On April 11, Cornell College students found the words “Build a Wall. Build it Tall” painted on three tall cement blocks that have been used traditionally to write messages on campus.
Many students immediately recognized the message as Republican candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign reference to building a wall along the Mexican border to prevent immigrants from entering the United States.
By 11 a.m., pictures of the blocks had spread across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with people posting them describing the incident as an intentional act of hate speech and racial hatred.
Then students, including some Latinos, painted over the blocks, “Wall or No Wall We Stand Tall. Land of Immigrants.”
The paintings evolved into an example of how animosities occur, spread across campus and sometimes shut down communication when different interpretations of free speech exist.
“If we don’t have the ability to speak our minds, then we can never engage in discussions and debates about those ideas,” Jonathon Brand, Cornell College president, said in a campus-wide meeting the following Monday, April 18, about having open communication on campus. Private institutions such as Cornell have the ability to dictate codes of conduct that may involve policies that restrict speech.
The night of the initial painting, Cornell Vice President of Student Affairs John W. Harp sent a brief email to students and faculty, telling them the college wants to ensure students’ safety and belonging on campus. Harp also said college administration faces a challenge finding balance between providing a comfortable campus environment and upholding students’ individual rights to expression.
Several Cornell students expressed anger on social media with the administration’s reply. One was five-time All-America track and cross country runner Sanjuanita Martinez, who tweeted the following to the Cornell College, Cornell Resident’s Life and Cornell Rams Cross Country Twitter handles: “Just bought a black running jersey because I refuse to wear my Cornell top until Cornell College apologizes and recognizes today’s event as a symbol of racial hate, and I feel included, equal, and safe on campus.”
Cornell held two open forums on successive days for students and faculty to talk about tensions on campus. The second forum, called ‘It Starts With Me: Rally for Peace,’ took place the day after a white student shouted “Build a Wall” at a Latino student on campus; the student-athlete already had been disciplined by college administration.
Around 9 p.m. after the second forum, held April 13, a group of students chalked Cornell’s main sidewalk with messages such as “Make America Great Again,” “Love Trump,” and “I support immigrant reform.”
A second series of chalk messages appeared an hour later that altered the first messages to examples such as “Love Trump’s Hate,” and “Trump H8 With Love.” In addition, one large message appeared on the sidewalk outside of Cornell’s main commons that read, “Cornell, your racism is showing” that was washed off the next morning.
Brandon Davis, 22, a senior from Flagstaff, Arizona, was among the students who participated in the first chalk writings. He said students who did it wanted to have their voice heard. “I feel like there is a culture on campus that is not really supportive if you are conservative,” Davis said. “And I’ve definitely had people looking down or belittling me for my political beliefs. Everyone talks about conversation, but they only want to hear one side of it.”
The day after the chalkings, Davis and three of his baseball teammates, Charles Rocker, Jared Henry and Wyatt Kurzejeski, were advised by their coach, Seth Wing, to apologize for their involvement in the first chalking, Davis and other team members said.
Their apology was addressed to Cornell College through Facebook, and the four students wrote that they recognized the poor timing of their actions. They also wrote that the chalking was only a profession of their political beliefs and not rooted in hatred, intolerance or xenophobia. The action did not reflect the views of their baseball team, they also wrote.
That night someone wrote, “If I could I would deport you myself” in one of the bathroom stalls of a Cornell residence hall. At least two minority students wrote on Facebook the next morning that they felt unsafe on campus.
Brand scheduled his April 18 meeting to address the previous week’s series of incidents. In the meeting, Brand stated his concern for the groups of students who say they do not feel safe on campus, and stated the purpose of free speech at Cornell: to allow ideas to fight with each other but not in a manner that degrades or breaks others down.
“As an institution of higher education, we must protect all forms of legitimate political speech. What I’m really saying, though, in saying that: Politically charged speech on either side, on any side of the political spectrum, need not immediately be perceived or intended as hateful or demeaning,” Brand said.
READ MORE: IN THEIR WORDS
STUDENTS, FACULTY, ADMINISTRATORS GIVE THEIR TAKE ON SPEECH AND EXPRESSION ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
Cornell College administrators are aware of tension among students that has incited controversy. The college’s Campus Climate Assessment for the 2015-16 school year states that many students – both individually and in various groups – felt silenced or hesitant to discuss their own experiences or perspectives to other students on campus.
