On Common Ground

On Common Ground

For a few weeks last fall, learning at Denison was defined largely by how we live… together.

On January 21, 2008, as part of its commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the State of Ohio issued the first-ever Dream in Action Award to the students, faculty, and staff of Denison University. In receiving the recognition, the Denison community was credited with moving “to direct positive action” and “promoting understanding, racial unity, and the appreciation of diversity.”

Ironically, in order to achieve this honor, we, the Denison community, first had to lose our direction. We relaxed our grip on the communal steering wheel known as the Campus Compact, a statement of principles that the college adopted in 1996 – principles that each student and employee inherently adopt when committing to Denison. Some of us forgot how clearly they define the college’s core values, “foremost among these… a commitment to treat each other and our environment with unconditional respect.” Or that “civility is a cornerstone of our community.” Or that “we celebrate diversity as a strength from which we grow and learn from one another.” And some of us just stood by, instead of taking “responsibility for acting in accordance with… and for reporting violations of (our community’s) standards and rules.”

But last autumn, we found the chance – not to mention the absolute need – to collectively embrace the premises of our Campus Compact and proclaim the type of place Denison University should be. We came together not in the roles of students, faculty, and staff, but in the roles of citizens, genuinely invested in the life of our community.

The opportunity came as a result of several unfortunate allegations and incidents, when someone – or some several – among our ranks uttered nigger against African American students. Someone chose to scrawl faggot – and worse – on residence hall doorways. They mindlessly vandalized the property of others and the college – a less-targeted but still blatant disregard for our community’s values. They committed these acts, while others among us simply allowed them to occur. And in ways less deliberate or obvious, we allowed ourselves to perpetuate stereotypes about people because of the color of their skin, where they came from, or whom they considered a friend. And, as we should expect on an increasingly diverse campus, there were things said or done by which we meant no offense – a professor’s question to an African American student about the black view of a particular issue, white students who donned black face to dress as their favorite NFL coach or athlete for Halloween – but we offended nonetheless.

However infrequent or unrelated or even unintentional the offenses seemed, the actions of a few took their toll. The repetition amplified a sense of marginalization among a growing number of Denisonians who felt that they couldn’t have the same peaceful and rewarding opportunities as others because of what made them different from the majority – Denisonians who took the same tests, who lived by the same rules, who paid the same financial and physical and mental dues, and who began to feel the college community wasn’t doing enough in response.

And so, by the end of last October, as social tensions escalated, response came in the form of a gripping, emotional, complicated, and liberating series of events. True, the issues in many ways reflected others that had flared up at least once a decade since the late ’60s, or that have always pervaded our community and surrounding culture, however quietly, no matter what the college had done to deter them with courses or programs or policies or rules. But for all that had happened before, this strife belonged to today’s community, and it was possibly one of the most intense experiences yet for many young lives. It was the chance for today’s students, faculty, staff, and administrators to engage in a critical dialogue with each other, and in the end to determine that there really is no us and them, but rather it is we who stand together with shared values and principles. With genuine solidarity, we turned some of the darkest moments in Denison’s history into its brightest.

In a sense, Denison asked for this trouble. You might even call it a measure of success. For years, the trustees and faculty and administration have been trying to diversify the student body as well as their own ranks (although, with significantly more success among students than faculty and staff). Within the current first year Class of ‘11, a record-high 20 percent are U.S. students of color or non-European international students. Overall, those populations represent 17 percent of the student body, another all-time high. And within the last dozen years, the numbers of African American and Hispanic students have more than doubled, even as the total student body has slightly reduced by design. Need-blind admissions and robust, needs-tested financial aid serving almost half the student body have brought rich social variety to the campus. And the Posse Program, now in its tenth year, has helped make the college more attractive to talented young people from urban environments that Denison rarely penetrated in the past. But with increasingly diverse demographics come equally diverse viewpoints and experiences. Diversity raises the challenge of understanding–and thus, at times, misunderstanding – different perspectives. It also delivers invaluable opportunities to learn from our differences.

It was a matter of misunderstanding that brought tensions to a boiling point in late October. To promote their Halloween night concert, the Hilltoppers, an all-male a capella group, distributed a poster that read Come hang with the Hilltoppers and featured a hand-drawn noose. They meant no harm, of course, but this was shortly after incidents in Jena, Louisiana, and at Columbia and Maryland universities where the noose was used as an instrument of hate. When the Hilltoppers realized their mistake, they quickly removed the posters and convened a late-night – and by all accounts productive – meeting with the Black Student Union’s leadership to explain themselves and better understand black students’ points of view.

