Maintenance worker finds black teddy bear hanging at desk

Joseph Diebold, Web Editor

Northwestern warehouse associate Michael Collins arrived at his office in the Technological Institute basement on Dec. 3, just as he had each workday for the last five years.

But on this particular morning, Collins noticed something different about his office: A black stuffed panda bear, a gift from his niece that normally sits next to a stuffed white cat on his desktop, was hanging from a rope next to the desk, as if it had been lynched.

“When I saw that bear hanging there, it reminded me of black Americans getting hung and lynched,” Collins said. “That hit close to home because I have had a family member in my past, back in the ‘60s, who was hung in Mississippi, so to a black person, that’s horrifying.”

Collins, who said he is the only black employee among the almost 50 people he works with, said he immediately called University Police to report the incident and later filed a report with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access.

University spokesman Al Cubbage said he learned of Collins’ report last month. Cubbage called the issue a “personnel matter” that was being handled internally by both University Police and administrators.

“It was reviewed by the appropriate offices within the University administration, including University Police,” he said.

Cubbage said any results of the investigation “would not be disclosed publicly.”

Prior to finding the bear, Collins said he had multiple race-related altercations at NU with a white coworker. This included him being the target on separate occasions of a racial slur and verbal threats, as well as arguments on Facebook about President Barack Obama’s race. He said University Police told him they were unable to prove the individual was the one who hung the bear.

Since the incident, Collins has sent two emails to upper-level administration. The first, dated Dec. 14, was sent to President Morton Schapiro and others. Collins said Schapiro’s response indicated it was the first the president had heard of the incident.

“He kind of apologized and said this should not be tolerated at Northwestern,” Collins said.

But more than a month later, Collins was disappointed he had not heard more from a level higher than his immediate bosses. He penned a second email Jan. 17, this time to more than 15 administrators.

“I have not heard from any of my bosses at Facilities Management to say, ‘Michael, we are sorry this happened,’” he wrote. “I also have heard nothing in the way of preventing this from happening again to anyone at the University. Everyone is so quiet about the situation. I get the feeling the University just wants it to go away.”

Collins said he hoped for a better response from the “guys that sign my paycheck” and wanted to start a dialogue on “having respect for other people’s race, religion and things like that.”

“I’ve heard nothing, so I’m a little lost right now,” Collins said. “Sometimes silence is worse than saying something.”

Collins’ case is the latest in a bumpy history of race at NU among both staff and students. In February 2010, former UP officer Freddie Lee sued the University for discrimination following his 2009 firing, and last year, an off-campus party where students wore offensive costumes sparked campus-wide discussions on the state of diversity at NU.

Despite Collins’ disappointment in the University’s response, he said he did not necessarily see racism as a broader structural problem at NU, at least among his immediate coworkers.

“Northwestern, the five years I’ve been here, has really been a great place, up until this happened, he said. “Most of the guys down here are great. I’ve heard of incidents that happened, but I want to say it’s just a few bad apples.”