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Education Mon Feb 03 2014
Last week in Chicago and throughout Illinois we suffered through the latest installment of the polar vortex. Unfortunately, the frigid weather brought out a heated and ugly side of many students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).
On Sunday the 26th, all UIUC students received an email from their school's chancellor Phyllis Wise reading, "Classes and operations at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will proceed as scheduled Monday Jan. 27. Please use caution as you proceed in and around campus during what is forecast to be an extremely cold and windy day and night."
Unsurprisingly, given the projections of below-zero temperatures and even lower wind chills, many students were peeved that classes were not cancelled. But understandable displeasure soon morphed into an outpouring of vile, sexist and racist Twitter rants against Wise, who is Asian-American. Some of the Twitter posts, which were filed under #fuckphyllis, included:
These are just a few choice examples of numerous offensive posts. Someone also created a false Twitter account mocking Wise, which garnered over 1,000 followers in just a few minutes. These offensive accounts and posts have since been deleted.
When people are provoked or angered, they often reveal their true feelings. For some reason, online social media also seems to cause people to lose the filter they operate with in face-to-face human interactions. It is telling that all it took for some students to revert to racism and misogyny was not having class canceled on a cold day. As adults, I would think that when the weather was so bad they could just make their own decision to stay home, regardless of whether the school was open or not. But instead, these students chose to publicly harass a school official on the basis of her race and gender.
Illinois residents make up 73% of UIUC's student body, with a large portion hailing from Chicagoland. Additionally, many of these students will undoubtedly return to the Chicago area after graduating. Thus, as residents of Chicago and/or Illinois, we should not ignore this bigoted backlash. Many of these students may be future business or political leaders within our community, meaning they will impact issues relating to race and gender within Chicago. The first black president of the nation may have come from our city, but this episode at UIUC clearly shows that we have a lot of work to do toward wiping out racism and sexism--including amongst students, who are often hailed as one of the most liberal segments of the population.
UPDATE: Chancellor Wise responded late last week with an essay in Inside Higher Ed, stating in part,
What was most disturbing was witnessing social media drive a discussion quickly into the abyss of hateful comments and even threats of violence. I shudder to think what might happen if that type of vitriol were directed at a vulnerable member of our student body or university community.
The negative comments, as offensive as they were, are protected speech. But what is protected expression and what is the level of discourse we as educators expect from our students can be very different things. And the size of that gap - so evident this week - is what has been most disappointing. Racist, intimidating or culturally derogatory epithets have no place in any debate in any circumstance. Of all places, a university should be home to diverse ideas and differing perspectives, where robust - and even intense - debate and disagreement are welcomed.