February 21, 2016

Racial tensions roil residence hall

file photo / The Louisville Cardinal

By Olivia Krauth & Phillip Lentsch–

Despite multiple students believing they could not speak to the press, students in the honors residence Threlkeld Hall say racial tension continues, despite multiple meetings and hall activities about the problem.

The incidents began in October. One student said they heard another student comment in the hall’s lobby about another resident receiving a scholarship solely because of race. According to Threlkeld resident Hannah Esrock, discussion turned to the hall GroupMe. Race-based discussion continued in the group, expanding to Donald Trump, white privilege and President James Ramsey’s stereotypical Mexican Halloween costume and the backlash it received. One student uploaded a photo of someone in black face, with a comment that it looked like someone in the residence hall.

“I was like, ‘We need to shut this down,'” said Esrock, who initially began the group chat to meet people in the hall prior to sorority recruitment. It grew throughout fall semester to include several hall residents. The “bad guys,” Esrock said, simply made a new GroupMe, which they refer to as the “Grown Up” GroupMe.

The Honors Service Living Learning Community, which focuses on social justice and is housed in Threlkeld, held multiple meetings discussing the incidents with the cultural center during this time frame.

According to Esrock, the “exclamation point” of the series of incidents happened around the semester transition. Multiple derogatory messages were written on a common-area whiteboard in the men’s section of the residence hall. Messages included the n-word and a drawing of a swastika.


The whiteboard in a common area of Threlkeld. 

The whiteboard incident led to a hall-wide meeting on Jan. 3. There was discussion of making Threlkeld a better community, but there were also comments how some “cannot take a joke” or they should “just pretend like it was nothing,” according to residents.

Residents John Rhodes and Nuri Thompson said there were offensive side comments made, and the training exercise on stereotypes did not help. They said residents were split into groups, assigned a race or ethnicity, then wrote stereotypes and facts about them. Groups critiqued each other based on validity of the statements.

Thompson spoke in the meeting, but was publicly rebutted by the “Grown Up” GroupMe’s creator. Both had a private meeting with graduate hall director Makayla Moore, where Thompson said no one held the other guy accountable despite his history of minority issues. Thompson would not release the name of the other individual.

After increasing pressure on officials and residents, a note about the Threkeld situation went viral on social media Feb. 16.

“The on-campus residence housing Threlkeld Hall has segregated,” the post read. “It’s whites against minorities. White students in the residence have told minorities that they don’t belong in the dorms nor on the U of L campus!! Racial slurs have been written boldly for minorities to see.

“There has been no communication about these events to students, staff, nor the public,” the post concluded.

Esrock said the post is not very accurate, but it spread through social media, inciting several angry students who did not live in the hall. Some residents began drafting a report of issues, along with suggested ways the administration could help.

Dean of Students Michael Mardis and Vice Provost of Diversity Mordean Taylor-Archer sent an email to all Threlkeld residents Feb. 17 “to clear up misinformation being spread through social media.”

“The University is taking these incidents seriously and has taken action to respond,” the email said, saying officials responded immediately once they heard of the incidents. “We have discussed these situations with the students who have been disturbed or negatively impacted, as well with students who were identified as initiating the incidents. There are ways to engage each other in difficult conversations; our goal is for this communication to be productive and respectful.”

Mardis and Taylor-Archer said staff trained RAs over winter break on “racial and ethnic stereotypes and broadening awareness.” RAs were told to alert concerned students they can bring formal allegations and offer them the opportunity to move to another residence hall. They said they have also met with faculty, staff and groups of students.

“We are continuing to take steps to improve the climate in Threlkeld,” the email said. “We need and encourage your input with the hope of using this as an educational opportunity.”

Esrock said residents were told by housing officials multiple times they could make reports. “Some are like, ‘Why do we have to made a report when this is clearly going on,'” Esrock said.

“If the aggrieved students desire to go forward with Code of Student Conduct charges, the university will investigate and take appropriate actions. Our student well-being is our top priority, and we will continue to work to create an environment where students can thrive and be successful,” Mardis said.

