Prof. Rob Halpern’s Latest Letter to EMU President James Smith

Dear President Smith ~

I hope this finds you well in the New Year.

I think we can agree—judging by responses across the University and elsewhere—that the current mode of adjudicating and reprimanding the Black students who have been sanctioned in the wake of a nonviolent Student Center sit-in is not working in accord with the community’s desire for high ethical standards, nor does it respond to the need to protect student and community wellbeing. By failing to acknowledge this, the Office of the President at EMU continues to compromise its integrity, while further diminishing the community’s good faith in your Strategic Plan when it comes to “Diversity and Inclusion.” Moreover, the actions of the University’s administration have attracted intense criticism across multiple communities, locally and nationally. Indeed, EMU’s reputation as a hospitable university for people of color has been significantly damaged under your watch, and not only by racist vandals, but by the action and inaction of your administration.

Students continue to struggle under hostile conditions to preserve a sense of their own wellbeing—emotionally and physically, socially and psychologically—in the face of an administration that many perceive has failed to protect it. To reprimand these students even minimally only serves to agitate the hostile conditions they are struggling to address. This is unacceptable. Any sanction—even the most symbolic—constitutes a form of punishment and is objectionable in the context of recent events and an affront to community standards and ethics. This is why so many faculty members at your recent listening sessions have spoken out against any form of sanction while insisting—in sync with your own apparent willingness to admit the possibility that the system might be flawed—that you temporarily suspend the disciplinary process currently in place until the community has found a way to assess the adequacy of the Student Code of Conduct as it is currently being administered under these circumstances. Given the situation, this is a perfectly reasonable request, and we are asking that you respond to it as such.

To make matters worse, we’ve learned that the students’ appeals are now not only resulting in the administration upholding these illegitimate sanctions, but these same students are being denied a hearing—that is, they are being denied a voice in this process—on the grounds that the charges are “not serious enough”. EMU seems to want it both ways: to punish students while simultaneously insisting that they are not being punished! The charges are apparently serious enough to warrant an aggressive process of routing out students by way of video technologies; serious enough to disrupt their final weeks of the semester with traumatizing reprimands and sanctions letters, several of which initially threatened suspension; serious enough to warrant hour long meetings (15 of them) with staff from the conduct office; serious enough for faculty to have organized support for these students, often serving as their advocates in their meetings with conduct officers; serious enough for faculty to write letters to families of sanctioned students explaining the embarrassing circumstances that have resulted in their son or daughter being dragged into a draconian process for acting conscionably and exigently in the spirit of Martin Luther King to combat racism on campus, only to be met with the heavy hand of an institutionally racist disciplinary order; serious enough to generate thousands of signatures demanding that sanctions be dropped; serious enough to attract the attention of the ACLU; but somehow not serious enough to warrant a hearing for students who continue to insist—as many of us here do—that the sanctions being administered and upheld are unjust and that even the most minor reprimand constitutes a violation of these students’ Civil Rights.

During that last listening session, you questioned your own power as President to intervene in this process; you also by turns questioned the “wisdom” of any such an intervention, perhaps because you don’t want to disrupt the smooth functioning of bureaucratically administered disciplinary process. It was absolutely clear, however, from the vocally unanimous faculty present at that session that you would have a mandate to intervene right now, and that the specificity of these cases—in the context both of our historical moment and the recent events here on campus—not only warrants, but demands that you intervene. Is it possible that you are beholden to supersensible forces and higher powers? Or, is the administration afraid of certain legal implications, as if honoring these students’ legitimate appeals might open a hypothetical floodgate for less legitimate appeals in some imagined future? If the latter fear has somehow contributed to our current impasse, then it is evermore clear that the Student Code of Conduct needs to be thoroughly re-examined to ensure against any potential confusion between peaceful, nonviolent protest whose goals and methods are in accord with community standards, standards that reflect a history of Civil Rights, and its opposite. Your hypothetical example at today’s session to the effect of “What if Pray Harrold were occupied by student protesters with whom we disagree?” is simply a red herring and misguided, and it needs to be addressed as such. Please don’t make the error of taking this analogy seriously. One approach to correcting this error—while pre-empting whatever fears and bad comparisons—would be for the administration to recognize these cases properly within a Civil Rights context. Thus we are asking you to act in accord with the standards of the community you are here to serve and address this in its proper context. In order to address this adequately and responsibly, the current process—whose integrity has already been impugned—together with its judgments, must be temporarily suspended.

It may be worth rehearsing the egregiousness of the University’s decision to reprimand students in the first place. These students expressed a genuine need to organize their voice, assert their presence, and secure for themselves a safe space inside a building on EMU campus, all in the wake of execrable racist tagging insisting that Black students “leave.” These students’ collective assertion was at once symbolic and material. Their collective action was also implicitly critical of the EMU administration’s response to the campus crisis, and it drew important attention to what many believe to be the inadequacy of that response.

The University’s directive that these students “leave” the Student Center echoes—quite literally—the racists’ demand that Black students leave campus. We all need to hear this echo! It is real; it is material; and failure to listen to it is consequential. Regardless of whatever official rule that bans students from the Student Center after hours, EMU’s decision to echo that racist demand by directing Black students to “leave” is reprehensible. Indeed, it is this directive that ought to be seriously scrutinized, apologized for, and corrected; and yet, it is because of students’ “failure to comply” with this inappropriate directive to “leave” that they are being sanctioned. The irony here is rather grotesque. While this echo might sound insubstantial irrelevant to the administration’s ears, it is loud and clear to the community. You have organized a series of “listening sessions”; now please offer the EMU community a model of careful listening!

These students deserve to have been responded to compassionately and supportively, imaginatively and collaboratively, by administration, DPS, the Office of Student Conduct (Community Standards and Wellbeing), and your office alike, not with directives to vacate a space and told that they are “free to continue their protest outside”: Their protest was precisely about being inside.

