Dr. Debra Thompson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University. A leading scholar of the comparative politics of race, Thompson’s teaching and research interests focus on the relationships among race, the state, and inequality in democratic societies. Dr. Thompson previously taught at the University of Oregon and Northwestern University.
This is a letter that Dr. Thompson sent to the University of Oregon.
Subtitle: The Story of an Eight-Month Struggle to Call Out Institutional Racism in Student Conduct Processes
24 June 2020
To Whom it May Concern:
The Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards recently sent out an email, in which the authors confess that self-reflection was catalyzed by a colleague in an online community, who asked, “what are you doing within your locus of control on campus?” The email goes on to state, “In the past, we have asked students to trust us and relied upon words to ‘prove’ our commitment. We recognize that if we want our students to trust us, we need to show them we can be trusted. We must show our students that we stand against anti-blackness and other forms of bias. The core of our mission is to protect the rights, safety, dignity, and worth of every individual. It is not enough to be non-racist; we must be actively anti-racist.”
The idea that the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards was, is currently, or has any plans to be “non-racist” is ludicrous. I have spent the last eight months of my time and energy here at the University of Oregon helping a first-generation student of color navigate the student conduct process. Not only has this experience been a time-consuming, soul-destroying bureaucratic nightmare, but, more importantly, it is literally the epitome of the pervasive, surreptitious, and procedurally protected institutional racism at the University of Oregon. The status quo – which, make no mistake, ensnares Black students, students of color, and first-generation students not because of some unfortunate misalignment in its machinery, but rather as a result of its design to work in exactly this way – is heavily guarded by individuals who have a stake in maintaining this system. These false overtures of “self-reflection” under the guise of becoming “actively anti-racist” are made in toxically bad faith and it is morally repugnant.
Racism is not simply individual acts or behaviors. It is also “structures that determine and cyclically remanufacture racial inequity and institutional norms that sustain White privilege and permit the ongoing subordination of minoritized persons.” My experience this past year has demonstrated that the policies and procedures that govern student conduct are susceptible to being employed as an instrument of individuals’ racist beliefs and biases. Further, some of these policies, even when they are followed, simply magnify the existing racial bias within the system. This is literally the definition of institutional racism and it is unacceptable.
I want to tell you some anonymized information about this student’s situation – I will call him student A. I want to be clear that I am relaying this information with his express permission. What follows is a story of how the full weight of the university’s disciplinary processes, including an encounter with the police, a drawn-out student conduct process, and an ongoing Title IX complaint, has been brought upon this student, though he has done absolutely nothing wrong.
I also want to be clear about why you should read this letter, in its entirety. I am literally one of the country’s leading experts on the politics of race. I was recruited here from one of the best universities in the country to help shape the Black Studies program. I am leaving UO to take up a position at one of the top ranked institutions in the world. This is my life’s work. I know what I am talking about. I wish that I could have convinced you to listen to me sooner, one of the many times I reached out to try to stop this absurdity.
A University of Oregon police officer came to student A’s residence hall room in late September 2019 to issue a “warning.” There were two students (X and Y), with whom he had gone to high school, now living on the same floor of the residence hall. The officer came into his room and told him he was not to have any contact with these other students. This date was very soon after move-in, and the student had not had any contact in any form with these students at all. If the police can be sent to issue a warning without any precipitating factors, how can the university guarantee that its policies are being fairly applied? Why were the police involved when there was no violation of the Student Code of Conduct? What policies does the university have in place to ensure that the police are not being used, as they so often are, to confirm and absolve white peoples’ discomfort at sharing public and private spaces with people of color?
Let me make this first point perfectly clear. White people routinely use the police to in order to maintain control over white spaces, to keep people of color in check, and to keep the racial order intact. They do this knowing that the police can threaten and kill people of color with impunity. In a viral twitter video, Amy Cooper retaliated against Christian Cooper’s (no relation) polite request that she restrain her dog. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she said, before whining hysterically to the 911 operator, emphasizing that her so-called attacker was African American. Amy Cooper wasn’t threatened. She was annoyed that she was being told to obey the rules, that she was being called out by a Black person, and she was caught on video doing what white women have done for centuries: wield the accusation of violence against an innocent Black man as a weapon. In the case of student A, an armed police officer was used to intimidate him, when he had done absolutely nothing. It is a gross violation of the university’s stated values of community, diversity, and inclusion, and it should never have been allowed to happen.
