The Staff, the Students and the Spirit Rock

Overview of administrative response to the Spirit Rock

The conversation about the Spirit Rock incident has just begun.

Earlier this month, the University of Connecticut administration and President Susan Herbst released an email and three reports about the night of the Spirit Rock incident. Since then, UConn’s race and gender climate has been under heavy scrutiny.

General review of the gender-based and race-based administrative climate

Sociology Professor Noel Cazenave was highly critical of the university’s response to the sexual assault cases of last year and different racial incidents this year. A UConn professor since 1991 and the author of numerous novels examining race in America, Cazenave called UConn’s current administration: “without a doubt, the most faceless, uncaring-about-people administration that I have ever seen.”

Cazenave said he is concerned not only with the incidents at the spirit rock, but about the campus climate in general for women, students of color and other marginalized groups since the new administration took charge three years ago.

One of Cazenave’s biggest issues was a lack of accountability on the part of the administration. He condemned Herbst’s initial response to last year’s Title IX allegations, specifically these words in her public statement: “The suggestion that the University of Connecticut, as an institution, would somehow be indifferent to or dismissive of any report of sexual assault is astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue”

“[Herbst’s] opening response was to make a statement that suggested that there was a problem with the women bringing the accusations, and perhaps that they were somehow at fault,” Cazenave said. “If that wasn’t bad enough, high-powered lawyers came on campus and forced the administration to do the right thing,” referring to the $1.3 million lawsuit UConn paid to the defendants. The university admitted no guilt in the suit.

Cazenave expressed dismay over Herbst’s comments last year regarding the “rape trail,” specifically: “the odious ‘nickname’ that is occasionally used to describe the Celeron Path, and the unfounded perceptions associated with this walkway,” Herbst wrote in a statement. Cazenave was concerned that Herbst was “very offended” by the name of the trail, rather than “why people might refer to that area as the ‘rape trail.’”

Cazenave blamed Herbst’s “lackluster” performance in diversity-related and gender-related issues on her job description and the company she keeps.

Pointing to a recent raise and vote of confidence by the Board of Trustees, Cazenave said, “We have a president that’s focused on wining and dining, she’s the ‘Fundraiser-in-Chief” and she’s hanging out with people at that income level, and I think she’s increasingly thinking like them.”

It’s a systemic issue of priorities within the university, Cazenave argues. He said Provost Mun Choi is worried mostly about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). He said that Choi is not good with students, like during an incident in the first semester where Choi was called out by State Senator Mae Flexer for shutting a student down during a discussion about sexual assault and the university’s response to it.

Cazenave said the message he gets from students who have approached Herbst is that she has more important things to worry about.

“She [Herbst] mentioned that she loved two people on campus: Geno [Auriemma] and Kevin Ollie. She loves them because they are winners, they bring money, power and prestige to the university,” Cazenave said. “Conversely, President Herbst acts like students of color and women on this campus are a bunch of losers, and she wants to hang out with the winners.”

Cazenave brought up an example to illustrate his point. University policy stipulates that microphones are allowed on campus only during specific times of the week. A UConn student organization was barred from using microphones during a vigil for Michael Brown in September.

“Students recognized that contradiction right away,” Cazenave said. “They knew the last time basketball teams won the national championships, there were microphones all over the place.”

Cazenave asserted that the university is becoming “increasingly stratified” between those who “matter” and “bring in money”–the science and technology people,” and those who don’t–the social sciences.

Professor Evelyn Simien, an Associate Professor of African American Politics, Public Opinion and Political Behavior wondered why the administration released the statement and findings now.

“If it’s in relationship to the rock incidents that have followed, that would make sense,” Simien said, referring to the newest Spirit Sock incident where an unknown perpetrator painted over the words “racism” and “black” in a message from Residential Assistants for Social Justice: “Racism: In Storrs Now” and “Black lives matter.” “But there was no mention of the subsequent rock painting incidents, so I can’t draw that connection…why now?” Simien asked.

Simien also criticized President Herbst’s way of reaching the student body.

“If you want something to be far more impactful and memorable, there’s gotta be an alternative to one of the lowest forms of communication, that is the email,” Simien said.

