A Ding In Prairie View's Brand: Sending the Wrong Message
In the midst of all of the acts of excessive force and police brutality against black men and women, and folks being upset by athletes around the country for exercising their rights and kneeling during the national anthem, you may have very well missed the wild series of events that has taken place on college campuses all over the country. Students have been so active and focused on responding to current affairs through peaceful protests, and Black Lives Matter rallies, but new acts of racism keep meeting them in the face at every turn by their peers.
Before we get too deep into the topic, let’s level set and explain what the first amendment is and what it is not. I appreciate the first amendment, because it allows people to say what they really feel, which can be quite the double-edged sword.
What it is:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
What it is not:
Freedom from repercussion
For an expanded definition, click here
I’ll provide a brief recap of the incidents I can recall off the top of my head, and then get to the reason I decided to write this blog post in the first. I will kick it off at my alma mater, Eastern Michigan University.
Eastern Michigan University
On September 20th, students at EMU were greeted on campus with graffiti on the walls of one more symbolic buildings on campus. As a student, I went to King Hall many times for MLK events, study sessions, and programs. It was our African-American cultural center, our safe space. On the walls the phrases “KKK” and “Leave Niggers” were spray painted overnight. Students gathered and protested on the lawn of the university president, where he came out to meet the students and address their concerns. President Smith listened to the students, and made it clear that the university planned on finding the perpetrator(s), and prosecuting them to the full extent of the law, as well as offered a reward leading the arrest.
Kansas State University
On September 15th, Kansas State University student Paige Shoemaker and a buddy uploaded a photo to Snapchat with what looks to be a beauty mask on their faces with the caption “Feels good to be a nigger”. (LINK). Shoemaker responded to the reaction she received on social media by saying “It was sent in a joking manner to our friends,” she said. “I am the least racist and most accepting person you will meet. Never would I send it in a derogatory way.” The university responded within 24 hours, but did immediately state that Paige was not currently a student, and they went on disavow racist post.
University of North Dakota
On September 20th, a photo surfaced online with white students from UND in a dorm room with the caption, “Locked the black bitch out”. The university responded quickly on Twitter stating that this is a serious matter and they will look into it and take appropriate measures.
University of North Dakota, Again
In less than a week after the first incident, a second story surfaced at UND, this time with three young white women wearing makeup masks with the caption “Black Lives Matter”. The university responded immediately to the situation, acknowledging that the university has a long way to go, and needs to do better.
As I mentioned earlier, there have been a number of events taking place around the country increasing racial tensions on every level. Worth mentioning is the letter from John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago sent to students which made waves in the news. The most notable paragraph in the letter stated;
"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,".
In a time where students are encountering intolerance and racial ignorance everywhere including campuses, this is the message that was sent to incoming freshman. It begs the question, where are students supposed to feel safe? Who has their backs?
Now we will get to the reason I decide to type this blog post.
Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University
Just a few days ago, a Snapchat post landed an athlete in hot water. Brooke Merino, a soccer player for Prairie View A&M University (one of the nation's historically black colleges and universities, also known as a HBCU), posted a photo as the other young ladies mentioned above, but this time with black duct tape, which was a play on “blackface”, with the caption, “When you just tryna fit in at your hbcu,”.
Non-black students at HBCUs aren’t an anomaly, but they are largely the minority on campus, which makes her actions bolder. Brooke’s post went viral, and it circulated on social media like a summer wildfire in the desert. I’m sure there have been acts of racism on the campuses before, but this one stands out because Brooke is an athlete for the school, and this is the new age of social media.
Everyone waited to see what the university’s response would be to this, as the predominately white institutions (PWI) for the most part had been swift and deliberate in their actions on their respective campuses.
Brooke’s father responded by saying "She didn't mean to do that. It's been blown out of proportion," he said. "She's not racist. We're not racist. We're Mexican. It's a bad thing and it's been blown way out of proportion. She's not like that."
In an effort to quell the firestorm brewing on the internet over what happened on his campus and put the minds of students and alumni at ease, PVAMU President George C. Wright issued a response.
"As a scholar of race relations in the United States and president of Prairie View A&M University, whose alumni, students, and many supporters have experienced firsthand racial insults in the form of words, caricatures and a wide range of other actions, I know clearly the hurt and harm that can be done from intentional and unintentional acts of this nature.
