DePaul University Roiled by New Incident


On the morning of March 8th, all the members of the DePaul University community received an email from its president reporting that the school had been vandalized earlier that morning by racist and anti—Semitic graffiti.

Dear Colleagues,

The Lincoln Park Campus was vandalized overnight with vile racial epithets, including swastikas, the 'N' word coupled with the phrase 'go home,' and 'whites only,' in a vicious attack that violates every principle DePaul University upholds. Residents of University Hall arose to find the common areas of their home desecrated with permanent marker, and our entire community was confronted with offensive graffiti scrawled outside three campus buildings.

He announced that DePaul intended to treat the incident as a criminal matter.

Racial and ethnic intimidation is not a college prank, it is a crime. DePaul will pursue prosecution in this matter, as well as all other disciplinary procedures that may apply based on the outcome of the investigation.

And he called for the community to respond.

I call on our entire community not only to reject such behavior, but to address these issues head on. I am in New York this morning and am arranging to return to campus immediately to address these issues with you. We have scheduled a university information session this evening at 7:30 p.m. in Room 314 of the Lincoln Park Student Center to share any updates we may have and to reaffirm our commitment to fostering a welcoming environment for faculty, staff and students of all races and religions. University Ministry will host a solidarity prayer vigil at 5 p.m. in the Lincoln Park Quad. I encourage you to attend.

It seemed an appropriate response but I wondered what conclusions could be drawn without knowing who was responsible. Mindful of recent similar incidents that have turned out to be hoaxes and not to be the work of hate groups, it seemed to me that it would be ill—advised to jump to conclusions about this one.

My instinct for caution was confirmed when I learned that a detail about the incident had been omitted by police and university officials. One piece of the graffiti said the attack was 'from the College Republicans.' I spoke with Joe Blewitt of the College Republicans who reported that he and DCA member (DePaul Conservative Alliance) Michael O'Shea had been questioned about the incident by campus officials and cleared of suspicion. They had learned of the graffiti's attempt to implicate the College Republicans in the course of their discussions with campus authorities.

The university and police officials realized that the College Republicans and the DCA were not involved in the incident. Anyone who took the time to listen to them would have known that they are not racist and they are not anti—Semitic. And furthermore, they would not throw away thousands of dollars and years of their lives invested in attending DePaul to be expelled and publicly humiliated by signing their names to such an obscene act.

This all suggested strongly that the graffiti was a hoax, intended to frame the College Republicans, and that this possibility must have been known to DePaul officials from the beginning. In fact email I received from someone in contact with DePaul officials confirmed that the university recognized that the graffiti may have been an attempt to implicate O'Shea and others.

In spite of an unclear picture of what had actually occurred, the school proceeded with its prayer vigil and meeting with the president. At no time was it publicly mentioned that the evidence suggested that the incident was a hoax. In fact, a public relations official of the college hinted to a local radio station that the incident might be related to the charged atmosphere on campus that resulted from an anti—affirmative action protest organized by the DePaul Conservative Alliance.

Anger at the College Republicans had been growing among certain groups on campus. Earlier, a group of conservative students had staged  what is commonly referred to as an 'affirmative action bake sale' on campus. The DCA had arranged for a table in the student center to conduct a bake sale. Intended primarily as a satiric protest of practices of preferential treatment, it involved offering cookies at different prices depending on the buyer's gender, race or ethnicity; more for men then women, more for whites and Asians than for blacks and Hispanics. Some members of the DePaul community were upset about the bake sale and this led to a sequence of responses from DePaul.

1. The office of student affairs closed down the bake sale after about an hour and a half, terminating the activity because the sign advertising the cookie prices was deemed "inappropriate."

2. The students who initiated the bake sale were investigated for possible violation of  DePaul's recently enacted anti—harassment  policy.

3. A group of concerned students and faculty upset by the bake sale scheduled a forum to discuss free speech. They enlisted bake sale organizer Michael O'Shea as a participant, telling him it would only be a discussion between O'Shea and a student opposed to his position and that no faculty members would be involved as panelists.

4. In a classic bait and switch  the actual event turned out to be no such thing. Four faculty members were not only included as panelists but they were allowed to make opening statements and to change the topic from free speech to affirmative action.

5. During the discussion some of the faculty participants made disparaging comments about O'Shea and the members of the DePaul Conservative Alliance, calling them ignorant and in one case calling them white supremacists. All this was done to the cheers of an audience that was 95% hostile to O'Shea and that repeatedly disrupted him with jeers and derisive laughter. The forum amounted to a public bashing of O'Shea and the DePaul Conservative Alliance.

6. After the forum O'Shea was met by two campus policemen who escorted him to the DePaul radio station where he gave a seventy minute interview  discussing his views on the issue of affirmative action. The police escort was necessitated by a number of threatening phone calls and emails O'Shea had received in reaction to the bake sale.

7. The President of the university sent an email to the entire DePaul community announcing DePaul's official response to its investigation of the bake sale.

The review concluded that the bake sale was a protest and was intentionally misrepresented by DCA in its promotion table application, violating the Student Code of Conduct. As a result of these findings, the organization has been censured, and sanctions have been applied. Our review also determined that the event did not violate the Anti—Discriminatory Harassment Policy because it was not directed at an individual, did not disrupt academic activity and did not demonstrate a pattern necessary to create a hostile environment.

 The email clearly acknowledged the challenges faced by DePaul in responding to the controversy.

