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The Case of the University of Puget Sound Three

by Clifford Cawthon 

On Tuesday, December 20, three students at the University of Puget Sound (UPS) in North Tacoma were suspended from campus until 2019 by school administration for distributing flyers the university called ‘inflammatory’ and violating the university’s harassment policy.

The dispute with the students has lasted for more than a month, as they and their supporters claim that racism and racialized harassment from other students and staff have gone unchecked on the campus. This recent tension came more than a year after a group of students calling itself “the Advocates for Institutional Change” led a walkout of about 300 students in response to what they called a culture of discrimination on campus.

The latest dispute arose when flyers were distributed on campus identifying staff and students as racists, sexist, xenophobes, and in one instance a rapist.

Andres Chavez, Akilah Sandoval Blakey, and Lydia Gebrehiwot, otherwise known as the UPS Three, are accused of distributing the flyers on November 10. (The students would not confirm nor deny that they were responsible) Currently, they are physically banned from the campus until 2019, which has resulted in one of them losing their on-campus housing.

The flyers in question name 22 students, staff and security staff who have allegedly committed racist acts and sexual harassment. According to the three students, the individuals on the flyers have not been held to account for their behavior.

Since the flyers were distributed (and subsequently confiscated by security), both the president of the university and faculty have written public letters denouncing the flyers.

The letter – signed by professors Seth Weinberger, Alisa Kessel, and Robin Jacobson of the Politics and Government department, and Dexter Gordon, an African-American and Communication Studies professor – states: “We acknowledge the behaviors identified in the flyer—sexual assault, racism, transphobia, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism and misogyny—exist on our campus. They have no place in our community. But we cannot actually challenge those behaviors when they are masked behind anonymity and unsubstantiated accusations.”

Gayle McIntosh, the school’s  communications director, told the Emerald in a statement that the school saw the distribution of the flyers as “harassment” and a violation of its student integrity code. The school’s president, Isaiah Crawford, denounced the flyer as “deeply disturbing and offensive. … As a community, we place a high value on freedom of speech. That freedom requires balance and does not extend to speech that violates our harassment policy, our integrity principle, and other policies that affirm the values of our community.”

The university is 74.6 percent white, in comparison to the city of Tacoma where it resides, which has a non-Hispanic white population of 60.5 percent. The students accused of distributing the flyers contest that despite all its talk of diversity, inclusion and respect, the administration dismisses claims of people who have experienced acts of racism, such as the harassment of black and non-white students, along with visitors. This issue first gained notoriety due to an online petition on MoveOn.org .The petition, started by Felicia Jarvis, the Vice Chair of the Pierce County Young Democrats, calls on UPS’s Dean of Students Mike Segawa and President Crawford to reinstate the students and drop the charges.

“University of Puget Sound has a long history of racism that goes unaccountable by the institution itself…people of color and other marginalized identities are subject to violence, discrimination and hate on a daily basis” says Chavez, one of the students accused of distributing the flyers.

The school has been accused of looking the other way when its staff and/or students have been accused of committing racist acts in the past. In February 2016, Hayward, CA charter school vice principal Omar Wandera took a group of students to visit UPS on the school’s annual college tour.  According to local reports and a post on Wandera’s Facebook page, his predominantly Latino students overheard UPS students saying things like “get this trash out of here” and were instructed not to touch the merchandise in the campus bookstore because “their hands were greasy.” Wandera said on Facebook that the employee at the bookstore was “excessively aggressive” with his students. “She accosted our kids, demanding that they leave because they were ‘unchaperoned.’”

Asked for a response to Wandera’s allegations and about the UPS Three case itself, McIntosh referred the Emerald the Diversity and Inclusion plan. She declined, however, to comment on whether the staff in the bookstore have been disciplined.

Avoiding administering discipline for staff or students who commit acts of racism on campus, according to Gebrehiwot, one of the three students, is normal, “usually people who commit these acts are allowed to succeed and continue on campus.” Success requires being on campus, and they fear that being excluded from campus until 2019 would mean that they would be unable to complete their degrees.

Chavez also pointed to an incident that was published anonymously in a student magazine, Incite. The author describes a normalized harassment of people of color by security:

I have been harassed, profiled, and vehicularly stalked beyond campus boundaries while riding    in cars with other people of color. Alone, security cars have followed me home, a security car   has waited outside of my residence watching the building from the other side of a parking lot,  and I have been haggled just emptying the trash at night. Constantly asked whether I’m a student and whether I live on campus.

The anonymous author would go on to claim they experienced similar treatment on campus more than five times.