A clearer perspective was reached between the two groups, but many students felt the poster represented larger issues. They had already sensed complacency, prejudice, and intolerance on campus, and the poster started a conversation that couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be stopped. It was time for the Denison community to pause, take hold, and speak its mind. So during the next several days, a series of poignant, sometimes frustrating, but always enlightening events took place.

Shortly after 9 p.m. on Halloween, the Hilltoppers took the stage in the Roost at Slayter Union, before an audience of a couple dozen white students and at least twice as many students of color. But they didn’t sing. Instead, they acknowledged their indiscretion with the poster, and announced that they would not perform that night. They then gave up the stage so that others could be heard.

The next day, at a regularly scheduled general faculty meeting, a group of students representing the BSU spoke about their frustration with certain trends of prejudice and intolerance on campus. President Knobel then took the floor to add that black students were not the only ones who felt disrespected or unwelcome. Other students reported being stigmatized on account of sexual orientation or nationality or gender. “It punctures my confidence that we have a campus community in which all feel they can learn and live and grow without interference,” Knobel said. He then requested several action steps, beginning with an examination of how the Campus Compact is addressed in first-year orientation. He asked for increased efforts in the recruitment of a broadly representative faculty and staff; for more opportunities for faculty to hone teaching skills in a diverse environment; and for a review of how issues of race, gender, and social equity are covered in the curriculum. He also asked the faculty to suspend two hours of class on the following Wednesday, November 7, so that the entire campus community could participate in a discussion about the values of diversity, equality, and tolerance. The faculty not only supported his request, they also decided to draft their own declaration against intolerance. Their statement was posted in large print in the main entrance of Slayter Union the next day, and scores of signatures were soon affixed.

The next several days were relatively quiet – aside from the raucous D-Day activities, of course. But the underlying tension was unmistakable; conversations among friends, posters on walls, and letters in the Bullsheet and Denisonian promoting respect for diversity and decrying discrimination and prejudice proved the issue was heavy on many minds. It seemed ironic that while a specially appointed group of students, faculty, and staff prepared an agenda for one of the most important all-campus meetings in the college’s history – a discussion on diversity and equality and conflict resolution – Denison played host to a retreat of the Midwest Asian American Student Union and to visiting lecturer F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela for their cooperation in dismantling apartheid and finding reconciliation between races. But as the 7th approached, it was still anyone’s guess as to how many students would voluntarily show for the historical “time-out.”

By 11 a.m. on that day, all doubts were put to rest as the Mitchell Center filled with well over two thousand students, faculty, and staff. And what was scheduled for a two-hour event became a grueling yet all-important eighthour marathon as meaningful small-group conversations ensued, eventually giving way to public addresses by scores of students and the occasional professor or staff member. Many of them stood alone, but many others came in pairs – representing different races, genders, lifestyles, and other points along the socio-cultural spectrum. As in the Roost the week before, they spoke with varying levels of eloquence and genuine emotion, sometimes echoing the sentiments of others who spoke before them and other times leading the crowd down new paths of insight. They shared painful experiences as the targets of prejudice and disrespect. They shared theories of how such unwelcome elements survive within our community. They repeated the call for individual and community responsibility that President Knobel had offered during his opening remarks but also pushed the faculty and administration to keep the need for change on the front burner and not return to “business as usual.” They talked about the necessity of engagement in order to make change, about stepping outside of comfort zones. They reassured each other of the importance of this day, this conversation, and this unified will toward the good.

Dan Murphy ‘10 was one of the many who did not want the conversation to stop after the all-campus timeout. So shortly before noon on the following day he set up a microphone and small speaker at the Academic Quad flagpole. For a short time, he stood pretty much alone in the blustery cold, sharing his thoughts about recent events and reflecting on the many notions that had been raised. A small group of friends and supporters huddled around him and a few bold souls took their turns speaking, but it seemed like everyone else was tired of talking. Or perhaps they just needed to get back to their studies. That is, until the hottest match yet was lit.

Amid Murphy’s small gathering, Laforce Baker ‘10, a black student and an R.A. in Shorney Hall, revealed that he awoke the previous morning to find a piece of paper had been slipped under his door. It bore the ultimate symbol of intolerance, a swastika, and the threatening words STOP CAUSING TROUBLE. Baker had chosen not to tell anyone about it right away because, he said, he didn’t want Wednesday’s convocation to become solely about that piece of paper. Within minutes the word was out, and the A-Quad crowd began to multiply into the hundreds, all visibly enraged, scared, and saddened.

