Monday, November 29, 2021

GUEST COLUMN: MSU post-Nassar: Have any lessons been learned?

October 7, 2020
<p>The Michigan State Spartan logo on a building, photographed August 31, 2020.</p>

The Michigan State Spartan logo on a building, photographed August 31, 2020.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

By Alan Shulman, MSU international relations senior

When I first got to Michigan State University in the fall of 2017, Larry Nassar was on trial. As a student in James Madison College, I saw how closely my fellow Madisonians were following this debacle.

Students would congregate in large groups in our cafeteria around television screens to watch the trial. It was an appalling introduction to life on a college campus, especially Michigan State. We all felt sick for the women who were abused by this vile human being, but we felt even more sick for a different reason.

Our own administrators, and the university we were dedicating multiple years of our lives to and paying tuition to, were at least partially complicit in covering up Nassar’s abuse.

Ex-MSU president Lou Anna Simon — who gave the convocation to my freshman class — resigned in disgrace, and was put on trial, along with multiple other MSU employees, accused of lying to police about her knowledge of Nassar. In my three short years on campus, I have had four different university presidents: Simon, John Engler, Satish Udpa, and now Samuel Stanley Jr.

Many students quickly realized campus was not the safest place for students, especially for women. With many parts of campus very poorly lit, as well as the Nassar situation proving the university does not take sexual assault allegations seriously, many female students have rightly felt unsafe and scared to walk alone at night. I have had female friends tell me stories of being groped, sexually assaulted and harassed, and of attempted kidnappings on campus.

These might not be regular occurrences, but they happen enough that many female students Uber most places they go, especially at night. This should be an unnecessary expense, but at this current moment it is.

MSU is not transparent about crime reporting. The Department of Education ordered MSU to pay $4.5 million in fines in 2019 for not encouraging students to report crimes on campus, not having a stable, streamlined process to act on these transgressions, and for repeatedly under-reporting crimes on campus in the annual report the university is mandated to release.

The issues are unfortunately not exclusive to just violence against women. Other groups on campus also feel unprotected, and not encouraged to report any concerns or issues they might have.

In the past year, there were many examples of discriminatory incidents on campus, including a racist toy display in the Wharton Performing Arts Center, a swastika drawn across the street from the Hillel Jewish Student Center, racist comments posted on a livestream of a meeting between Black students and Stanley, and members of a fraternity referring to other students as “kik*s,” a derogatory term for Jewish people.

Many students, including women, Blacks and Jews, are frustrated by the social climate on campus, and with the lack of support from the university. Over the past few months, I have come to understand this frustration on a very personal level.

In fall 2019, I was in a class that focused on American foreign policy in the Middle East, that essentially blamed Jews for the issues in the Middle East and accused Jews of pulling strings in American government to support Israel instead of other groups in the region.

The main book assigned in the class, ​Quicksand​ by Geoffrey Wawro, freely employed the most common anti-Semitic tropes that have been used throughout history to justify violence against Jews all over the world. ​

The professor was unwilling to make any changes to the curriculum.

Students in the class also repeatedly made bigoted statements, including accusing Jews of causing all the issues in the Middle East, and calling Jews ‘arrogant.' The professor made no effort to pushback on this ludicrous and bigoted statement.

After the semester was over, I was advised by several administrators in the Student Affairs Department at the University, as well as the Jewish Studies Department, to report the class to the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE).

I filed a report in January 2020, expressing my concerns about the class, and purposefully did not utilize the anonymous option when submitting it. I wanted to engage with the university on this issue, and ideally have OIE take action to ensure a class that was full of ignorance and anti-Semitism was not taught in that way again.

Instead, I heard nothing from the department for over two months, when the usual response time is within six weeks. I only got a response from OIE after I got in contact with a student journalist, who reached out asking for comment from the department. I was informed there was a ‘clerical error’ and my report was accidentally filed anonymously, therefore not requiring any additional action or follow up on their end.

In my subsequent conversations with OIE, I was consistently stonewalled, informed OIE does not deal with classroom discrimination and the class did not "meet their anti-discrimination bar."