A formal no contact directive was issued a few weeks later. But between move-in day and the date of the directive, student A did not have contact – in person, verbally, or online – with students X and Y. The directive contained no rationale for its issuance, provided no evidence regarding why it was put in place, and provided no opportunity to speak with an administrator. Again, the question must be asked: if a no contact directive can be issued without any precipitating factors, how can the university guarantee that this issuance is not being used to discriminate against racial minorities? Why did the Office of Student Conduct allow its policies to be used as a weapon of whiteness?
These actions led to student A’s removal from his residence hall after he broke the no contact order while trying to defend another student from an assault. I am not going to go into the precise details of the situation here; I have student A’s permission to tell the world what happened to him, and if you are interested in our appeal of the Office of Student Conduct’s decision regarding this matter, I am sure you will be able to access a copy upon request.
What I would like to point out is that the description of the alleged interactions between the students, reified in a letter that Katy Larkin, Director of Student Conduct and Community Standards, sent to student A, relies on degrading racial stereotypes about the inherently threatening nature of non-white men. Students X and Y noted at various points that student A made them “uncomfortable,” though they could not pinpoint any actual behaviors that made them feel this way. The presence of non-white people in predominately white spaces, and the subsequent labeling of these non-white people as threatening, has an excessively long history in this country. These circumstances are not some artifact of history. In recent months dozens of videos have shown white women calling the police on people of color – for doing absolutely nothing. Whether it is walking down the street, playing in a public park, being non-white on a university campus, knocking on a door to ask for help, or just existing, white people use the police to threaten and intimidate non-white people. That the university allowed this to happen to a first-generation minority student, the day after move-in, is shameful. That the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards continued to allow these students to use the unequal application of its own policies to bully and harass a student of color, ultimately forcing him from his community in order to preserve hegemonic white comfort, is the very definition of institutional racism.
The claim that students X and Y “felt scared,” is similarly coded. Research on racial bias, for example, has used controlled experiments (e.g. a staged interaction between two people turns heated, leading one to shove the other; the experiment involved versions in which the race of the instigator and target of the violence varied) to demonstrate that non-white men are labelled as “violent” and “threatening” far more often than their white counterparts. In effect, white people have warped perceptions of what may constitute a “threat” when non-white people are involved. As defined in the literature in psychology, racial bias is unintended and unconscious. But what these students have attempted to do, and what the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards has legitimated, is neither unintended nor unconscious. There was no indication that Ms. Larkin evaluated these claims for evidence of racial bias. The entire conduct process in this case has been one in which white students have successfully mobilized and weaponized university policies and procedures, including the police, in order to punish a student of color for inhabiting the same space. Their actions were discriminatory and the university has been complicit in enabling them.
I could go on for days, because helping this student has required months of exactly the kind of unpaid, unacknowledged, invisible labor that disproportionately falls on Black faculty. The email from the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards states that, “while it is our responsibility and honor to uphold [students’] due process rights, the student conduct profession continues to work within a larger system of laws, regulations, and practices which disproportionately impact students of color.” What an incredible deflection. The larger system of laws, regulations and practices is not to blame here; UO procedures and the ways they are upheld by its administrators are. Here are just a few examples of the impenetrably circular logic of the conduct process:
- Ms. Larkin decided this case and assigned the sanction (including student A’s removal from his residence hall). When he appealed the decision and requested a stay of the sanction pending the appeal, Ms. Larkin was the person who decided whether or not the sanction, which she had initially assigned, should stay in place. In effect, Ms. Larkin is the person who is tasked with determining the appropriateness of her own judgement, in spite of her clear, established interest in not contravening her initial ruling.
- Ms. Larkin is responsible for convening the Appeals Board, which was not active until late in the academic year and did not hear student A’s appeal until approximately four months after it was submitted. Student A, however, had only 14 days to submit his appeal after he received Ms. Larkin’s decision letter.