The Emerald asked the students how their experiences had impacted their lives on campus. After pausing and contemplating the question, Gebrehiwot said, “I don’t feel safe on campus”.

According to the Diversity and Inclusion plan, UPS is an “example of a community enriched by diversity in all its forms, and by the challenges and rewards that come with diverse representation, thought, and expression.” The plan includes a list of specific initiatives. McIntosh added that “in January, university offices will close for our annual Professional Development and Enrichment Conference keynote event … on the topic of building cultural literacy in the workplace.”

However, McIntosh did not respond to direct questions about how the administration disciplines staff or other individuals following the kind of incidents that the students describe.

This vagueness about how the university punishes acts of racial harassment or abuse on campus is why Chavez and Gebrehiwot say that they’ve been reluctant to come forward. Chavez also explained his feeling of insecurity on campus to the Emerald. “So many of my other friends of color, since this whole process started, [have] been receiving a lot of looks by people. A lot of us don’t feel safe walking home at night.”

The students themselves say that the whole investigation has been unusually strict, especially compared to the way white students are typically disciplined. “From the get-go, a white student would have … gone through something educational, [such as ] one of those workshops from the Department of Cultural and Civic Engagement”.

According to the Implementation of the Student Integrity Code, “Following a hearing for a major or minor violation, and when all relevant information has been collected and reviewed, a determination of responsibility for any violations of the Student Integrity Code is made and, if the student is found responsible, appropriate sanctions are imposed. The student is notified, in writing, in a decision letter.”Despite the university taking these steps in the students’ case, they believed that their treatment by the administration was far more punitive than typical.

The administration declined to comment on any details on the investigation itself or the evidence. According to the students, they received the letter detailing the school’s disciplinary decision after a single hostile interview by the hearing officer, Residence Life director Debbie Chee. The students say the interview was interrupted by a fire alarm which cut into the investigative hearing. Gebrehiwot described the investigative hearing as “frazzled” and said there was a “guilty-until-proven-innocent” quality to it. “She wouldn’t answer any of our questions, the meeting wasn’t going how she planned it to go, she wasn’t getting the answers that she wanted to hear so she was really upset, Gebrehiwot said. Jarvis added: “[Chee] threatened to charge them. She said, ‘I could charge you right now.’”

The students believe that this investigation and subsequent ruling is a punishment for students who speak out..

The students are planning to appeal this decision, and they hope that someone who is impartial yet knowledgeable about conduct in university settings can help them. According to the university’s website, the appeal for review must be filed with the Dean’s office within seven business days, and due to the winter break, the deadline is January 9th.

“We just want to be treated fairly, we want the same treatment that a white student would get” Gebrehiwot said.

img_20160320_180015Clifford Cawthon is a Seattle based writer originally from New York’s queen city, Buffalo. Clifford has been civically engaged since he was a teenager in Buffalo and his advocacy work taking him to places as far away as Cuba.  He’s also an alumni of the University of Manchester, in the UK, where he graduated with an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science. 

 

13 thoughts on “The Case of the University of Puget Sound Three”

  1. While i believe the universities handling of the book store incident, among others, was deeply troubling I also belive this instance and the coverage of it has done very little to present the view points of those accused on the list. The students and the author of this article complain of the vague procedures of campus actions and policy while failing to acknowledge the closed and vague nature of publishing an anonymous list with no evidence. I fail to see the integrity or victimization of these students when they have so willfully engaged in just the sort of questionable tactics they criticize the university for.

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  2. what Jesus Badham said – great coverage. Thank you for sharing this. UPS is my alma mater and this doesnt surprise me but still is shocking. This needs to change.

    And superficially did change with the new school president, who is a Black man. SUPERFICIALLY

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  3. The list was published the day before a massive student visit day and was a blatant unsubstantiated slander. Students “receiving looks from people” is not grounds for a public anonymous shaming. There’s also no precedent on campus for the public humiliation of peers and faculty on this scale. Claiming white students would be treated differently is thus completely baseless. After reading a lot about this, seeing the list the day it was put out and being a student of ups, I feel the University made the right choice. These students acted impulsively and then were pursued, due to the inflammatory and unignorable nature of their actions – slander is a crime. When they got caught, the students tried to characterize the University professors response and administrative processes as racist (because they were found guilty). The whole case reads like victimization and a dissasociation from the real world. There are protocols in place on campus and a deep sympathy for students who feel marginalized and or discriminated against. Rapists, sexist, misogynists, bigots -all can be reported and tried within the system. Given the resources avaliable to these students the approach they took was wrong and hurtful to many members of the community. To blame the universities push-back, protecting the rights of their 20+ accused, on racism is an oversimplification and irresponsible.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have a copy of this list and I can tell you that of, of the 22 names listed, only one was claimed as a “rapist” while all the others were denoted, racist, transphobic, homophobic, bigoted or other. And yet so many defending this UPS3 hide behind the defense of claiming to try to make UPS safer. It’s abundantly clear this is just the work of vindictive thought policers that are trying to dictate what is deemed appropriate even if that means pillorying a student for an off-color joke (I know why some of the students were named). It’s even more clear their malicious intent when they name certain security officers as “pigs” – these are the staff who risk their lives defending students and indeed in my four years alone there were two incidents where officers were shot at while defending the campus! These are the same people who persecuted an officer for his private beliefs he shared with his congregation (that homosexuality is a choice but expressed only love towards LGBTQs) and distributes “art” of security officers with pig heads. Kudos to the university for expelling these students – such acts have no place at Puget Sound.

