University torn over vandalism

Janette Neuwahl

Northwestern community members who gathered Monday night to discuss the slurs that have plagued campus in the past two weeks heard a number of ideas about how to move forward — at the same time they heard of more hateful vandalism, this time on South Campus.

William Banis, vice president for student affairs, announced at the forum at Norris University Center that a “No Place for Hate” poster — made by NU to demonstrate intolerance for discrimination — was defaced earlier Monday afternoon. Mary Goldenberg, acting director for University Residential Life, said a swastika was found on the poster, which was placed in South Mid-Quads Hall.

The forum, which began as an open dialogue among community members, quickly turned into a passionate struggle between students and administrators trying to understand each other’s point of view.

Conversation heated as students grew frustrated by University President Henry Bienen’s response to demands for automatic expulsion of perpetrators of hate crimes. Students also requested police- and camera-monitored security in dorms. Bienen said establishing an automatic penalty for perpetrators would negate NU’s policy of a case-by-case evaluation of student conduct infractions.

“I will not suspend a process that you students, along with the administration, elaborated over the years,” he told about 175 attendees. “I’m not going to set myself up as judge — even for acts of violence.

“There is a process that exists that you established, and you’re going to live with it. I don’t know why you would want to do away with that.”

Heather Foster, interim coordinator of For Members Only, read a statement from the black student group demanding a clear policy on racial discrimination acts. After Bienen explained the importance of “due process” for all students, Education senior Terry Bailey countered that administrative action should match students’ passion for strong penalties.

“I know what happens when someone plagiarizes. … But why don’t I know what happens when someone writes a swastika on a whiteboard?” Bailey asked.

The University Hearing and Appeals System decides the fate of a student who has violated acceptable conduct at NU, if there is not a conciliatory decision, said Mary Desler, associated vice president for student affairs. The university also would invoke criminal charges, which for a first-offense hate crime is one to three years in prison.

Elizabeth Whittaker expressed disappointment with past reactions.

“Northwestern has a history of this, and it concerns me,” said Whittaker, an Education senior. “I was welcomed to Northwestern with Matt Hale, and as I’m leaving, ‘nigger’ and swastikas are being written on dorm doors. These are my fuzzy memories of NU.”

The two-and-a-half hour forum was one of several responses by the university community to a string of incidents that began Feb. 11, when the words “nigger,” “bitch” and “slut” were scrawled on doors in Ayers College of Commerce and Industry.

A swastika was found etched into a third-floor door in McCulloch Hall the next day, and since then four more of the anti-Semitic symbols have been found in Bobb and McCulloch Halls.

Students, faculty, staff and administrators proposed a number of possible deterrents during the forum. Whitaker suggested a mandatory “diversity-track curriculum” for all students.

University Police Chief Saul Chafin said that using fingerprinting to track down perpetrators would be futile, and he questioned the benefits of putting cameras in dorms.

Weinberg junior Jeremy Cohen, unlike other students, said the university’s actions have been sufficient.

“Racist incidents may never be eliminated from society, but what’s important is how we react to it,” he said. “All of these actions (we are taking) create an atmosphere that gives the exact opposite message that the people who wrote these things wanted to convey.”

Nevertheless, students insisted Bienen unleash an ultimatum on the perpetrators. He acknowledged their concern but decided not to comply with students’ demands for a set punishment.

“I don’t want to change the community and disturb it because of the acts of these aberrants,” he said.

Although discussion got tense, Hillel Cultural Life co-President Miriam Lieberman found comfort in the event’s large attendance. Foster said she was less optimistic.

“I thought it would be more productive, but people got frustrated with the administration’s response and walked out,” said Foster, an Education senior. “Hopefully they will still feel encouraged to do something.”