Director of OIE Melody Werner informed me they “[know] I will get something done because I am passionate” and cut our meeting short, informing me nothing can be done. The director not only disregarded what I said, but she also sent me a concluding email thanking me for my time while I was still speaking.

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She sent me to multiple other departments on campus, all of which informed me that OIE is the main body responsible for addressing my concerns, and that they are unsure why I was sent their way. Unfortunately, I am not the only one to have a negative experience with OIE.

As a result of these serious issues at MSU, I have been working with the Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU, to pass a bill updating the Anti-Discrimination Policy (ADP) — which is woefully inadequate and has not been revised in over five years — mandating a review of the ADP every three years and mandating OIE to inform students the status of their report regularly.

This original policy permits OIE to never take action on student concerns, dragging the process on until students either give up or graduate. Together with the Jewish Studies Institute, we have been working with the university to enact necessary changes and to increase bias and discrimination training on campus.

Since President Stanley got to campus, there have certainly been some steps taken to address the many issues that have existed at MSU for many years. For example, a committee is in the process of being set up to revise the ADP that has not been reviewed in over five years.

Stanley should be commended for seeing the clear flaws at the university and taking initial steps to fix them.

However, given the serious institutional failures at the university, and the experiences many students have had in the few years, I, and many others, will wait and see what changes take place.

The fact that OIE does not follow up with students who had to file an in depth, emotionally exhausting report is unacceptable and appalling, and needs to be changed immediately.

Students deserve to know what is being done, if anything, about their report.

By Shiksha Sneha, ASMSU Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer

In this last year, a lot of actions and decisions have been made by the university administration to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as the creation of a Chief Diversity Officer position and the feasibility study on the Multicultural Building.

There have been statements on promoting an equitable campus and giving all students a sense of belonging. However, all of that is futile if there isn't an adequate institution to uphold those values and fight discriminatory and harmful behavior.

At ASMSU, I work with several minoritized populations and almost all of them have had a negative experience with the OIE.

We are told that because we don't tolerate hate, we should report hateful incidents to OIE. What we are not told is that nothing happens beyond that initial report. Oftentimes, students filing the report don't even know what's happening with their cases. Many of the perpetrators are often let go without any tangible consequences.

The system that is OIE is broken. Their lack of response and action creates further trauma among the victims who have to keep fighting for their peace.

There can't be true equity on this campus until we address the harms caused by that office and vigorously work to change it.

By Abii-Tah Bih, ASMSU President

​As a student at Michigan State University, I have not had any major engagement with OIE.

As student body president, however, I have received too many reports of bias incidents. Some of the students I engage with report microaggressions in their classrooms, in living spaces, from fellow students, and sometimes from community members in positions of immediate authority.

When I first came to MSU in 2017, I also saw the ugly form that blatant racism could take our campus. Prior to that, I had barely heard the words “racial bias” or “racism." I came from a majority Black community in Cameroon, so being Black was never an identity we pondered upon.

Upon arrival at MSU, a bias incident involving a noose plunged the community into agitation. As I digested sips of information from enraged Facebook posts, I came to comprehend the historical context behind the bias incident.

For the first time in my life, I saw my skin color through the eyes of others and then it hit me. It hit me that I too had been attacked and the noose was the weapon. It hit me that every racial attack on every Black person was also an attack on me.

Three years down the road, I have watched members of several communities call out for action against perpetrators of discrimination. Students have arisen in solidarity during protests, sit-ins, committees and forums. These students make demands because diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are not just buzzwords to us. They are a matter of survival.

The lack of action behind those words whispers fear and unsafety whenever students walk down our campus streets at night. Whether it is acknowledged or not, identity is existent and must be validated. If these identities were unreal and irrational as often claimed, perpetrators will not go the extra mile to spur hate on these fellow human beings.

With that said, all institutions on campus with any ounce of power must deliberately uplift each Spartan on MSU’s campus. The blanket efforts that we invest in all members will never be enough unless we dedicate the same amount of attention to each individual’s experience.

In other words, actionable equity is what we demand and any department that falls behind on meeting that demand is failing indeed.

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