Nearly 500 University of Michigan faculty members have come together in solidarity with members of the community affected by anti-Islam chalkings on the school’s campus late last month.
The letter, sent to UM President Mark Schlissel, UM Provost Martha Pollack, and Andrew Martin, dean of the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts, and published in The Michigan Daily, emphasized the “urgency of the situation” to develop a more inclusive campus and
Earlier this month, messages in chalk appeared in the Diag, the center of UM’s campus, reading “#StopIslam,” “Trump 2016,” and “Build the Wall,” along with other messages. Some members of the UM community found the chalkings to be hateful, and hurtful towards many on campus.
“Whatever the political motivations of those engaged in such acts, their expressions of disrespect for members of our community can have nothing but a chilling effect on the social and intellectual life of this campus,” the letter read.
Several UM students washed off some of the chalkings after they had called UM’s Division of Public Safety and Security to remove the messages. According to The Michigan Daily, a DPSS officer said DPSS could not help because it was after hours when the calls were made.
“We call on the university administration to join with us to find more effective means of helping ensure that the objectives of establishing an inclusive and diverse campus are realized,” the letter read.
— Rami (@ERebrah) March 31, 2016
Following the incident, several UM officials denounced the “repugnant” messages portrayed in the chalkings, but also noted the right to free speech students hold on the campus.
Schlissel, Pollack, and Martin responded to the letter by citing several events aimed at denouncing discrimination since the incident occurred, including an all-student body email denouncing the chalkings and several messages published on different platforms against hate speech.
Several other large UM entities condemned the speech. UM’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and Senate Assembly condemned the “anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-activist” chalkings, the faculty’s letter read. Additionally, the school’s student government passed a resolution to support Muslim and immigrant students on campus.
Similar chalkings have sprung up at several other colleges across the country. According to a report from USA TODAY College, many students have voiced concern about the messages portrayed in the chalkings, and many other students have said students are entitled to their freedom of speech.
The incident sheds light on the debate across college campuses — which has seemed to be a large focus for mainstream media — on the value of free speech and the “coddling” of students with the use of “safe spaces.”
When the chalkings first appeared, UM spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald released a statement, noting the complexity of balancing the freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment of the Constitution and maintaining an inclusive campus environment:
“We all understand that where speech is free it will sometimes wound. But our message is this: We are fully committed to fostering an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for everyone. Tonight we are reminded there is much work yet to be done.”
In an essay published in The Huffington Post on April 7, Schlissel wrote that the First Amendment isn’t an excuse for bigotry, and refusing to consider other perspectives is hurtful for academic discourse:
“Disrespect, hate, bigotry and targeted attacks, however, are not inevitable. Those are choices — bad ones. A university community must have the wisdom and courage to see them as such, condemn them and strive toward something greater.
This is not censorship. This is what a community of scholars does.”
This incident is not the first to involve a debate over the freedom of speech and the safety of Muslim students on the UM campus and make national headlines. Last year, UM administrators showed the film American Sniper at UMix, an event held at the school's Michigan Union several Fridays throughout the semester.
Some students voiced disdain for the film choice, saying the film portrayed anti-Muslim and anti-Arab messages. So the school decided not to show the film. Then, after others complained that the cancelation devalued freedom of expression, UM switched course and ultimately showed the film. The school compromised by hosting a discussion after the film.