Administration at the University of Southern Maine has spent a great deal of time and resources addressing issues around free speech, diversity, and inclusion on their campuses after weathering two semesters worth of sporadic protests and serious criticisms.
The last two semesters there were fraught with at least three anti-Muslim hate incidents, and two appearances from controversial speakers (Rep. Larry Lockman, a known xenophobe back in February and Gov. Paul LePage back in April) which sparked action from a couple hundred students, and discussion on how the administration should respond to students and speakers on campus who espouse viewpoints that make minority students feel unsafe.
There were many flashpoints in this long-gestating series of conflicts, but what’s important to know for the present moment is this: although USM markets itself as a “University of Everyone,” and admitted 30 percent more students of color last year, some returning to campus this fall are unsure if they’re truly safe and welcome.
“I can't promise you that there won't be other examples of hate, I'm sure there will be, coming into the new semester,” said the President of USM Glenn Cummings. “But the question we must answer is how are we going to execute our responsibilities in the fairness of justice?”
Last year, the student group Students For #USMFuture, which was behind most of the uproar over the hate-instances, presented the administration with a list of demands on the grounds that they weren't doing enough keep students safe from what they perceived as a growing presence of sentiments aligned with the “alt-right.” According to Cummings, USM is a “University in transition” and staff is working on implementing at least 9 of their demands in an effort to recommit the institution to its values of diversity and inclusion.
“Last year was a significant growth period for us on issues of diversity and inclusion. My own thinking on this has evolved,” said Cummings. “The university is not just a place for the free exchange of ideas, it's also a community.”
The President of USM, Glenn Cummings. Photo Courtesy of USM/Rene Roy.
For Cummings, fostering a healthy campus community starts with a different approach on how to handle invited speakers that some students find threatening.
Cummings is willing to host speakers at USM from most political backgrounds (liberal, socialist, conservative, libertarian, etc.), but he said from here on out ones that make students particularly uncomfortable won’t be given a completely free platform like Lockman had when he spoke on the "dangers of immigration" unfettered for over an hour.
“I’m not going to make it easy for them,” he said.
For example, if Cummings could re-do the Lockman event, which he admits he was completely unprepared for, he said he’d make him “debate the Dean of the law school,” or “sit on a panel of five people that aren’t racist,” so his hateful remarks weren’t met without challenge.
“I want a more sophisticated policy where we can have free speech but not be disrespectful,” said Cummings. “Free speech is not as pure and simple as some academics make it out to be sometimes.”
Back in July, the Phoenix sat down with Cummings and several other faculty and staff to get a preview of what those changes are as students enter in the fall semester. Here’s what can be expected:
USM's Portland campus from the air. Photo Courtesy of USM.
Confirmation That Student Anger Is OK
Firstly, Cummings noted that while it’s important for a University to maintain civility, it should also provide a space where students feel they can safely vent their frustrations. While Cummings doesn’t fully support the no-platform movement and will discipline students should they obstruct a future speaker or Student Senate meeting, he said there will be other places on campus for angry voices to be heard. For example, all green spaces on campus are free to use for a non-violent protest.
The challenge for administrators, Cummings said, is creating an environment that's collegial and respectful but at the same time acknowledges that people are angry.
The Multicultural Center in the Woodbury campus could be another safe place to unpack any intense responses to hate and intolerance. The center has a new coordinator, Anila Karunakar, who believes that free speech is not equal for everyone in America. Because underprivileged populations don’t enjoy the same totality of free speech as others do, she says USM offers a space where students of color, or other marginalized communities, can truly speak their mind.
“When I see the anger in protest, I think it's a good thing,” said Karunakar. “It means students can trust us with their emotions, anger, and struggle.”
Accommodations For Muslims and LGBTQ Students in the Woodbury Campus Center
The old Student Senate office, which served as a target of protest after a racist graffiti was found scribbled on the wall and some senators attempted to cover it up, has undergone a transformation.
Officials are working on installing a wash and prayer room there for USM’s Muslim students to feel more comfortable. One’s going up in Glickman Library too. Also in the works are gender-neutral bathrooms throughout campus.
A Year Long Convocation On The Intersection Of Race And Democracy
On September 29th, the University will kick off a special convocation with a keynote speech by Manbo Dòwòti Désir, a scholar and human rights activist who has spent 40 years documenting the artifacts attached to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Throughout the year, public panel discussions and events will be hosted at USM around the topic of “Race and Participatory Democracy,” aimed at defining what is a healthy democracy and how the ordinary citizen fits into it.
“I hope there will be tension in terms of what is presented,” said Dr. Leroy Rowe, a professor of African American history at USM. “We want to demonstrate the power of the individual to change democracy.”
But who’s going to be leading these conversations?
A More Diverse Staff
Rowe said that “students want to see more diversity in terms of who's standing in front of the podium in the classroom,” and it would seem that USM has addressed that by hiring several new faculty of color, including a new member of the mental health counseling team.
On top of that, the University's search committee is now required to undergo an implicit bias training before scouting for new professors.
“We’ve got new bodies on campus, but also new courses that speak to a wide array of challenges and problems,” said Rowe.
Two New Minors And Several New Relevant Courses
USM has added several new course offerings around the topics of race, gender, and class differences; the Anthropology department now offers a Social Justice minor after receiving a $600,000 grant from the National Education Association, and the History department now offers a Race and Ethnic Studies minor.
The Provost and Vice President of Student Affairs Jeannine Uzzi said adding these options was important because students need to understand “that there are real differences between the perspective of those in majority versus those in a minority.”
“Are faculty really prepared to be in the weeds with students on a daily basis on these difficult questions?” asked Uzzi rhetorically during the interview. “Maybe they're not. We’ll see.”
An Effort To Hold Leadership Accountable
In the wake of the controversy around the Student Senate’s complacency toward the graffiti incidents, starting this semester, student leadership is required to report any instances of hate, both physical and nonphysical, should they observe any.
Any newly appointed Senators are now subject to a day-long training around topics of civility, tolerance, and implicit bias.
A New Debate Series Aimed At Bridging The Political Divide
Central to all these initiatives is an effort to unite the campus as a cohesive community that respects one another despite any political differences. USM hopes to encourage within its student body not just diversity of immutable characteristics, but diversity of thought.
Noting that the University has a responsibility to also represent its conservative students, Muna Adan, Chair of the Student Senate, mentioned a new series of campus events she helped launch called “Candid Conversations” where people of all political persuasions will debate over big, albeit polarizing ideas.
Adan, who during the controversy with the Senate was called “every name and label in the book” by protesters, said some of them aren’t interested in talking and have lost patience with the call for civility and dialogue.
“It's kind of hard to have conversations with people,” said Adan. “I was told that it's no longer time for conversations, it's time for action.”
But Adan, along with her colleagues in the Senate and University administration, believe that challenging opinions with rhetoric is more productive than shouting them down with insults.
And referring to the students that still have particularly sensitive grievances with campus culture, Adan urged that they get out and run for Student Senate, or at the very least, vote.
“We just have to bring people together,” said Adan. “And if you want to make a difference this most effective way to do so is from within.”
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