Chief Concern

From the Office of the Chancellor, University of Illinois:

To Members of the Campus Community:

It was brought to my attention earlier this week that threats of violence against an American Indian student, and hate speech directed at all American Indians, were posted on a pro-Chief Facebook website created by students at the University of Illinois. The idea that the debate over this issue could degenerate to personal attacks that threaten the physical safety and well-being of members of the campus community is something that all of us should find truly abhorrent.

The men and women who built the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over the past 140 years have worked hard to create a place where ideas could be explored and discussed in a safe and welcoming environment. Actions such as those that were recommended on this Facebook site really are an attack on each member of our community, and that site has now been removed.

I do not know the motives of the students who posted the threats, but I do know that their words are dangerous and racist. The threats have been forwarded to the Office of Student Conflict Resolution for investigation and action. The Student Code guarantees that members of the campus community should be able to discuss issues and express views, but it does not allow speech that threatens to harm other members of the campus community.

As Chancellor, I can not and will not tolerate such violent threats. The University will take all legal and disciplinary actions available in response to the threatening messages.

But far less extreme actions and words can traumatize and frighten those targeted, as well. The right of free speech—no matter how thoughtless, rude or dumb—is a hallmark of the American system. Yet as future leaders and as citizens of our campus community and later as citizens of a nation and world, we must engage in a far deeper dialogue about how we are to agree to disagree. Vigorous debate is good and it is constitutionally protected–but debate should be based on ideas, not empty-headed slurs or vicious threats.

To all members of the campus community I ask that you think seriously about what you can do to help build a campus climate with zero tolerance for racism and hate. Everyone has a role. We should expect nothing less from ourselves. I invite each of you to join us at 4:00 p.m. February 1, 2007 in Foellinger Auditorium for a forum on creating a more welcoming campus environment.

Together, we must find ways to implement our shared values of respect and dignity.

Thank you.

Richard Herman

My Response:

Dear Chancellor Herman:

As a recent University graduate, I applaud your firm stand against this instance of racism. After graduating, I moved to Los Angeles for work, so I will be unable to attend the forum at Foellinger Auditorium. I would still like to offer some thoughts on the matter.

The failure of the University to adequately respond to the Chief debate in a suitable manner has created a divisive environment in which members of the community have formed non-productive camps, leaving everyone else to stand in the crossfire. For the majority of my time as a University of Illinois student, I myself was not entirely sure how I felt about the issue, though I had close friends who felt very passionately on both sides of the debate. The failure to make the resolution of this issue a priority has fostered an atmosphere of hostility and abuse long before this instance took place on Facebook.

I think that the University administration should not be too surprised that racism thrives in such an environment. My hesitation in taking an anti-Chief stance arose simply from the fact I did not know if or how the Native American imagery fit the “racism” bill. The first job of the administration ought to have been to answer the charges about the Chief, providing a clear working definition of racism, hostility, and abuse, and demonstrating how the Chief either does or does not fit the definition. Without an answer for these questions, students and community members have been left to provide their own interpretations. Those who support the continued use of the Chief do not answer the racism question but instead speak of “honor” and “tradition,” again words that can have a wide range of meaning. Slavery was a tradition. In some cultures, it is dishonorable to associate with members of another race or ethnic group.

As I mentioned, I applaud your firm stand against this instance of racism. I hope that the University administration will make it possible for me to speak of my alma mater with pride by taking a firm stand against the racism that has taken such a strong hold of the community.

Thank you,

Chris Corning
Class of 2006

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