Letter to the editor: LLSP, AASP faculty demand University drop disciplinary action against ICE protesters

We, faculty members, staff and general supporters of Latina and Latino Studies Program and Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, write in support of the students who protested against the presence of a public relations representative of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a Sociology 201 class on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. We honor academic freedom at the university and respect professors’ discretion in inviting guest speakers of various ideologies and political positions to speak on campus. However, the presence of an ICE representative at NU represents something beyond academic freedom. It compromises the safety of some of our more vulnerable students.

A central theme within many of our LLSP and AASP courses and seminars is how U.S. nationalism has been regenerated over time through the persecution of immigrants from Asia and Latin America (as well as other regions) and the militarization of the United States’ southern border with Mexico, a border that was the result of what a vast majority of scholars describe as an act of U.S. imperialist aggression and occupation. Our students well understand these circumstances and their unique significance to our fields along with their relational ties to the histories of other racialized groups. Fields such as ours provide a space for underrepresented and historically disadvantaged Latinx and Asian American students and faculty to have a sense of community, safety and autonomy on university campuses that have excluded or neglected them. They also provide the curricula and analytical tools to better understand the origins and genealogy of xenophobia, indigenous dispossession and racially/ethnically codified discourses regarding U.S. citizenship and nationalism.

There are multiple ways that our students are sensitive to and wary about conditions such as forced deportation and the criminalization of “undocumented” peoples within the United States. They also understand the unique significance of protest and social movements, many of which were criminalized and persecuted by state authorities, to their belated access to institutions of higher learning. Part of our core mission as LLSP and AASP faculty members is to help them achieve such wariness and in ways that empower them to overcome fear and to embrace leadership roles. Such has been the history of Latina/Latino/Latinx Studies and Asian American Studies/Asian American-Pacific Islander, African-American/Black Studies, Native American/Indigenous Studies and other related interdisciplinary units. This does not represent an explicit rationale for student behavior or their strategies to provoke dialogue or change. It represents a context for understanding how and why our students understand, feel and respond to power dynamics on our campus and across its borders. It also represents a reminder of how the risks and sacrifices of students enhance dialogues and processes regarding diversity, inclusion and equality.

Contemporary circumstances exacerbate the meaning and significance of our curricula, mentorship and the histories of disparity that we study. At a time when the federal government and ICE in particular is arresting, detaining and deporting community leaders, students, workers and loved ones for many Latinxs and other racialized groups in the United States, the presence of an ICE representative on campus can only produce fear, anxiety and apprehension among many of our students, undocumented and citizens alike. The role of the public relations representative of ICE is to project a positive image for an organization engaged in contentious practices. Pairing this representative with a guest speaker representing the undocumented experience is a false equivalency: An undocumented student’s presence does not lessen the threat — real and symbolic — of a representative of ICE, nor does an undocumented individual pose a threat to any student.

Some of us also presume that the student actions of this past week are not only tied to their frustration or fears about the criminalization of Latinx immigrants writ large or even about the curriculum of any particular class. The invited presence of an ICE representative on campus was likely perceived as symptomatic of what historically marginalized and undocumented students have sensed as a hostile, unwelcoming, if not unsafe campus climate that has been well documented. We must place this incident within a genealogy of student actions in the past decade against what they perceive as a climate of race, gender, sexual and class inequality on our campus. We have been routinely called upon to bear witness to and help facilitate discussions associated with student protests against racially/ethnically stereotypical theme parties or Halloween costumes; racial profiling of students on and around our campus by law enforcement; misogyny, homophobia and sexual violence; and other conditions. Our interdisciplinary units on campus are the product of student of color protests. This is the social/political world that our students encounter, one that is rife with heated protests against legacies of injustice and marginalization.

On January 15, 2016, University President Morton Schapiro wrote a stirring op-ed in the Washington Post in defense of college campuses as safe spaces. He illustrated how racial power dynamics inform the impetus for “uncomfortable learning” and the construction or destruction of “safe space.” When we designate a campus as a “safe space,” we must also ask: safe for whom? President Schapiro’s message was clear: People with greater social or institutional power, “while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.” Further, after the 2016 elections, the administrators at NU declared the campus a safe zone and affirmed that the University would do its best to keep our students safe. In this sociology class, an exercise in “uncomfortable learning” was performed at the expense of disempowered students — undocumented, as well as those who are racially profiled as undocumented and/or those who have been negatively impacted by deportation. Inviting an ICE representative to speak to a class, without considering the sentiments of all students, evinces a lack of the sensibility that is imperative to create a “safe and inclusive” campus.