One in three Cornell students reported witnessing discrimination on campus, the report revealed. One in five reported experiencing bias, harassment or discrimination based on race/ethnicity, religious or spiritual beliefs, sex or political beliefs — the most often cited problems were based on political beliefs. Also, the report showed one in five students agreed that Cornell has a lot of racial tension.
A September 2015 incident involved a senior student who hung a Confederate flag on the wall of his residence hall room. The flag was visible to the public through a window. Peter Catchings, 21, a senior from Naperville, Illinois, was a resident assistant in another residence hall and reported the situation to the dean of students after being approached by a white female student who said she felt uncomfortable seeing the flag.
Cornell senior Tyler Riggs, who hung the Confederate flag, said there was no hateful intent and that he hung it because he likes country music. Riggs, 22, from Lenexa, Kansas, said he understood the implications of the Confederate flag as a symbol, which is why he tried to make sure it was not seen from his window.
A college administrator told Riggs he had a right to private space and that the college could not order him to take the flag down, Riggs said. The administrator also told Riggs there could be repercussions and backlash from his peers. Riggs responded by taking down the Confederate flag in his dorm room.
“I wish they would have come and talked to me directly,” Riggs said. “Just come up and ask me, spring it up that they had a problem with it and they saw it as a hateful expression and maybe we could have worked something out and I could have given them my side before I got turned into the school.”
Shannon Reed, Cornell associate professor of English, said open communication is necessary on campus to facilitate difficult conversations about controversial topics, although conversations should be held in a safe environment.
“Free speech does not work when people feel like they have a right to say something and nobody should say anything back to them,” Reed said. “That’s when we come into conflict.”
THE COLLEGE RESPONDS
Some past attempts by Cornell to open communication about controversial matters have ended up in conflict. In November 2014, Cornell held a Privilege Week on its campus. The event was designed to encourage students to recognize that people’s opportunities can differ based on race, gender, sexuality or social class.
“We never have to acknowledge our own privilege as people with privilege, and the people that are marginalized finally were being given the space to say something about it,” Sarah Clark, 21, a senior from Salt Lake City, Utah said.
However, some students interpreted the term “privileged” differently than others, and said they believed some groups were privileged more than others. “The way that students are conveying it (Privilege Week) seems very attacking to those groups that they say are privileged because they, in a way, stereotype students, which I don’t think is fair to do,” Riggs said.
John Gruber-Miller, a Cornell professor of classical studies, said, “I think people need to realize that anyone who is here is privileged in some way. You know, just the fact that you are getting a college education already sets you apart.”
Cornell has made other attempts to address students concerns about making their voices heard. Every year, the college presents The Clothesline Project, in which student rape victims are provided space to string up white t-shirts with uncensored written messages about their stories. Also, students held an open forum on transgender and bisexuality in a fall 2015 gender, sexuality and women’s studies class. Three faculty members who are bisexual led the forum and answered student questions about their own sexuality.
But controversy has continued. A week after the “Build a Wall” incident, an article was posted on a Diversity at Cornell College WordPress page that showed a photo collection of past incidents on campus over the last four years from students who said they want to expose incidents that were hate speech.
One photo was of a knot interpreted to be a noose hanging from a student’s bunk bed, which Catchings, who is black, saw when he walked into his residence hall room in fall 2012.
Different interpretations of this prompted Catchings to report the incident to administration and later move out of his dorm room. Administration later concluded that the knot posed no safety threat.
Catchings’ roommate, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to experience again negative responses like those aimed at him previously, said he still remembers the backlash on campus, and that he never was asked his side of the story. He had been tying multiple knots for his theater production class earlier that week, he said.
Brand said Cornell has attempted to increase education and awareness for students by broadening the cultural backgrounds of people recruited for faculty positions and is by pursuing cultural diversity for all faculty and staff.
Fall 2016 will include diversity-related enhancements to New Student Orientations and First Year Seminars, Brand said. Cornell also will relaunch its Sustained Dialogue Program, in which 50 students will be trained in conflict-resolution.
“One of the most important things about being at Cornell is that this is a safe and welcoming place,” Gruber-Miller said. “This is a place that I want to be proud of and so that needs to be taken into consideration for free speech. But how do you legislate it? There is no easy solution. Otherwise we would have come up with it already, don’t you think?”
Christina Rueth and Clare McCarthy are graduating seniors at Cornell College. Rueth is a spring 2016 IowaWatch intern and McCarthy was a summer 2015 IowaWatch intern who reported periodically on other IowaWatch projects this past school year.
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Des Moines Register under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.