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  5. Why did the author of this piece not bother to contact any of those accused, which could have been found with a bit more digging? And that, for example, one of those on the list was a major activist in the social justice movement on campus? Or that some students were afraid to stand up against this harassment because they believed they would be denounced next?

    Patrick O’Neil, Professor
    University of Puget Sound

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    1. That “major social justice activist” has also continually fetishized black and brown bodies in order to achieve her own agenda. But I’m sure you can speak to that as someone who knows her intimately enough to claim her experience in this comment.

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  6. I appreciate the anonymous nature of commenting on this article, for I fear that my opinion that the “UPS3” should be expelled would automatically label me as a bigot to my peers. The list was posted several days after the election. Most of the campus was sad, angry, and fearsome for the future. I viewed the list as someone’s outpouring of frustration with “the system” and they wanted to talk about it further, as they left an “anonymous” email at the bottom. While I can sympathize with the #UPS3’s fight against bigotry, the manner in which they went about it did nothing to support their cause and only deepened tensions around campus. I am honestly shocked and furious at the audacity of the UPS3 to fight their punishment. What they did is in direct violation of the student integrity code. In the real world, if a coworker at a factory, software company, law firm…anywhere were to pull the stunt the UPS3 did, they would be terminated without question. The University of Puget Sound is a great school, but currently lacks diversity (obviously). If we keep up fighting for people of color’s acceess to UPS, hopefully we will see change come about swiftly.

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  7. This certainly looks like an example of the messenger being shot. A university has an obligation past barely or not responding to alleged incidents of bias and racism, as well as one to not chop the head off of the source of the contention that said alleged incidents had not been adequately denounced by the institution. Dissenting opinions, especially those that challenge the maintained systems of patriarchy and white supremacy, are frequently denounced as ‘abrasive’ or unnecessary, I find the method this group of three used to be largely superfluous. The university made it the issue to avoid addressing the (multiple) issues that the dissenting group made reference to.

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  8. The most honest way to deal with this is to turn it around. Let me ask you all honestly: what if someone posted a list of names—yours on it—and accused you without evidence of something unpleasant or illegal? Heck, even calling you a Trump advisor?

    I know. But, but, but…that’s different. Except it isn’t.

    To think that the students’ thoughtless and cruel approach does *not* impact lives is just plain wrong. Unless you think every single name on that list is guilty of a crime.

    Notice that they didn’t put their names to it. I don’t wonder why; they wanted to smear people without consequences to themselves.

    I have heard people say, “which is worse: calling someone racist or racism?” It’s a false equivalence, and misses the point. Go back to the first paragraph. My guess is that most people would be up in arms about such smearing in another ideological direction.

    I would bet money that the students had faculty advisors who egged them on. Then they went too far by smearing people by name.

    This helps no one and advances no cause. In fact, it gives support to people who don’t believe in diversity and social justice issues.

    Should the students be expelled? I don’t think so. But what they did was very wrong, and I haven’t heard them say that yet. Have you?

    Notice that the fundraising site and petitions do not state that the #UPS3 (oh, c’mon—kind of proof that the students had some help from faculty, don’t you think?) put up a list of names with accusations including criminal actions like rape. Instead it is all “fight the power.”

    And these young people got caught. I’m interested in who advised them that this was a good idea. Or do you think they did it all by themselves?

    Anyway, if this kind of anonmymous smearing is okay, where do you draw the line?

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  9. Although these three may have done something wrong, I think they did a noble act by exposing what’s wrong with the University. The University neglects to do anything about the racism and even sexual assault that goes on campus. Going to UPS that is 75% Caucasian is difficult for a POC, mainly because the issues that they go through aren’t being heard. And if they are heard, they are not being dealt with properly. These students took it into their own hands because they were fed up with how lackluster the University handles racism and sexual assault.

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