Esrock also said no one has moved, but some are thinking about it, hesitant due to a “why are we getting punished” mentality. Housing officials and U of L administrators have attempted several times to handle the situation, but Esrock feels they have been “dancing around the issue.”

“Although steps have been taken, we acknowledge that the issues have not been fully addressed. I am committed to push for an expeditious resolution to this issue,” Taylor-Archer said. “We need to implement mandatory and effective diversity training for the residents of Threlkeld Hall and there must be consequences for those students who exhibit egregious behaviors.”

“As far as I know, administrators have had knowledge of this situation for some time,” said Pan-African Studies chair, Ricky Jones. “They once again chose to handle it in a closed manner. I was only contacted once it was made public. I always disagree with secretive processes and have grown frustrated with the continuous commitment some people have to engage in them. I think they are unhealthy. I will not intervene or help clean up this situation. I will allow the officials who began it to finish it.”

Another meeting was held on Feb. 18 to discuss the situation, this time for the second floor of the male side of the hall, where the whiteboard incident happened. Moore said the whiteboard would be the only thing allowed in discussion. According to Thompson, some residents tried to justify the derogatory messages as “just jokes” or that they were “tired.” Thompson said counterarguments were ignored by discussion leaders.

“When other students brought up how, regardless of what their intention was, how what was written and how the language they used was impactful and offensive to not only them, but also to other students who have seen this not just inside of Threlkeld but also in terms of pictures and how this is contributing to the hostile environment, those arguments, those claims were completely ignored,” Thompson said.

“It was a productive and positive meeting in which all students were invited to share their concerns,” U of L spokesperson John Drees said when asked about the meeting. “The residents of Threlkeld offered several suggestions to help improve the environment.”

The overall tone and message of the meetings did not sit well with some.

“As long as we lead by example as defined by continuing to coexist and be nice to each other, we will overcome these problems of Threlkeld,” Rhodes said. “It’s like this huge rallying cry for all of the men of Threlkeld to band together and be one. Like one big football team, we are all rallied into the huddle and charge to go get the touchdown.” The Feb. 18 meeting ended with a group photo of the floor.

Interim Provost Neville Pinto sent a campus-wide email Feb. 20 addressing the situation.

“Although limited to a relatively small number of students, any instance of disrespect and animosity is a cause of concern for all of us,” Pinto said, adding U of L plans to add and improve diversity training in student programming.

“We will learn from this and other incidents, and we will use our learning to continue to build a community where someday such instances simply won’t happen,” Pinto said.

Multiple students coming out of Threlkeld this week told The Cardinal they were told not to speak to media. Esrock said RAs told students not to talk or post about it, but Drees said the RA was incorrect and was quickly corrected in a hall-wide email.  However, several students spoke under the condition of anonymity.

“I don’t feel comfortable in the lobby, in my dorm, my home and it is my home,” one resident said. “I am tired of people at this dorm who find us problem people. We are not the cause.”

“Stop making sure everyone is comfortable, including the people who caused it and deal with the issues,” one resident said. “Ask the questions and get to the point because we have proof.”

“I do not know if the university has my back on this. They have their back. They do not have our interest at heart like they make it seem,” another resident said. “I am afraid that if something racial is said and I blow up, I will get kicked out.

“They tell us to hold back and save face but they get to keep red as the devil and say whatever they want,” the resident continued. “I do not want to hate anybody. I do not want to fight. It is just hard when you have that distinct separation of dealing with issues and people wanting to avoid those issues. I am just exhausted.”

Full disclosure: Hannah Esrock, quoted in this story, is a contract writer for The Louisville Cardinal. 


File photo / The Louisville Cardinal

4 thoughts on “Racial tensions roil residence hall

  1. It should be noted that writing the n-word or drawing a swastika on a communal board or one student saying a racially demeaning comment to another student but not targeting said student clearly falls under free speech. Many legal precedents have been set proving that just because speech is grossly offensive, it does not necessarily violate the first amendment. In fact, exceptions to freedom of speech are very specifically defined by the Supreme Court. As a combat veteran I fought for our freedom and I have been disgusted by the climate at colleges today that speech should have punitive consequences just because it is offensive.

