Dear Associate Director Michael Smith,
I hope this finds you well in the New Year. I was happy to have the opportunity to speak with you at length on Friday, December 8, at the Office of Student Conduct, Community Standards and Wellbeing. I appreciate you taking the time to talk. Since then, I’ve reflected on our conversation, and I want to feedback a few of the main points of our exchange, as well as my persistent concerns. Please be patient with the length of this letter, as its concerns are many.
It’s been made quite clear by responses across the university—as demonstrated at the most recent listening session held by President James Smith, and elsewhere—that the current mode of adjudicating and reprimanding the students who have been sanctioned as a result 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 wellbeing, both of which your office is charged to nourish, serve, and protect. By failing to acknowledge this in a meaningful way, I’m afraid that your office is compromising its integrity and failing its responsibility, while attracting criticism across multiple communities.
I understand that this is a harsh criticism, and it amounts to more than what you referred to during our discussion as a “difference in philosophy.” These students were sanctioned as a result of expressing a genuine need to organize their voice, assert their presence, and secure for themselves a safe space 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. Regardless of the official rule that bans students from the Student Center after hours, EMU’s decision to echo that imperative that Black students “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, and the administration’s failure to recognize it as such is consequential. While this echo might sound insubstantial to the administration’s ears, it is loud and clear to the community. Please help to open the administration’s ears to this echo!
These students deserved to have been responded to compassionately and supportively by administration, DPS 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.
Moreover, for DPS to then devote hours to identifying a handful of Black students—students who committed no crime, participated in no violence, damaged no property—is not only incomprehensible, it is a waste of community resource.
Under these circumstances, any sanctions whatsoever amount to an unnecessary injury added to the very painful 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 irresponsibly. As such, the administration’s response to this situation can only be adequately addressed in a Civil Rights context as it continues to reproduce the dynamics of institutional racism that the community is struggling to combat.
You might say: What does race matter? The Student Code is colorblind. But if your Office, together with EMU administration genuinely believes this, then it too is blind. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, Michael, nor personally; I am simply stating the obvious: The EMU administration has failed to acknowledge how its “colorblind” procedures are reproducing conditions of racism on campus.
I can understand that you might feel that you need to defend the Student Code of Conduct and the manner by which it is administered; after all, this is your job and your function; this is what you are paid to do. But to hold firm to a set of codes whose application in this instance has revealed itself to be consequentially flawed is really unconscionable at this point.
To argue that Civil Disobedience is about “breaking a rule to make a point,” as you repeated to me multiple times, and that “a rule is a rule,” and that the charge of your office is simply “to determine whether a rule has been broken” and then to act in accord with the University’s disciplinary process with its algorithmic flow of procedures, betrays a total failure of responsibility to nourish and protect the Community Standards and Wellbeing that it is the responsibility of your office to serve. Those standards and that wellbeing require more caring discernment under these conditions. In other words, 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 everyone involved.
One other concern I had upon leaving your office is this: You expressed to me your belief that these students need to be disciplined—if only slapped on the wrist for “breaking a rule.” You also expressed your belief that they need to be admonished for “acting disrespectfully.” At one point during our conversation, I was astonished by the way you impugned the integrity of the students themselves, suggesting that they had “bad attitudes,” were “prone to lying,” and that they acted disrespectfully, as if these things alone might warrant and support student sanctions your office is administering. Honestly, I find these sentiments rather alarming, and believe that they too are informed by issues of race and politics. More to the point, these feelings and beliefs that you expressed are entirely outside the purview of the disciplinary action your office is responsible for administering in the interest of community standards and wellbeing. Student attitudes do not constitute actionable behavior and are not subject to reprimand and punishment. Please do not confuse the issues here.
These students are struggling under hostile conditions to preserve their own sense of wellbeing in the face of a University that has failed to protect it. To reprimand them even minimally is unacceptable and only serves to agitate the hostile conditions they are struggling to address. Any sanction—even the most symbolic—constitutes a form of punishment and is insupportable and objectionable. This is why so many faculty members at the President’s Listening Session on Friday Dec 8 spoke out against any form of sanction while requesting that EMU suspend the process currently underway 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 particular circumstances. Given the situation, this is a perfectly reasonable request, and I am asking that you use your discretion, responsibility and agency to advance it.
In short, the community is asking your office, and the whole EMU administration, to recognize that the current approach to these issues is part of the problem, and so long as administrative process is part of the problem, it simply cannot administer a just solution.
I believe that you do have some agency in this process, Michael, as well the discretion to intervene in order to remain faithful to Community Standards and Wellbeing. I continue to hope that you will find the resolve and the fortitude to take a responsible stand. Most significantly, you have the opportunity to offer a model here.
Sincerely and respectfully yours,