Letters spark controversy over campus climate
HOUGHTON — Members of the campus community related their experience with discrimination locally and at the university during a Michigan Technological University Senate discussion on a recent anti-discrimination resolution and two campus letters from faculty protesting it.
Public comment was extended from 15 minutes to 45 minutes — then extended twice more to accommodate speakers.
In December, the Senate approved a resolution calling anti-Blackness and systemic racism ills on par with poverty and disease, and making steps to remedy it part of the university’s core mission. It also called on awareness of the problem to be part of every graduate’s education, and part of the continuing education for faculty and staff. The university should also promote and support research on the topic and ways to support it, the resolution said.
The resolution was an expanded version of one the Senate passed last year after Temple Jacob in Hancock was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti.
“Our community is experiencing ongoing harm demonstrated by regularly occurring hate-motivated events and rhetoric,” the resolution read. “We have borne witness to the experiences of our harmed constituents, seen and heard the hateful propaganda that ails our community, and listened to the pleas of our students and it is our charge, as university leaders, to embody the university values.”
In response, Jeffrey Burl, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, wrote an open letter to the Senate calling on it to apologize for what he called “racist sentiments” against white people in its resolution, and to the local community for painting it as racist. In his opinion, the greatest degree of discrimination at Tech is against local white males, citing things such as Tech’s hiring practices and companies who had not recruited at Tech because of the low percentage of minority students.
At the undergraduate level, Black students make up 1% of enrollment, compared to 88.1% for white students. The percentage of Black students is roughly the same at the master’s and doctorate levels, though international students compose the majority of enrollment.
“For me, I can honestly state that I have never discriminated against a woman or a minority candidate,” Burl said. “The diversity literacy training talks about the accumulation of disadvantage. I, because of being a white male, have suffered this accumulation of disadvantage for 40+ years.”
In another letter, material science and engineering professor Jaroslaw Drelich acknowledged the racial prejudice of the past, but objected to the notion that Michigan Tech and the community are “white supremacist and anti-black hotbeds.”
“You are essentially claiming to our Black neighbors and students (including my former African-American student who now holds a faculty position) that they can’t stand on their own feet and compete with other people without special privileges and handouts from people like you, allegedly more virtuous, white people,” he wrote.
Most of those who spoke Wednesday opposed the letters and backed the Senate proposal.
Mayra Sanchez has been in the area for eight years, first getting a Ph.D. from the social sciences department before becoming a staff member at Michigan Tech. She spoke about her experiences, which have included having people yell “Go back to where you came from” and a friend who was told “We should build that wall.”
“You feel that privilege threatened because we start speaking up, because we start saying this out loud … we’re exhausted about it,” she said.
Wesley McGowan, a Ph.D. student in computational science and engineering, came to Tech 10 years ago. He felt discriminated against when an instructor in a world cultures class played videos with derogatory caricatures of Black people. He also recalled other incidents on campus and locally, such as a janitor in Fisher Hall treated him “like I broke into the building,” or being called a racial slur by someone driving through town with a Confederate flag on their truck.
“You are a white male, in this white climate,” he said. “I am a Black student here. I have my experiences.”
McGowan said he and other students had made complaints to the university with no action taken.
Some said MTU needs to take stronger steps to ensure a welcoming campus, noting that Burl had already taken diversity training.
“Please rescind that certification, as it’s clear that it never sunk in and/or a refresher is needed,” said Alexa Thompson, a Black alumni who had Burl as a professor while getting her bachelor’s in electrical engineering. “It is wrong to demand to be spoon-fed basic facts over and over again in a way that coddles the receiver who causes harm with no remorse.”
Burl defended his letter at Wednesday’s meeting, saying he treats everyone as people. He told the Senate it was stifling conservative voices. He felt the letter would make it impossible for him to get a position within the administration, he said.
“I would love to have all kinds of engineers, because in my opinion engineers are people that tend to improve the world,” he said. “But I would like to encourage diversity through encouragement, and opportunity, and safe spaces … but I do not condone supporting diversity through discrimination.”
Tech also came under criticism for allowing a university parking lot to serve as the staging area for a pro-Trump caravan of more than 600 cars before last year’s election.
Randy McClellan, a conservative resident, responded to criticism of cars with Confederate flags by saying he felt equally threatened by seeing flags from Iran or China during the Parade of Nations, or the LGBTQ pride flag waved by some counterprotesters.
The comparison to the Confederate flag offended Paniz Hazaveh, a senator from the College of Computing. The Iranian community at Tech has around 80 people, she said.
“My flag is not a threat,” she said. “I am an Iranian. I do good things here.”
In a statement Thursday, the university said the resolution and letters “have addressed sensitive issues and generated a lot of questions within our community.”
“Last night’s Senate meeting provided a forum for University employees and students, as well as local community members, to discuss these matters and exercise their right to free speech,” the statement said. “Michigan Tech works to promote healthy, respectful, vigorous debate, which is the foundation of both education and research.
President Koubek has reached out to University employees and students to reiterate the University’s commitment to an inclusive, welcoming environment, and he stressed that we condemn discrimination and racism in any form. He also reminded students who may have been hurt by this discussion to take advantage of on-campus resources.”
These are important issues that President Koubek had addressed in the past — most recently in a statement at the December 18 Board of Trustees meeting.”
At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Senate President Sam Sweitz said he hoped the meeting would lead to a broader conversation that could continue in town halls and other forums.