But if that paper message of hate was loud and clear, the campus’s response was even more so. Once again, student after student and several professors – who cancelled a second day of class – took their turns, raging against the shameful, cowardly message and renewing their calls for a tolerant, respectful community that would embrace diversity, not terrorize it. Unlike the reactions to some incidents of the previous weeks, which may have been blurred by personal or cultural perspectives, none would accept the very clear intent of this act.

The rally lasted almost five hours, drawing the attention of several local newspaper reporters and Columbus television crews. Dan Murphy and his cohorts managed to bring it to a peaceful close, urging the crowd to seek heat and shelter, as well as the peace and solidarity that the day’s rally hopefully delivered.

But members of the faculty sensed lingering unease; students were still scared and sad and angry. Professors, too, had had enough and wanted to show students that they were not alone. So a few quick emails and phone calls were issued, and within two hours more than 70 faculty and staff members were back at Slayter Union. Their plan was to spend dinnertime and the rest of the night, if need be, with students who wanted to talk or simply feel supported, and so they split off to the Curtis and Huffman dining halls. It happened that a visiting lecturer – Anuradha Bhagwati, a former U.S. Marine and current member of Iraqi Veterans Against the War – had been scheduled for the evening. She delivered her remarks in the improvised venue of Curtis Veggie, where a truly diverse, wall-to-wall group of students and faculty had gathered. She said she had seen a lot of things in her life, but nothing more historic than the last two days she had spent on Denison’s campus. Her comments set the stage for a moving discussion that evoked anger, sympathy, understanding, and even laughter by the end of the night. It became apparent that the healing process had begun, and that Denison would emerge from this trying time a better place.

The next morning began with a regular meeting of academic department chairs. A different spirit was in the air – one of suffering, yes, but also of peace and reconciliation and resolve. To a person, and sometimes to the point of tears, the college’s leading professors were moved with what had transpired over the last two weeks. Sure, they said, a lot of their students had missed critical course time. But more importantly, they had earned an educational experience that few before them could claim. Biology professor Tom Schultz noted how in his time he had never seen students so committed to civility. Dance professor Gill Miller ‘74 told of a student whose parents asked if they should come pick her up. The student’s answer: “No, this is what I came to do.” Music professor Andy Carlson was leading a very desirable prospective student around campus during Thursday’s turmoil. At the end of the day, after watching the drama unfold, she gave him an enormous hug and said, “This is where I need to be.” And new Provost Brad Bateman, less than a semester into the job, confided that he never expected this sort of experience, but that he couldn’t be more lucky, proud, or happy to be at Denison at this time.

But the professors were also concerned that attention to the issues didn’t stop there. The dialogue and action had to carry on. They began by issuing an email to the student body, stating their pride in those who “responded so clearly and so powerfully to some of the most difficult problems in American society,” and assuring them that there would be “no return to normalcy.” At this point of no return, the college is re-engineering orientation in terms of how that program addresses issues of diversity. The faculty began the spring semester with a seminar on teaching to a diverse population – which will be a recurring event – and with a renewed commitment to diversifying their own ranks as new positions become available. In addition, the curriculum is being analyzed for more effective ways to teach awareness and understanding of diversity issues.

Students have taken their own actions as well, even beyond more mindful everyday interactions. Some of them organized a new group, called Community, Unity, Peace Alliance (CUPA), with the mission to “recognize and celebrate differences in individuals while fostering an inclusive environment.” The first of their social and educational events was a Dec. 2 “Community Fest” in the Bandersnatch, featuring music, spoken-word poetry, comedy, videos and slideshows of recent happenings, and, of course, a hugging booth.

As the college began to undertake new initiatives, others were taking note of Denison’s stance. By the middle of January, a recordsetting 600-plus students of color had applied for admission to the Class of 2012. And then there was the Dream in Action Award that Denison received from the State of Ohio. As the award citation proclaimed, “Instead of resulting in confusion and dysfunction, the students, faculty, and administration resolved to discuss, debate, and understand. Through a series of public meetings, open forums, and internal discussions, they moved to direct positive action.”

To be certain, a lot of learning took place on Denison’s campus last fall, well beyond classroom doors. We, the Denison community, were taught (or reminded) that understanding is not a two-way street, but rather an intersection where many perspectives meet, and where they all need to peacefully intermix lest the entire social/moral/intellectual highway collapses. We learned, hopefully, that we don’t have to like or even agree with each other. But we do have to approach each other with the hallmarks of the Denison community: civility, respect, and critical thought.

Anyone seeking something less should seek somewhere else.

Published November 2020