Students at American University have endured several hate-related incidents within the past couple years, but Tuesday was supposed to mark the start of the institution’s efforts to understand racism and influence policy in a way that promotes equity. That evening, the history and international-affairs professor Ibram X. Kendi formally introduced a new Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center, which he joined the university this fall to lead.
But around 10:30 p.m., Mr. Kendi and his students emerged from his class on the history of racism to find that Confederate flags and cotton branches had been hung around the campus in Washington, D.C. Students reported it to the Department of Public Safety, and by the end of the night, the symbols were found in four campus buildings.
The university police department has launched an investigation into what Sylvia M. Burwell, American’s president, called a "bias incident." The police released videos of a white man in his 40s wearing a hardhat, a neon vest, and camouflage-print pants, who is a suspect.
Students said Wednesday that along with sadness, they felt numb after hearing the news; they’d been through this before. Last spring, on the day that the first African-American woman to be elected student-body president took office, bananas were found hanging from nooses on the campus, some marked with the letters of a traditionally black sorority. And two years ago, racist messages were posted on the social-messaging site Yik Yak.
"I was not surprised," said Danielle Brown, a junior. Ms. Brown found out about the most recent incident on Tuesday night when her roommate showed her posts about it on social media. "You feel angry and sad, but you do feel definitely numb from it. This has happened repeatedly now on campus, and it just kind of feels like it’s going to happen again."
The university held a meeting on Wednesday "to gather and discuss what happened, what steps are being taken, hear from each other, and offer support," which Jocelyn Mendez, a senior, thought was a good idea. But she hopes more will be done.
"It’s really good to encourage discourse, but I think it extends to checking in on students, on your black friends or black classmates, seeing if people are OK," she said. "If you’re not encouraging that conversation and having that discourse within your immediate groups and even outside of your immediate groups, then I think you’re just as much a part of the problem."
At a news conference on Wednesday, Ms. Burwell said the university has increased the number of cameras on campus from 400 to 600, has increased the circulation of campus police officers, and has made it easier for students to report bias incidents. She noted that the university had been able to release images of a suspect quickly in part because of the security efforts.
Taylor Dumpson, the student-body president, told reporters that she was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident last spring and the online threats against her that followed. She said students are concerned about their safety and the campus climate.
"Over the course of my college career here, I have seen an increase in hateful and vile rhetoric, but that is not limited to American University," she said. "We have to face these issues head on."
Ms. Dumpson said she’d also noticed a hint of optimism among her peers this semester. She praised the swift response of Ms. Burwell, who became president on June 1.
"This has not always been the case," Ms. Dumpson said of the president’s response.
Ms. Dumpson spoke at a Capitol Hill forum on the racial climate on college campuses earlier this month, where she told members of Congress that the incident last spring had left her with anxiety, a lack of appetite, and difficulty sleeping, making it impossible for her to finish her final exams.
"This bigoted hate crime struck me at my core," she said then. The attacks were meant to intimidate and frighten, she added, "as if to say I did not belong there or wasn’t qualified."
Mr. Kendi said that he felt galvanized by Tuesday’s incident and that he is thinking about a way for the center to confront the uptick in racist incidents on college campuses across the United States.
Events like this one are meant to "cause a reaction, generate fear, and hopefully slow people down," he said. "This motivates me to follow through with the initiatives of the center."
Julia Schmaltz contributed to this report.