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Editorial: UMass Amherst chancellor delivers timely warning about hate on campuses

  • UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy addresses guests Aug. 29, 2017 during the annual Community Breakfast jointly sponsored by the college and the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. Sarah Crosby


Thursday, August 31, 2017

University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy delivered a timely and sobering message Tuesday when he said that campuses across the country likely will experience increased activity by hate groups during the coming academic year.

His declaration that “hate has no home at UMass” punctuated an otherwise lighthearted Community Breakfast sponsored by the university and the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We will undoubtedly face our own challenges in the months ahead, but I’m confident that no matter what we are confronted with, we will remain true to our values of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Subbaswamy said. “With you, our friends, neighbors and partners in our community, we will reject hatred in all its forms and will stand united in defense of these values.”

Those are well-chosen words. As the academic year opens, officials warn that they expect to see a continued uptick in hate activity on the nation’s campuses. “White supremacists are engaged in unprecedented outreach efforts on American college campuses — another sign that these hate groups feel emboldened by the current political climate,” reports the Anti-Defamation League, a nonpartisan civil rights group that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.

According to the ADL, there were 159 incidents of racist fliers and other materials reported on 110 campuses in the United States during the 2016-17 academic year.

The UMass campuses in Amherst and Boston were among those targeted in March. The white nationalist group Identity Evropa claimed responsibility for the fliers and posters placed on fixtures and vehicles in a parking lot off North Pleasant Street in Amherst. They bore an image of a classical statue with messages such as “Protect Your Heritage.” Similar racist fliers were placed on the UMass campus in Boston.

White nationalists, most notably Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, also are expected to step up their efforts to speak on campuses this fall. Spencer was in Charlottesville, Virginia, during August for a march through the University of Virginia campus that included torches and white-nationalist chants, followed by a violent rally the next day resulting in the death of a woman protesting white supremacy.

In the weeks since, Spencer’s request to appear on other campuses was turned down by at least four universities. Eric Barron, the president of Penn State, said while the school “fully supports the right of free speech … the First Amendment does not require our University to risk imminent violence.” Spencer was denied access because he “presents a major security risk to students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus. It is the likelihood of disruption and violence, not the content, however odious, that drives our decision.”

Barron’s stance was echoed recently by UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski who said that while free speech is a core value of public higher education, the school also must be mindful of violence that may arise from rallies and protests. “We don’t believe there is any conflict philosophically between free speech and maintaining civility and order,” he said. “Behaviors that can lead to potential violence are a concern to all institutions and universities.”

Schools like UMass must balance continuing their long tradition of promoting a free marketplace of ideas, no matter how disagreeable, with their duty to ensure a safe campus. We applaud Subbaswamy for drawing attention to the issue, and trust that under his leadership the campus in Amherst will remain a beacon for “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

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Meanwhile, with students back on campus, we hope for a continued decline in off-campus incidents involving students. The university’s Off-Campus Conduct Report for the 2016-17 academic year shows that 210 students were involved in 141 off-campus incidents. That is down from 308 students involved in 232 incidents in 2015-16. During the first year that the report was issued, 2012-13, there were 519 students involved in 348 incidents.

The data is compiled for incidents ranging from unlawful possession or use of alcohol to reckless behavior. Students are subject to sanctions including counseling up to expulsion.

UMass officials credit the drop in misconduct to increased collaboration between the university and town in community policing, resulting in an “ongoing partnership for complaint response and educational outreach,” says Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life. Furthermore, “the low number (of repeat offenders) shows that our program of sanctions helps students understand that misconduct has consequences, and adulthood means being responsible for one’s action.”

We commend the university for its commitment to improve relations with its off-campus neighbors, and we believe that the vast majority of UMass students will continue to behave responsibly.