Northwestern trustee apologizes for race-related squabble with student on Facebook
October 26, 2012
Northwestern trustee Ben Slivka apologized Thursday for participating in a heated exchange about race relations with an NU student on Facebook.
The private conversation came after Weinberg sophomore Pleshette Strong, who is black, posted a Facebook status saying former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney exercised "white male privilege" when he interrupted the moderator and President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate earlier this month.
"White male privilege? Why are you getting all racist on your FB wall?" Slivka, who is white, asked Strong in his initial message, according to a digital version of the Facebook exchange posted Tuesday night on an NU student's blog.
In a statement, Slivka (McCormick '82) admitted he used the "wrong tone and choice of words" in addressing Strong, who he said he met at Norris University Center last year and shortly thereafter added as a Facebook friend.
"Through my Facebook messages, I had hoped to initiate a discussion with this student about the issues of race, gender and power," Slivka said in the statement. "I realize that I probably have now done so in a much broader way. While that is not what I intended, I do hope that some good will result from it."
"Again, I apologize to this student, to my fellow trustees, and to the University community," he added.
Strong did not respond to several requests for comment Thursday.
The Strong-Slivka squabble began in early October, when the student took issue with Romney cutting off Obama during the first presidential debate in Denver. According to an Oct. 5 study done by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, "neither candidate was mainly to blame" for interrupting moderator Jim Lehrer or one another more often.
"Romney interrupting the mediator and Obama thinking that (expletive) is ok is just a result of that white privilege that he has benefited from for so long," Strong wrote in the Facebook status, according to an account she shared with student groups early Wednesday morning.
In a subsequent message, Slivka pressed Strong to provide a specific example of encountering "white male privilege" at NU. Strong apparently did not respond, as Slivka sent a consecutive message telling Strong she owed him the "courtesy of a reply."
"I don't need to tell you only my experience at NU, I know plenty of minorities at this school who can verify my views," Strong said as part of her response, which was the last message she appears to have sent Slivka.
Slivka's final message opened by saying Strong is "writing about beliefs, not truth."
The conversation was circulated on social media and student group listservs in the weeks after it happened. It sparked an impromptu discussion in at least one African-American Studies class.
In his statement, Slivka said he enjoys having "spirited discussions" with his Facebook friends, many of whom are current or former NU students, and reached out to Strong with the same intention.
Slivka is most famous for leading Microsoft's Internet Explorer team through a substantial update in 1996. His name is on the North Campus residential college focused on science and engineering.
In an email to several listservs obtained by The Daily, Strong urges students to use the interaction as a starting point for broader dialogue.
"I am not asking you to agree with me but I am asking that you at least read the pdf I've attached and understand that I particularly message you multicultural groups because it is something I think that is very important that we don't discuss," Strong said. "I hope you will then engage the rest of the community regardless of where you stand."