As long as the University continues to insist on punishing Black students for their protest, there can be no effective and honest way to move forward with a priority plank in your Strategic Plan. Another way of putting this might be: Without an adequate examination of how conditions of institutional racism are structurally reproduced under the sign of “colorblindness” here at EMU, your plan’s keywords “diversity and Inclusion” will only continue to hemorrhage, and reveal themselves to be empty fetishes.

Many of us continue to hope that you will recognize and make publically clear that the directive to vacate the Student Center ought never to have been issued. Moreover, for administrators and DPS to then devote hours pouring over video footage in an aggressive effort to identify a handful of Black student protesters—students who committed no crime, participated in no violence, damaged no property—as if DPS were seeking the vandals responsible for the racist tagging itself, is not only embarrassing and incomprehensible, it’s a waste of precious community resource.

Under these circumstances, any sanctions whatsoever amount to an unnecessary injury added to the injury of racist violence. To act as if this were simply an issue of “conduct” reveals EMU’s unwillingness to acknowledge the obvious: We are dealing here with highly volatile issues of race, in response to which the University has acted against the grain of its own pronouncements to foster a hospitable environment intolerant to racism. Insofar as the sit-in took place in response to traumatic racist events on campus, this is first and foremost a race issue and cannot be sanitized by allowing “conduct” to eclipse the context and the stakes.

You might say: What does race matter? The Student Code is colorblind. But if you genuinely believe this, then you, too, are blind. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, I am simply stating the obvious: The EMU administration has failed to acknowledge how its “colorblind” procedures are reproducing conditions of racism on campus. To fetishize “rules” and “process” under current circumstances is to abdicate discretion and resign the process to a “business as usual” logic that is failing the entire University community.

Before I conclude, I want briefly to draw attention and respond to several specific things that came up during your last listening session on 12/8:

— Please don’t trivialize the gravity of even the most minimal of “hand-slapping” reprimands. Students have genuinely been traumatized by the sanctions they’ve received from the Office of Student Conduct. I am often afraid that you can only see the gravity of these sanctions from within an administrative bubble that has sadly become inured to the wellbeing of its own student body.

— Please understand that any resulting antagonisms between students and administration (including DPS) is an effect of structural contradictions that must be addressed at their foundation.

— While you have made it clear that you are responding to the Back Students’ 10-Point Plan, the administration’s failure to take ethical responsibility and suspend all sanctions undermines the integrity of that response in its totality.

In short, to deal only with the super-structural effects of institutional racism is to address the problem superficially. Some of us are demanding that the disciplinary process be suspended until these contradictions can be addressed and responded to; otherwise, these antagonisms will only become increasingly volatile.

Again, EMU’s determination to obscure issues of race as if they were merely issues of discipline is a manifestation of structural racism at EMU. Failure to address it as such places the whole administrative structure on the wrong side of contemporary history. As one of my colleagues eloquently said to you at the last listening session when you were supporting a business as usual approach to discipline, “This moment is different.” In other words, hewing to a conduct code as if its application were colorblind and without acknowledging the implications of context, circumstance, history and situation, can only fail to nourish conditions for wellbeing and social justice at our university, and such a failure will mean a failure of your Strategic Plan.

Given that some of these students have already exhausted the appeals process—which is not only failing to yield a reversal of the sanctions but is insultingly preventing these same students who reject these condescending judgements from moving their appeal to a hearing stage—the decision to move toward correcting this damage is yours and your alone.

As President of this University, you have the power, the discretion, and responsibility to be a model of humility here. Please choose to respond responsibly to this situation. Please find your ethical and historical compass and act accordingly: Suspend this disciplinary process and dismiss these sanctions; apologize for the university’s mishandling of this situation under your watch and correct the course.

Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to this letter. I have copied others who might be interested in it.

Sincerely and respectfully yours,

Rob Halpern

Associate Professor of Creative Writing

Department of English

One thought on “Prof. Rob Halpern’s Latest Letter to EMU President James Smith

  1. I am an emeritus professor who taught for over 45 years at EMU. This method of responding to student actions has been going on for as long as I can remember. How can one teach students to take steps when they see injustice and then punish them for doing so. One can argue that the issue was having students who stayed and did not leave the Union when told to do so. As I understand it they were not doing anyhing destructive in the Union.

    Students of color should always know that they belong on EMU’s campus and that they need to fight for fairness and dignity regarding their treatment at EMU. I am glad they stood up and said ‘enough’ I would have joined them had I know what was happening.

    The biggest problem at EMU and in the world is that there are those who believe that certain groups matter less than other groups.

    When a person is frightened because of clear hostility toward them one should expect them to do something to call attention to their predicament. The writings on campus buildings presented a threat and indicated hatred, Under such circumstances, people should take action “…against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.”

    To punish rather than to confront the problem of racism stirkes me as nothing more than punishing the messengers.

    I spent my career fighting to be certain that students understood their responsibility to fight discrimination and hatred wherever and wherever they found it. It takes courage to stand up for what is right and fair.

    I think EMU should apologize to the students who had the courage to stand up and standout. I applaud
    the students who stood up for a campus where all students are safe and have dignity. Such students should be admired for helping move the University in the direction of confronting a legitimate concern. EMU has been confronting the issue of racism since I first walked onto the campus in January of 1964.and has made progress. Nonetheless, there are still very serious and real issues that must be confronted. To punish the students who were the victims of the hatred doesno’t make sense. Until the University faces up to reality, issue of discrimination and adverse treatment of all students will continue to be a problem. All students should feel a sense of dignity and respect at the University.
    Gary L. Evans PhD…Professor Emeritus


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