Aggressive effort’ behind exposing Ski Team party

Patrick Svitek

A group of Northwestern students used aggressive and at times coercive methods to expose a controversial Ski Team social event, according to central players in the campus firestorm that resulted.

In a four-paragraph letter to the student body Wednesday, the highest-level University administrators commended the Ski Team and campus cultural groups for acting responsibly in the wake of the April 21 party, during which students wore costumes depicting several nationalities. Students not involved in the party have called the outfits culturally insensitive.

“We are … encouraged by the subsequent actions taken by all of the students involved,” said the letter, which was signed by Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin, Provost Dan Linzer and President Morton Schapiro. “It took courage on the part of the affected students to address the issue with the sponsors of the event, and there was willingness on the part of the student group to listen and apologize for their actions. This week students have met and engaged in constructive conversations with their peers and University staff.”

According to both sides, the process wasn’t quite so smooth.

“There was some real strong-arming made,” Ski Team president Matt Dolph told The Daily on Wednesday, referring to his initial meeting with Weinberg senior Kellyn Lewis, Medill senior Dallas Wright and Weinberg junior Paul Jackson. Those three students, who are black, have helped dub the party the “Racist Olympics.”

Additional details have since emerged about the negotiations between the two sides. The following account is based on interviews conducted over the past three days with Dolph, Lewis and Weinberg sophomore Benjy Leibowitz, who acted as an informal mediator between the two camps on several occasions.

All three corroborated the specifics Wednesday night.

Lewis said he heard Saturday’s party while walking by outside and stationed himself on a nearby property, taking photos with his camera phone.

It was not until the party died down Saturday evening that Ski Team members realized Lewis had witnessed their social event and was offended by the party theme. A group of Ski Team executive board members contacted Lewis on Sunday morning, signaling they wanted to meet as soon as possible to reconcile.

Several attendees recalled a clear ultimatum offered by Lewis to the Ski Team: Provide your own photos or the uncensored images, along with a formal complaint about the incident, would be sent to NU administrators.

At the Sunday meeting, Lewis laid out a stark option to a group of Ski Team executive board members: He would send NU administrators uncensored photos of the party unless the Ski Team suggested an alternative – in this case, doctoring their own pictures to exchange.

At the time, the Ski Team was apologetic but caught off-guard by the intensity with which Lewis, Wright and Jackson condemned the party. All participants in the meeting described the encounter as heated and occasionally hostile. That tension would set the tone for a campus controversy that brought almost 200 students to a Wednesday night Associated Student Government forum on diversity.

Lewis said he made it clear NU administrators would see the uncensored photos if the Ski Team did not hand over their own images.

“That was the point,” he said.

Leibowitz recalled seeing the party photos Lewis snapped at a distance with his camera phone.

If Lewis’ photos ever saw the light of day, Leibowitz said, the Ski Team would undoubtedly be in a more difficult situation than it currently is.

“In my opinion, (Lewis’ photos) would have been incriminating enough to warrant the need for cooperation,” Leibowitz said. “In other words, they were incriminating enough that the Ski Team knew they were up shit’s creek.”

Lewis described asking one of the Ski Team executives what he was wearing at the party and then presenting the Ski Team executive with one of the photos he took.

“I said, ‘This is you, huh?'” Lewis recalled. “That’s how they knew it was incriminating. I showed them the photos from my camera phone.”

The Ski Team executive board members apparently got the message. Immediately after leaving the meeting Sunday, they blurred out the faces on their own photos of the party and sent the censored images to Lewis and his friends.

The Ski Team representatives shared their party pictures on the condition that they would only be used in discussions with high-level NU administrators and student leaders to address diversity issues.

Instead, the censored images surfaced on a Tumblr site between Sunday and Monday. On Monday night, Lewis posted the team’s photos in a Facebook note detailing the controversial party.

On Thursday, Lewis admitted he wished he had been more specific about how the team’s photos would be shared.

“I regret that I wasn’t clear, but I don’t regret that I put them up there,” Lewis said.

He told The Daily on Wednesday that he reiterated to the Ski Team they would be “exposed” in that first meeting.

During Monday’s “emergency meeting” at the Black House, Leibowitz suggested a meeting again with both parties. At that concurrent meeting, the group of Ski Team executive board members claimed they did not know the censored photos would be shared in the public domain.

They also expressed concern that the censored photos still revealed identifying characteristics that could implicate Ski Team members who attended the party.

Leibowitz agreed that Lewis and his friends resorted to an “aggressive effort,” but that the Ski Team still has a lot for which to be thankful.

“They recognize that this could have had a very different ending, and, yes, they are in hot water at the moment,” Leibowitz said. “But they’re still alive, and they’re still in the discussion.”

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