Let me be clear that, whether intentional or unintentional, the actions have the same impact, and as a community, we denounce any racial slight whenever it occurs.
But let us not forget that the First Amendment ensures that discussion of even the most controversial and provocative issues will be vigorous and unfettered on our campus-without it, there can be no search for truth.
We have a duty to educate our community to always try to act in a responsible manner and recognize that speech does have consequences.
For 140 years, this university has maintained a standard of excellence and will continue to be a beacon of light for years to come."
As a marketing and communications professional in higher education, and the father of two sons who will be entering college in a few years, “What?” was my reaction to that statement. There was no definitive acknowledgement of the incident, and there was no definitive plan of action on what was to happen next. That’s crisis communications 101!
I also noticed this statement was not posted on the university’s webpage, just on Facebook. It seemed as though there was an effort to issue a response, but not make it a big enough deal to share through all of the channels the university uses for communication.
The way this offense has been covered and swept under the first amendment rug struck a nerve with me. I assumed by the wording that maybe there was a reason such a casual reply was given as an official response.
I was curious and began poking around to see what the PVAMU student code of conduct (SCOC) had to say about issues like this. I was sure there must be some sort of recourse or action that could be taken quickly in situations like this.
I did discover a couple of things in my reading of their SCOC, most notably there are only two issues to which the university has a zero tolerance policy; physical abuse and alcohol on campus. Racism and the like, aren’t included in that number.
There is one mention of racism/racial harassment in the document, section E, part 2;
I’m big on word play, that “repeated” part is what stood out to me. On a campus of a university founded in 1876, just a decade after the 13th Amendment went into effect, a time in which black students weren’t openly accepted by predominately white institutions, racism should be a ZERO TOLERANCE policy. The fact that an offense mentioned in the section of the code above has to be committed twice, because repeated means more than once, is problematic in my opinion.
My next question was what did the judicial process look like, if something like this needed to be played out in a formal fashion. I did see that there are ways around the process, if the university saw fit.
On page 14 of the SCOC it reads;
I’m not sure about you, but a student athlete posting a photo in blackface online while in PVAM apparel may cause the threat of disruption in the academic process, especially on the campus of a HBCU. I did feel a little bummed that on the campuses of PWIs, they issued responses which either removed the students, planned to look into the incidents, or they acknowledged they didn’t know who the perpetrators were. The HBCU handled the situation with kid gloves, publicly. I don’t know what the university has or has not done outside of the public eye, but I do know that their public response was lackluster, and I’d be a bit enraged if I were a current student or parent of a student enrolled at the school.
In times like this, we look to the university and/or the president for guidance, and for them to set the tone as to how things should proceed going forward with regards to the incident. I feel that PVAMU failed not only their collegiate community, but blacks overall. This seemingly rare occurrence played out in the public was a chance to make a bold statement- and be backed up by their own SCOC, but they didn’t.
Where are our safe spaces? We can’t have them on the campuses of PWIs, and now we don’t have them on the campus of a HBCU?
I see this as a misstep by the university, but also a wakeup call for universities to;
- Review their student code of conduct policies to make sure the right messages are being sent to the collegiate communities at all times
- Review their crisis communications plans and determine who will be issuing the statement, when the statement should be made, and more importantly who will be reviewing the statement
- When issuing a statement, send it through all channels used by the university (Facebook, Twitter, university email, and on university website)
- When all else fails, look at someone else’s template to develop or enhance your own crisis communications plan
When we don’t hold our leaders accountable and begin to make excuses for their actions (and I saw a LOT of excuses on this topic), you get what you deserve. Let’s raise the bar and demand more. Don’t let your pride for your alma mater cloud your judgment or cause you to look the other way. When the incidents happened at my alma mater Eastern Michigan University last week, pride went out the window in favor of a prompt and just response. I demand that as an alum, but more so for the students and parents of students attending the institution. Are you going to uphold the brand and perception of your university and collegiate experience, or let it be diminished by leadership’s lackluster response to pivotal incident on campus?
What people say about you based on what you present = Your brand
Again, I don’t know what the university has done in private, but as of October 2, 2016 at 1:35PM CST, Brooke Merino is still listed as a member of the women’s soccer team at Prairie View A&M University, and no further updates or details have been shared publicly.
We can't sell our HBCUs as the better choice for black students, when faced with a prime opportunity to reaffirm their relevance, we issue a weak response.
The country is watching, and PVAMU is still on the clock.