Findings and administrative response

President Herbst’s lengthy email sent on April10 discussed the background of the Spirit Rock incident, and stressed how the findings were comprehensive, yet, despite no race-based or gender-based violations of the student code being found, more work is to be done regarding diversity and gender issues.

The email begins with a summation of events, saying, “Many members of our community were negatively impacted by the events of that evening and its aftermath,” referring to the racist “Yik Yaks” posted after the incident.

The university immediately placed the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity (Pike), responsible for the incident on probation, which included education and training around sexism, racism, bystander intervention and microaggression.

The email also states that Pike has been suspended from campus for four years for breaking their probation, and that the Town Hall meeting was indeed the impetus for “further examination.” The university accepted that no race-based or gender-based violations were found by the police department, the Office of Diversity and Equity or Student Affairs.

The email then mentioned “the ongoing work of the 2014-2015 Diversity Task Force,” with their report “expected this summer.”

The Student Affairs follow-up report, authored by Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Christine Wilson, speaks to the administrative response.

“I want to stress that the university takes your complaint very seriously, illustrated by the fact that three different offices have investigated the incident,” Wilson wrote in the report.

The Student Affairs report swiftly went down the line of charges from AKA, saying there was no conflict of interest during the community standards investigation. The report said Yik Yak is impossible to prosecute because of anonymity, the rock painting policy was enforced by the police, Student Affairs corresponded directly and efficiently with AKA and speech is protected by the first amendment.

Michael Gilbert, the Vice President of Student Affairs, answered Daily Campus inquiries originally instead of President Herbst.

“When bias or bias-related incidents occur, UConn has a responsibility to both hold individuals accountable for their actions and to provide a means for students to critically understand the importance of diversity on our campus,” Gilbert wrote in an email. “Diversity is expressed and valued here in a myriad of ways (race, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic status, among others) and we will continually seek to have our community understand and cherish the multiple identities held by our students, faculty, and staff.”

Gilbert also mentioned that the Task Force’s report was still in progress and it would be premature to discuss it.

Political scientists Morris Fiorina and Neil Mitchell have an extensive body of work about how leaders evade accountability by methods such as delegation and delay. Delegation to shift blame, and delay to buy time. Both methods, argue professors Simien and Cazenave, were used by Herbst and the UConn administration.

They said delegation was done by assigning provosts and Student Affairs heads to be present at Town Hall meetings, with Herbst’s only direct response being through email. The timing of the release of the new reports and Herbst’s new extended email were also questioned by the professors, which they believe to be a purposeful in responding when matters have mostly cooled down.

When the Daily Campus reached out to Herbst’s office and UConn’s communications team, Herbst delegated the task of answering specific questions to Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Gilbert, who referred the Daily Campus to the reports that were released (which had already been covered extensively in the paper). Only after inquiring as to how important these issues really are to Herbst did she respond. While the Daily Campus appreciates the President’s engagement with the student paper, none of the specific questions asked by the Daily Campus were addressed. This was Herbst’s response:

“These issues are critically important to me, to the professionals at UConn who work every day with our students, and all who recognize the value of a highly diverse and inclusive campus community.

“My recent letter came after a great deal of thought and reflection, and is intended to help provide a path forward for all of us while acknowledging that we still have a great deal of work to do.

“As I mentioned, UConn’s academic experience must welcome diversity in every sense of the word, and the new initiatives being launched throughout the University will be critical to this goal.

“Looking ahead, I encourage our students and all in our campus community to participate in these initiatives offered through our cultural centers, Student Affairs programs, programming in residence halls, and many other venues.

“We have all learned a great deal over the last several months about the power of words to harm and to heal. It’s my hope that my letter and the many discussions occurring on campus now, and in our future, are a catalyst for healing.”

Part II of this article will be published in tomorrow’s paper and will include the topics of civility, professorial silence, the details of the Spirit Rock incident and possible solutions to the complex problems discussed here.


0 thoughts on “The Staff, the Students and the Spirit Rock

  1. Typo?: “referring to the newest Spirit Sock incident” Sock –> Rock?

    But honestly, thank you thank you thank you so much for writing this


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