The past and present of the Spirit Rock

This is the third installment over the past two weeks of the Daily Campus’s examination of the aftermath of the Spirit Rock incident at the University of Connecticut. 


“Civility is far more than simply being polite to others,” Vice President of Student Affairs, Michael Gilbert said.

Civility is, according to Gilbert, “a way of living and interacting with each other that allows a diverse society to thrive and engage in constant, constructive conversation about issues that are important to everyone.”

For the UConn administration, “civil discourse” is an important aspect of the race and gender climate on campus. In fact, civility and diversity go hand-and-hand, according to UConn President Susan Herbst.

“The Division of Student Affairs, the provost’s office, academic departments and many student organizations have led campus diversity and civility efforts for years, and they are offering new programs to promote more dialogue on these challenging and important issues,” Herbst wrote in an email detailing the Spirit Rock incident and the surrounding investigations.

A running theme in university responses to both sexual assault allegations and incidents of racism has been the word “civility.” The administration’s reaction to the Title IX lawsuit of last year was to invoke civility, and to put together a taskforce on civility. University officials have similarly touted civility in the aftermath of the Spirit Rock incident. Civility is defined as polite behavior and speech. President Herbst has even written a book on civility: Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics.

“They don’t like the language that actually deals with oppression,” Sociology Professor Noel Cazenave said in an interview. “Words like ‘racism,’ ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault.’ They take these issues and reduce them to an issue of civility, which implies that there has to be civility on both sides. There’s no mention of institutional hierarchy, oppression or privilege anywhere.”

In the words of Joan Scott, a political academic, civility is often used as a defense against controversial issues.

“It is always the powerful who determine its [civility’s] meaning—one that, whatever its specific content, demeans and delegitimizes those who do not meet its test,” Scott writes.

Cazenave thinks that the use of civility is “bogus and Machiavellian in that it’s designed to keep people quiet.”

A group of lawyers named “FIRE” (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) rated UConn a “yellow light” for how its administration’s use of the word “civility” could suppress free speech.

“Civility distracts us from understanding the true nature of these problems,” Cazenave said. “It’s not just that it destroys the language of the oppressed, it’s not just that it acts like issues on campus are a matter of misunderstanding, it reads like a threat that – ‘We’re gonna do what the hell we’re going to do to you, and you’re going to be quiet!’”

Herbst’s reactions to gender-related and race-related events on campus have been accused by African-American Politics Associate Professor Evelyn Simien, Cazenave and students as political and calculated.

“This is a statement that says nothing!” Cazenave said in response to Herbst’s email with the findings of the Spirit Rock incident.

Simien weighed in on the university’s use of “civility” as well.

“Civility is a pretty broad term, it’s pretty general,” Simien said. “It doesn’t have a direct link to race or sex-based offenses. It’s a general term that’s thrown out there that speaks to a specific code of conduct…it doesn’t speak to the events in a specific way.”

The Incident

Both Professor Simien and Professor Cazenave charged that the investigation during the first semester, immediately after the Spirit Rock incident, was not well done.

Simien questioned “the lack of diversity in the very offices [that conducted investigations], whether that’s the law enforcement or student affairs.” Simien was adamant about the lack of diversity in administrative hiring.

“Events like this necessitate a presence on those investigations so they are balanced and the right questions are asked,” Simien said. “Far too often, the very people in positions of power that render the decisions, do not reflect the diversity necessary to give a fair, balanced, comprehensive critique or evaluation of the circumstance.”

The framing of the incident was a point of contention for Simien and Cazenave. For Simien, it was the way in which the event was portrayed as only a race issue.

“There’s a way in which these women weren’t even viewed as women,” Simien said. “At the outset of the investigation, their femaleness was invisible, was absent and was not seen or recognized, though there were women on the investigative committee. People like myself and [Noel] Cazenave said that this was both race and sex. How do you miss that, when the women are called ‘bitches’ and ‘whores?’”

Simien then spoke to a disturbing communication gap between administrative staff at the town hall forum following the incident and its first investigation.

“When faced with a group of black and brown people, they [administrative officials] were really handicapped insofar as knowing how to respond both respectfully and empathetically to the concerns expressed in that meeting,” Simien said. “When confronted with the crowd and the audience, there was a displeasure and a disgruntled feeling on the part of the crowd where it’s like, their answers just weren’t satisfactory. It’s like they needed their own PR person to tell them ‘no don’t say that!’”

Simien said there were moments during the meeting where she cringed because the staff didn’t hear the questions being asked of them. They instead took the “safe” route and hid behind numbers and their job description.

“The strategy of dealing with the crowd was ‘Let me tell you what my office does, let me tell you what my job is and let me roll out some statistics that tell you everything’s good,’” Simien said. “The crowd didn’t come there for the job description or those numbers, they wanted to know what [the administration was] going to do.”

Cazenave’s issue with the framing was that the university bought into Pi Kappa Alpha’s (Pike) description of the event – an argument that broke out over the painting of the Spirit Rock and had little to do with race.

Cazenave called the first investigation biased, saying that more Pi Kappa Alpha (Pike) supporters and more Pike members were being interviewed than Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) members.

“The report was page after page after page of Pike telling its story, with relatively few pages of AKA getting to tell their story,” Cazenave said.