This safety should be a priority over concerns about academic freedom — especially when the claim of academic freedom for some curtails academic freedom for others. We understand that students in the course were notified in the middle of the term about the guest speaker. The class voted, yet we understand that not all students were in favor of this speaker. Electing to invite the speaker to class because most of the students were in favor denies the unequal relationships students and faculty have to representatives of state violence. Students said they organized to ask the faculty member to cancel this speaker before their scheduled presentation on Tuesday, but the professor refused. Holding the event out of class time and off campus was a possibility — one that would prevent placing the onus on students to choose whether or not to attend class time that every student should have a right to. Assigning reading material or holding a video session are other possibilities that would have precisely avoided the active presence of an ICE representative on campus, and its collective reaction. Moreover, the protesters walked into the classroom because the professor invited them into the classroom. Now the students are being disciplined.

We demand that such punitive actions that silence these students not be taken. We reaffirm the administration’s proclamation for more discussion through community dialogues — those we are often asked to facilitate.

The University response to this incident, as well as the representation of the protesters as censors, is profoundly disturbing! It places blame on the students who had the courage to ask for the cancellation and then protest such an egregious decision. It glosses over the problematic ways in which faculty members make decisions without fully acknowledging the physical and emotional safety of their students, especially in the current moment. It misrepresents the asymmetrical power between undergraduate students and a representative of a state agency. The disciplinary action being taken against the organized students is disproportionate in relation to those taken in response to student calls for safety from sexual violence. Such a stark contrast suggests that safety at NU is not only a privilege, but one that is contingent on gender, race, immigration status and sexuality. As faculty, we assert that safety is not a privilege, it is a right! We also demand that the University fulfill its stated values of “diversity and inclusion.”

ICE’s presence on campus could only have been made possible by faculty members, departments and administrators who did not protect those rights. Students who protested were there to highlight to those on campus who render them invisible, voiceless and powerless that they are here and that they also count as full members of this “diverse and inclusive” university. As this University prides itself on its diversity through admissions practices and propaganda, then NU is responsible for taking into account the statuses and positions of the very students who represent “diversity.” These are the moments when we realize that becoming “diverse and inclusive” goes well beyond marketing, admissions and infrastructure. It also means having productive discussions and ideological shifts that recognize the presence of vulnerable students, addressing these decisions that reveal the insensitivity of so many colleagues on campus, and responding to calls for accountability.

For all of these reasons, we support our students and demand the administration drop the disciplinary action against the students.

Frances Aparicio, Director, Latina and Latino Studies Program; Professor, Spanish and Portuguese, Northwestern University
Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Associate Professor, African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Performance Studies, Northwestern University
John D. Márquez, Associate Professor, African American Studies, Latina and Latino Studies, Northwestern University
Alejandro E. Carrion, Assistant Professor of Instruction, Latina and Latino Studies, Northwestern University
Myrna García, Assistant Professor of Instruction, Latina and Latino Studies, Northwestern University
Umayyah Cable, PhD, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Asian American Studies, Middle East and North African Studies, Northwestern University
Douglas S. Ishii, Visiting Assistant Professor, Asian American Humanities, Asian American Studies Program, Northwestern University
Ana Aparicio, Associate Professor, Anthropology, Northwestern University
Geraldo L. Cadava, Associate Professor, History, Northwestern University
Emily Maguire, Associate Professor, Spanish and Portuguese, Northwestern University
Ramón Rivera-Servera, Associate Professor, Performance Studies, Northwestern University
Jaime Dominguez, Assistant Professor of Instruction, Political Science, Northwestern University
Henry Godinez, Professor, Theater, Northwestern University
John Alba Cutler, Associate Professor, English, Northwestern University

We sign this statement as individual scholars. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.

Signatures added through May 22, 2017:

Kelly Wisecup, Assistant Professor, English, Indigenous Studies Research Initiative, Northwestern University
Andrew Leong, Assistant Professor, English, Northwestern University
Kara Johnson, PhD Candidate, English, Northwestern University
Annette M. Rodriguez, Visiting Lecturer, Chicana and Chicano Studies, University of New Mexico
Benjamin Balthaser, Associate Professor, English, Indiana University
Kwame Holmes, Assistant Professor, Ethnic Studies, University of Colorado
Gloria Colom, Doctoral Candidate, Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University
Dorothy Kim, Assistant Professor, English, Vassar College
Erika Barrios, Undergraduate Student, English Literature, Northwestern University
Juliana Chang, Professor, English, Santa Clara University
Doug Kiel, Assistant Professor, History, Northwestern University
Beatriz O. Reyes, Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Health Studies, Northwestern University
José I. Fusté, Assistant Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington, Bothell
Rebecca J. Kinney, Assistant Professor, School of Cultural and Critical Studies, Bowling Green State University
Eliza Noh, Associate Professor, Asian American Studies, Cal State Fullerton
Erica R. Davila, Associate Professor, Educational Leadership, Lewis University
Amalia Pallares, Director, Latin American and Latino Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago
Cynthia Wu, Associate Professor, Transnational Studies, University at Buffalo (SUNY)
Harris Feinsod, Assistant Professor, English and Comparative Literary Studies, Northwestern University
Valerie M Wilhite, Assistant Professor of Modern Languages, University of the Virgin Islands
Loan Dao, Assistant Professor, Asian American Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston
Ching-In Chen, Assistant Professor, English, Sam Houston State University
Aireale Joi Rodgers, Program Coordinator, TGS Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Northwestern University
Simeon Man, Assistant Professor, History, UC San Diego
Ronnie Rios (Weinberg ’04, Communication ’07), Alumna, NU Alumni Association, Northwestern University, University of Michigan
Shirin Vossoughi, Assistant Professor, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University
Anne Flanagan, Faculty, Program in Intensive English, IUPUI
Andy Kim, Doctoral student, Anthropology, Northwestern University
Crystal Camargo, PhD Student, Radio/Television/Film, Northwestern University
Lupe Mendez, Assistant Dean of Student Support, Academics and Discipline, Cristo Rey Jesuit College Prep of Houston
Manuel Grajales, PhD Student, History, Texas A&M
Leah Ochoa, Student, History, TCU
Cassandra Rincones, Associated Professor, History, Lone Star College-Kingwood
Andrés Leopoldo Pacheco Sanfuentes, Advocate, Activist, Supporter, Latinx Studies and Asian American Studies Programs, Northwestern University
James Howard Hill Jr., Graduate Student, Religious Studies, Northwestern
Claudia Macias, M.S. Ed., Education Consultant/Author, Early Childhood Education, Discover With Me! Education Solutions
Ashley Ngozi Agbasoga, PhD Student, Anthropology, Northwestern University
Jennifer Porter-Lupu, Doctoral student, Anthropology, Northwestern
Orlando Lara, MAS Faculty, English and Humanities, Lee College
Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Immigrant Rights Activist, Humanities, Adjunct Justice
Ramona Gupta, Coordinator of Asian American Cultural Affairs, Multicultural Affairs, Columbia College Chicago
Matt Smith, Doctoral Student, Religious Studies, Northwestern University
Dominique Adams-Romena, PhD Student, Sociology, Northwestern University
Christopher Hernandez, Phd Candidate, Anthropology, Northwestern University
Julissa Muñiz, Graduate Student, Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University
Alixandria Rowe, Assistant to the Mexican American Studies Program and Chicana/Latina Studies Journal, Bicultural Bilingual Studies Dept, University of Texas at San Antonio
Lydia Barnett, Assistant Professor, History, Northwestern University
Just Martinez, Assistant Professor, English, Northwestern University
Bonnie Etherington, PhD student, English, Northwestern University
Margarita Vizcarra, Academic Advisor, Student Services, Evanston Township High School
Felipe Hinojosa, Associate Professor, History, Texas A&M University
Marisol Berríos Miranda, Affiliate Assistant Professor and Lecturer, Ethnomusicology and Honors Program, University of Washington, Seattle
Courtney Gray, Phd Student, Screen Cultures, Northwestern University
Arbeena Thapa, PhD Student, Anthropology, Northwestern University
P. Zitlali Morales, Assistant Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, University of Illinois at Chicago
Kathryn Catlin, PhD Candidate, Anthropology, Northwestern University
Mérida M. Rúa, Professor, Latina and Latino Studies and American Studies, Williams College
X. Banaled, Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Stan State
Katarzyna Pieprzak, Professor, Romance Languages, Williams College
María Elena Cepeda, Professor, Latina/o Studies, Williams College
Elizabeth Koselka, Doctoral Student, Anthropology, Northwestern University
Erin Khue Ninh, Associate Professor, Asian American Studies, UC Santa Barbara
Joanna V. Maravilla-Cano, PhD Student, College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago
Mari Castaneda, Professor, Communication, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Schneider Rancy, MD Candidate, College of Medicine, SUNY Downstate Medical Center
Jaime Armin Mejia, Associate Professor, English, Texas State University
Sabrina Howard, PhD Candidate, American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California