The Facebook post clarified that no protests were disrupted, but commenters still expressed discontent.

“I hope UR doesn’t undermine my identity and spread misinformation,” read a Facebook comment from sophomore Amber Hu, who is from Taiwan. “Please hang the Taiwan flag along with other countries.”

That was before the deans’ email was sent at 8:01 p.m. Within an hour of the email, a screenshot of it appeared on Overheard at Rochester.  

“Why must we sacrifice this cherished display of our community’s diversity for the sake of another country’s politics?” read a comment from senior Charlie Gould.

The unease around the flags seems to reflect the many China-related tensions that have arisen this semester. 

On Sept. 21, UR College Republicans held an event on Tibetan democracy where a group of students distributed documents against Tibetan independence. Leading up to the event, the same group put up posters comparing Tibetan self-immolators to terrorists. Days later, Tibetan monks left the Starbucks in Wilson Commons after a confrontation with some students who thought they were advocating for Tibetan independence. 

Many students blamed the Chinese Students Association (CSA) for both incidents, though they had no evident involvement. But CSA was involved in an All-Campus Judicial Council (student government’s judicial branch) conflict concerning an Oct. 26 event on China’s mistreatment of Uighurs. 

Most recently, paintings supporting Hong Kong protesters — among other groups — in the painted tunnel have raised questions of free speech. Burns and Runner’s email also addressed the tunnel, saying that UR “will not stand in the way of our students’ right to freedom of expression.”

This week’s SA Senate meeting began within minutes of when the deans’ email was sent, and was briefly put on hold to allow attendees to read it. 

The following Wednesday, SA leadership released a statement condemning the idea that the flags be removed from Hirst Lounge. 

“We stand firm in our commitment to keeping the flag display up,” the email read, “as it represents a core part of our university culture.”

But according to Burns, the flags don’t accomplish their intended purpose. 

What we’re trying to do is recognize and celebrate our students,” he said, “and by hanging flags we’re recognizing and celebrating countries.”

Correction (12/4/19): An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of the Dean of the College. His name is Jeffrey Runner, not Jeffery Runner.

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