Simien wondered about the specific classes Pike had to take, and why the Africana Studies department wasn’t consulted in constructing the offending party’s curriculum.

“What workshops are Pike required to attend and who is at the helm of instruction? Because they’re not contacting any of the Africana studies faculty, and employing our services, and saying ‘get involved,’” Simien said. “When you talk about who’s best qualified to facilitate these conversations, and to develop the curriculum and determine the content of these workshops, it’s your faculty that hold the PhD’s, who are national experts.”

For some students, the administration did not do enough. Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Sen. Stephanie Sponzo lamented “the lack of passion from the administration.”

AKA member Brittney Yancy said of the outcome of the investigations: “I have to deal with the fact that the student who has verbally accosted me received no punishment.”

UConn student Kyle Harrington posted in the Facebook UConn Group “Buy or Sell” a picture of President Herbst speaking at the women’s basketball championship rally on campus.

“It is beyond upsetting that she shows her face for this, but not ever in response to the blatant acts of hate and violence that are occurring (and reoccurring) on campus. Where are you when your community really needs you, Susan?” Harrington wrote.

Professors Possibly Dismissed For Speaking Out

Recent history in academia has suggested that professors can face termination for speaking out on different topics. There are possible examples of this phenomenon at UConn.

While the professors who were dismissed are doing fine professionally, there were two professors who openly denounced UConn’s managing of sexual assault cases in 2013. These professors left UConn soon after.

Heather Turcotte, who still teaches at UConn in the women’s studies department, has been publicly vocal about perceived administrative deficiencies regarding sexual assault. She spoke also about administrative “silencing.”

“There is a silencing,” Turcotte said. “There is no faculty response -– it’s crickets. And why is that? I feel that there is a culture of fear and silence for untenured faculty.”

Two years later, Professor Cazenave is asking similar questions.

“Why are faculty and staff so quiet?” Cazenave questioned. “They can be fired on the spot. What about our tenured faculty members, and our tenured faculty members of color? It seems like there’s always some reason to be quiet, if you’re not tenured then you want to be tenured, you want to get that research grant, you want to start a center.”

Cazenave was not only critical of the university on this topic, but of his colleagues.

“I don’t see faculty of color speaking out besides [Evelyn] Simien and myself,” Cazenave said. “I know a woman who got tenure who’s shaking she’s so frightened to speak out. We need to understand why these people are either so frightened or so cowardly that they’re not speaking out.”

Cazenave also said that diversity related leaders “seem to be disappearing.” He pointed to the reduction of staff in the Office of Diversity and Equity, African American social workers leaving their jobs and African American members of administration leaving their jobs.

“There are very few people of color in our inner circle, and those who are there are jumping ship. Why?” Cazenave asked.

Cazenave also brought up his resignation from the Provost’s commission on institutional diversity.

“I resigned because I saw that they had no interest in that [institutional diversity], they didn’t even show up at a meeting to endorse this effort,” Cazenave said. “The bottom line is that I think that we’re dealing with a bunch of amoralists, who only care about money, power and prestige. If our faculty, staff and students really want to change things, we’re gonna have to focus on one five letter word: power.”

The Solution

Cazenave hearkened back to the 1990s. He told a story of the administration wanting to keep activists from having a rally against police brutality. He said that the local NAACP chapter met with the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, with the organization telling them they had the right to peaceful assembly. Cazenave looked at this event as precedent for what members of the UConn community have to do.

“We’re gonna have to do things like maybe have protests at basketball games,” Cazenave said. “We’re gonna have to do things, like have sit-ins at administration buildings, or maybe we’re gonna have to crash some of these fundraising events with the corporate elite. Or maybe go over to the UConn Foundation and be noisy.”

Cazenave’s voice lifted a passionate octave with each suggestion.

“We have to go to the state government, we have to get into contact with the black and Puerto Rican legislative office, with congress people and have hearings about the gender and racial climate at UConn.” Cazenave said.

Cazenave’s essential prognosis was that the administration would never do enough. He spoke to the recent painting of the Spirit Rock by Resident Assistants for Social Justice as a step in the right direction, but asked: “What’s going at UConn where you have RAs becoming radical?”

Cazenave urged students and faculty to push “power buttons.”

Professor Simien said that students have an opportunity as a body to say that they don’t condone this type of behavior.

“We can look to the administration, but there’s other ways,” Simien said. “We can use this as a teachable moment, as a wake-up call in a lot of ways that exposes an element that’s reared its head in the context of campus culture.”

Simien suggested that race and gender education begin at orientation, saying that the moment students come onto campus, what has happened in the past needs to be highlighted.

Simien thought that the discussion on this topic is missing an aspect: programmatic, concrete ways to combat racism on campus. She highlighted a diversity requirement idea that has become reality at other institutions of higher education and could come to fruition in general education requirements or First Year Experience classes.

“There’s definitely a need for that violence against women program to be expansive, and get at the intersections of race and sex and sexual orientation,” Simien added. “I see orientation as a starting point, have First Year Experience and gen. ed. requirements be ways to start.”

Simien had a final message to an administration which Cazenave called “alienating” and “arrogant.”

“Be more proactive than reactive, so you get ahead of these issues,” Simien said. “What does it take to compel us to combat negativity and support one another?”



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