Students respond to rhetoric with call for community
“Dear Chancellor Wrighton, what is going on on our campus? That’s a question I think a lot of people are asking right now, but it’s not the question I’m asking. Why are we just now talking about this, and why have we let this be such a shock to us?”
Sophomore Reuben Riggs opened the “Dear Chancellor Wrighton” video campaign with those words in a recording that was taken down from YouTube within several hours of being posted. The campaign, with just fewer than 500 Facebook members as of Wednesday night, is intended to give students the chance to personally address the Chancellor with how last week’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge incident and the responses have affected them and what they hope to see from the administration and community.
The group’s creators hope to reach 200 videos by the end of March. As of Wednesday, they were up to 16.
The campaign is just one element of a multifaceted student response to last week’s Bear’s Den incident and the heated conversation surrounding it.
Connect 4 and Residential Area Real Art (RARA) coordinated Wednesday to hold a solidarity walk from the Brookings arch to Olin Library before having students write self-affirming statements on black panels propped up by the George Washington statue.
The boards were printed with the words “I am human because,” and students completed the sentences writing anything from “I love” to “I share 99% of my genes with you. And you. And you” to “I hurt” in colored chalk.
Junior Camille Wright, who started the “Dear Chancellor Wrighton” campaign, said it was inspired by incendiary comments posted online in response to the incident.
“It’s harder to insult somebody whose face that you see and whose name that you see, and I just really think that it’s shepherded a lot of people who wanted to say something but didn’t know how to. And it’s brought together more people than I expected who were willing to be a part of it,” Wright said.
“It started off as YouTube, and I know YouTube comments can be just as insane as any StudLife comments,” she added. “So I disabled the comments because, like I said in the letter of intent, it’s not here to be critiqued or commented on. It’s just here for people to say what they want to say. And enough people didn’t like the idea of the campaign that they reported it as bullying. So the video got taken down to be reviewed by YouTube, and we ended up appealing it to YouTube, more so for principle.”
The campaign, which Wright has been working on with seniors Princeton Hynes and Jacqui Germain, has since been hosted on Vimeo, where they had to purchase a membership because they passed the free upload limit.
The “I am human because” project was similarly created to extend discussion about diversity on campus. About 30 students total made the walk with candles before the Connect 4 co-presidents and a student gave speeches about diversity discussions on campus.
“We wanted to have something that lasts not only before spring break but also after spring break as well,” freshman and Connect 4 co-president Eric Zhang said.
Several administrators were present at Wednesday’s event as well.
“All of us need to be more aware,” Sharon Stahl, vice chancellor for students, said. “We need to talk more about community expectations—when a new freshman class comes in that we really talk about the values of our community and that we expect [everyone] to live up to them and really get to know each other better, and to understand why something may not bother me, but it might bother you. And I want to understand why.”
“It’s race. It’s religion. It’s gender,” Stahl added. “It’s so many things that we just have different perspectives, but if we try to understand one another’s perspectives, it really enriches our community.”
Vice Provost Adrienne Davis said she has been working with Stahl and Student Union President Julian Nicks to move forward from last week’s incident. She found Wednesday’s event encouraging.
“It’s really a pretty powerful symbol of how much our students care about the University, how much they care the University [is] an open environment to everyone,” Davis said. “I think of myself as a steward of the University and the students and the people who—this University really belongs to them, and to just see this kind of inspiration and collaboration, it just really heartens me not only about Washington University but about the future.”
At an interview last Friday, Chancellor Mark Wrighton read from the welcome speech he offers at convocation to reinforce the University’s commitment to diversity.
“I say in the speech I’m going to give you a couple of elements of advice, and then I’m going to give you my great expectation,” Wrighton said. “That great expectation is, quote, ‘to always show respect for others, both on campus and in the community that surrounds us. We are a diverse campus where we can learn from our differences and grow to appreciate each other as individuals…There’s no room here for racism, harassment or discrimination. Respect for one another remains one of our most important community values.’ I say that almost in those words every year, and people often ask me what is special about Washington University. And it is a very strong sense of community.”
“The incident was an insensitive one at the very least,” he added.
Stahl would not comment on how the University is responding to the SAE pledges involved in last week’s incident. The chapter was suspended indefinitely as the University investigation commenced on Wednesday.
“We’re moving forward as rapidly and responsibly as possible,” Stahl said.