- Because the Appeals Board was not active, Ms. Larkin offered student A the opportunity to have his case heard by an appeals officer. This policy is not in the student code of conduct, nor can any details about the appeals officers be found on the Dean of Students website. Ms. Larkin is responsible for appointing the appeals officers and assigning them to cases.
- The Appeals Board is convened by Ms. Larkin. There is no information on the membership of the Appeals Board from year to year. Is this a committee of white people making decisions about what counts as racism? There is also no information on the training that the Appeals Board may or may not receive. It is unclear whether the Appeals Board, or Ms. Larkin, or anyone in the Office of the Dean of Students for that matter, have any knowledge whatsoever of implicit bias, critical race theory, or anti-racism.
Over the past eight months I have used every piece of institutional knowledge at my disposal to try to tell those with power and authority about what was happening. Student A tried to access help from the Office of Student Advocacy and the lawyer he was assigned was dismissive, rude, and totally incompetent. I wrote a 9-page appeal for this student, submitted to and rejected by the University Appeals Board. I met with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. I met with people in the Office of the Dean of Students. I exchanged emails with Katy Larkin and Kris Winter. I met with the Title IX Office. I met with university lawyers. The fact that I have been unable to stop this institutionally racist train wreck, which has now taken the form of a completely unfounded, still ongoing Title IX complaint, is not for a lack of awareness within the University of Oregon about what has happened to this student. Administrators have done nothing to intervene and the entrenched racism of this university will continue to self-perpetuate until something is done.
The most frustrating part of trying to help this student has been the shame of secrecy that these processes demand. Privacy is an important concern, indeed, but it is not the only thing at stake. Functionally, these processes are secretive because institutional racism is most easily upheld behind closed doors. We cannot speak to anyone about it. We cannot share information. We cannot seek support. We cannot tell what we know of this institution’s incredible betrayal of this student, and probably hundreds more like him that didn’t have me in their corner. To the white people reading this, if you’re even still reading this, let me tell you a truth about being a person of color in America: racism is isolating. It is meant to strip us of our supports, our communities, our collective hope, our ability to see ourselves as part of something. George Floyd was surrounded by the police, but died alone. Even writing this letter could have professional repercussions for me – and I’m sure that the very first impulse of some who read this will be defensiveness and, eventually, retaliation. Whiteness is most dangerous when it’s been accused of wrongdoing. But this isn’t my first rodeo; every single Black academic I know has been routinely and regularly sabotaged by white colleagues and administrators, including me. There was a recent twitter trend on this very topic – #BlackintheIvory. More often than not, the worst offenders are those who claim to be progressive.
The final point I want to make is this: administrators in the Office of the Dean of Students should have recognized the racially coded nature of these claims and acted in a way that supports the basic principles of egalitarianism, inclusion, and social justice, upon which the very mission of the University of Oregon is founded. I am deeply disappointed and, frankly, enraged, by my experiences in trying to help this student navigate the opaque and treacherous administrative quagmires of the student conduct process. If this office is unable to protect our Black students and students of color from the structural racism that proliferates in a racially stratified society, or is unable to meet the criticisms embedded herein with self-reflection and meaningful action rather than defensiveness and dismissal, it should be dismantled.
I’m sure many will applaud the Statement of Commitment that made its way to my inbox. I am furious. It has been eight months of unrelenting institutional racism, the consequences of which I am still dealing with in an endless stream of meetings and administrative conferences and white women’s fake tears. The sheer nerve of this false overture made in the toxically bad faith of fragile white people who are nevertheless steeped in unsalvageable racism, is suffocating. I can’t breathe.
I will be publishing this letter, in its entirety, in a public online forum on racism in higher education. I suggest you use your “locus of control” to do something. At a minimum, all proceedings should be discontinued against this student and he should be issued an apology. There should also be a full and independent investigation, carried out by someone external to the university, into what happened to this student and the other students of color like him who have been harmed by these processes.
If this university is actually committed to anti-racism, start with that. And do it now.
Debra Thompson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Oregon
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