Leadership & Governance

How a President Is Fighting Online Harassment of Minority Students

December 02, 2015

WWU Office of Communications
Bruce Shepard, of Western Washington U., canceled classes last week as part of his efforts to calm racial tensions following anonymous threats on Yik Yak against the student body's president and other students of color.
Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University, canceled classes there for a day last week after the student-body president, Belina Seare, was the subject of a threatening post on the anonymous online application Yik Yak. The post about Ms. Seare, who is black, said, "Let’s lynch her."

The Yik Yak comment was one of several last week that had the university’s minority students complaining of feeling harassed or endangered. Some of the posts appeared to be reactions to a debate over whether the university’s mascot, the Viking, was sufficiently racially inclusive.

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President Shepard has taken a series of steps since then to make minority students feel safe. They included beefing up campus security, creating an anonymous tip line for reporting threats, and undertaking new efforts to fight racism on the campus. On Monday, hours after he held a town-hall meeting to discuss the recent campus tensions, the university announced the arrest and suspension of a 19-year-old student in connection with the lynching-related Yik Yak post.

The Chronicle interviewed President Shepard on Tuesday about his responses to recent events on the campus. Following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Q. Do you have any hope that Monday’s arrest will deter others from using Yik Yak to threaten or harass people on campus, and will otherwise bring calm there?

A. It will provide notice to people that a social medium they think guarantees them anonymity does not. That may be somewhat helpful. But really we need to get at the root causes of these sorts of comments. That’s the culture change we need to be after.

Q. Are some of your university’s students still afraid to come to class?

A. I can’t answer that completely. What I am aware of is a fear that’s been around for quite a while — that students of color have been telling us about — of being on campus. The emotional violence of statements such as those we have seen on social media create an understandable fear on their part. I have not heard any reports of students' not coming to class because of fear.

Q. You made a decision to cancel classes on Tuesday of last week even though your campus police force told you it was unnecessary to do so. Why?

A. I had been in communication with our student-body president during the night. It was clear, with what had happened on Yik Yak, that our students of color were going to be very fearful coming to class. We needed to accommodate that, to figure out how to address those understandable fears. It was by this time five in the morning. We did not have the time to put in place means to alleviate those fears. So I decided to hit the pause button. It was the day before the university was closed for the remainder of the week. So it was one day of class, but that allowed us a period to think through how to address what I considered very, very legitimate concerns of some of our students.

Q. Are you at all afraid that canceling classes based on student fears — rather than the assessment of law enforcement — will make such cancellations common, hurting education there?

A. Not at all. I think that we did the right thing, under those circumstances. Our university has really been a leader in addressing issues of diversity, inclusivity, equity, and I think we were a leader in this particular case. Look at what has happened around the country. You can see that, where universities first led with a tin ear, sometimes their campuses got snarled up for days with the problems that then ensued.

Q. In remarks delivered Monday at a campus town hall, you said recent events there reflected "the banality of racism" on campus and the perpetration of "major and micro" aggression by ordinary students who think they are just being sarcastic. Some faculty members, however, have already pushed back against your efforts to change the culture. How can you bring about such change without being accused of trampling upon academic freedom and free speech?

A. It’s really important to appeal to people’s understanding and empathy. That’s part of the training, the cross-cultural consciousness, that we’re providing, to understand situations from other people’s shoes. That’s what we’re doing with faculty and staff at the university. We do that with students, preparing them for the world that they will be entering so that they will be successful. We need to train ourselves that way as well.

Q. Among the steps you have announced is establishing a "rumor control" website where students can post rumors they have heard and get responses from campus security. Aren’t you at all worried that the posting of rumors in such a forum will just cause the false ones to spread?

A. Not at all. I think it is far better to give visibility to rumors. The rumors are out there, whether they are posted or not. It is important that they be known by all, so that we know what is going on out there and so we can respond with correct information.

Q. You have said your own life was repeatedly threatened by white supremacists last year. What was that experience like?

A. It was interesting. I had made a statement that our university’s mission is to apply our strengths to the needs of the State of Washington, the compositions of the graduating classes in Washington are dramatically changing, [and] if we are as white as we are today 10 years from now, we will have failed in our delivering our mission. That was picked up by the groups that go by the terms "white genocide." I probably had hundreds of tweets and emails, nasty phone calls, demanding my resignation and threatening my life with specific weapons and dates and things like that. I think it is part of doing the job. I think these are issues that a university president must be in a leadership position on.

Q. Much of the recent online harassment appears to be a reaction to criticisms of your school’s mascot, the Viking, as not racially inclusive. Are recent events likely to have any effect on the Viking’s status over the long term?

A. I wrote to campus about this and first indicated my thankfulness that people were raising this question, that our student-body government was raising this question, and that we need to have those discussions in ways that are passionate but respectful and civil. I then went on to say that I am here for seven more months [before retiring]. I’m not going to be changing the mascot; this takes a great deal of time. Further, it was my belief that the desire to change our mascot was not widespread at all. But I said I could be wrong and I welcomed to be shown to be wrong. Right now, I still believe there is not widespread interest in changing the mascot, but that could change.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.