    Disrespecting the American flag offends me (my brothers are buried under that flag) as does demonstrations by Westboro Baptist Church. However, I fought for people’s right to be offensive if they so choose and we as Americans do not get to decide what to censor based solely upon how offensive such speech is.

    I should warn University Administration, UofL is already on the radar of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) due to some speech policies and taken punitive action against any student for constitutionally protected speech no matter how offensive should be avoided at all costs. With our recently slashed budget, can we really afford a lawsuit that could ultimately cost the university hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars? We can be offended by speech, we often should be, however we cannot as a public university take punitive action against it. Nor should we stand for such action. Censorship, in any form, is a slippery slope and a slap in the face to the veteran population of the University. We bled for those rights and to deny them to another American, for any reason, outside of the narrow exceptions laid out by the Supreme Court is an insult to our sacrifices.

  2. ‘Free speech’ is not the same thing as freedom from the consequences of speech. It’s not just ‘offensive’ to allow racial slurs to be written and said aloud without punishment; it’s hostile, it’s aggressive. It’s using words and symbols that have a history of violence and hate. It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke, or the result of someone just not thinking their actions through. It’s the perpetuation of hate, and ignorance, and aggression against others.

    It’s not about ‘free speech’ or people getting ‘offended,’ it’s about completely inappropriate behavior that, intentionally or not, is hateful and aggressive and has no place in a college dorm or anywhere. Being punished for hate is not antithetical to the freedom to speak one’s mind, it is a consequence of taking freedom and abusing it to hurt others.

  3. Freedom from consequences is implicitly implied in matters of free speech. As I stated as as has been legally adjudicated before the Supreme Court in Chaplinsky vs New Hampshire what are the specific and narrow rules for offensive speech to not be covered by First Amendment protections. Over the past 50 years, the Court has not found a single instance of the “fighting words” doctrine applicable in any of the cases involving hateful and offensive speech brought before it.
    It is important to remember that the University of Louisville is a PUBLIC institution and as such must abide by any and all protections afforded to citizens by state and federal law. This includes, but is not limited to, the right to say hateful and bigoted statements without fear of official repercussions. Private institutions may and have set rules and speech codes that follow their own set of ethics, but as a public university U of L does not have that luxury.
    I agree that the behavior is inappropriate, but you must ask yourself if it is legal. If the students, in question, broke no law either by threatening (see fighting words doctrine) or discriminating (has to be proven to have more than an emotional effect) then judicial precedent as well as Supreme Court opinion has stated they cannot be punished. The ACLU puts it best when they say “The best way to combat hate speech on campus is through an educational response that includes counter-speech, workshops on bigotry and its role in American and world history and real, not superficial, institutional change.” They go on further to state, “Restricting speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws and regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you…Symbols of hate are constitutionally protected when they are worn or displayed before a general audience on in a public place.” A COMMUNAL Dorm whiteboard in a public meeting area falls into these guidelines.
    I understand your frustration, but it is important to recognize legal protections as they are. If the school takes action solely for racial slurs and symbols they are legally violating a persons civil rights and will more likely then not lose a lot of money, that could be spent on something more productive.
    I’d suggest you read the following cases to understand how freedom of speech applies to hateful and offensive speech:
    Chaplinsky v New Hampsire, R.A.V. v St. Paul, Terminiello v Chicago, National Socialist Party of America v Village of Skokie, Doe v University of Michigan, UWM Post v Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin, Dambrot v Central Michigan University, and Corry v Stanford. Additionally you should look into similar decisions such as Byron Thomas and his display of the confederate flag at USC or even U of L’s own decisions involving the KKK and their right to assembly on campus.
    Again, I reiterate that such speech is abhorrent. I only wish to make it known what little, if any, action the school and its administration can take against such speech. Please feel free to email me with any questions involving the above stated Court cases.

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