It was a provocative event viewed by many as an affront to DePaul's values of respect and dignity, inclusiveness and diversity.  Concurrently, it raised questions about our commitment to free speech.

He injected his own views. Refering to DePaul's genuinely laudable history of non—discrimination.

DePaul has always been a pioneer in enrolling a broad array of students when other institutions would not. This proud legacy extends beyond racial minorities, to female, Jewish and Catholic students early in the 20th century.  DePaul is proud of its history of welcoming students of many traditions and backgrounds to the university and then creating an atmosphere of respect and care for them.

Left out of this comment is that these policies were based on non—discrimination. The students were treated the same, regardless of race, religion or gender. If students were qualified and could pay, they could attend. Critics of affirmative action are in favor of strong measures to prevent discrimination. They would strongly endorse DePaul's historic policies in this regard. What they object to is the granting of compensatory preferential treatment based solely on the factors of race, gender or ethnicity.

The historic 'atmosphere of respect and care for them' that the DePaul president refers to did not involve special treatment. There were no special advocacy departments and centers. There was no office for institutional diversity. There was no Cultural Center and no allowance for special needs, such as allowing students to schedule make—up exams when they conflicted with religious obligations. It is factually wrong to say that DePaul's commitment to an expensive and ideologically centered diversity industry is simply a continuation of DePaul's past non—discriminatory admissions policy.
The email tried to reassure the DePaul community of the university's commitment to free speech.

Our ancestors, who gave us the gift of free speech, understood that if we limit freedom of expression for one, then we limit it for all.  They taught us that the best way to counter speech with which we disagree is to greet it with more speech.  Because of that, I am particularly grateful to the many student groups, faculty and staff who took the time to respond to this bake sale.  They demonstrated both DePaul's deepest values and its commitment to vigorous debate.

In light of the events at the public forum one has to wonder if the public scolding of the conservative students is what he considers a commitment to vigorous debate. But what is most disturbing in the email is where he editorializes on the motives of the students.

I support DCA's right to hold a protest on the topic of affirmative action.  What I find troubling is that the protest was intentionally located across from the university's Cultural Center, a place where our students of color organize numerous enriching events for the campus community.  I am not objecting that the event was, in DCA's own words, meant "to be incendiary."  I am concerned that there is an appearance of having been directed specifically toward one group of the university community rather than the university community as a whole.  In my opinion, this doesn't rise to the level of DePaul's commitment to create a welcoming atmosphere for all.

He was clearly saying that the location of the bake sale suggested that the bake sale was racist. In the context of the politically correct atmosphere of DePaul, it amounted to the highest official of the university giving the green light to brand the students in the DePaul Conservative Alliance as bigots.

His statement overlooked the fact that the table where the bake sale was located is the point of maximum exposure in the student center. It is the one place by which virtually everyone entering the student center passes; the preferred location for people offering phone service, newspaper subscriptions and bank accounts as well as political groups expressing their political points of view.

Furthermore if the Cultural Center has become a point of contention, it is not because of the color of its clients but the nature of its politics. It has been given a virtual franchise for organizing extra—curricular student activities at DePaul relating to issues of racial, ethnic and gender identity. Ward Churchill was invited to visit DePaul by the Cultural Center to give a lecture and convene a workshop on the meaning of people of color. A major concert was organized last year by the Cultural Center to raise money and political support for the Palestinian cause. When the Cultural Center adopts a political agenda and engages in activities in support of that agenda, it loses the ability to dismiss criticism of its activities as racist.

Finally, when the incident of racist and anti—Semitic graffiti occurred on March 8th , and there was evidence that strongly indicated that the College Republicans were the victims of a frame—up, the administrators proceeded as if this were still a hate crime, and even suggested the DePaul Conservative Alliance was somehow partially at fault. When asked point blank at the March 8th meeting whether there was a connection between the bake sale and the graffiti, the president replied that there was no evidence of DCA involvement but he believed the bake sale had harmed the community.

It is difficult to comprehend DePaul's reaction. Certainly vandalizing the campus with racist and anti—Semitic graffiti is extremely offensive behavior and deserves to be condemned in harsh terms. But the offensiveness of such behavior stems from the threat posed by those who have engaged in it. One would think that the information that the incident was probably a hoax and not the work of a secret group of racists would be reassuring to the campus and immediately revealed by the school's administrators. Instead they knowingly held a prayer vigil for students who were left to believe, apparently incorrectly, they had been the victims of racial and religious slurs. And they have continued to engage in this public charade even though one of the questioned students was told by the university's chief investigator that the graffiti was almost certainly designed to implicate the College Republicans.

What has occurred has been another example of political correctness run amok at DePaul. A small group of students engaged in a relatively innocuous public protest of affirmative action and as a result they were investigated for a possible case of harassment, had their organization censured and penalized by the university, were tricked into being subjected to a two hour public bashing at the hands of several faculty members and in front of about a hundred jeering students, were publicly scolded for the bake sale by the university president in an email to every member of the DePaul community, were the victims of a crude attempt to falsely brand them as the perpetrators of a nasty incident of racist graffiti and when it they were cleared of this charge the school administration, knowing that this was a hoax, suggested to the media that their bake sale had contributed to the atmosphere that led to the graffiti.

You can't make this stuff up. Perhaps it is my mathematical training but it seems that one way to overcome political correctness is by a kind of proof by contradiction. You simply assume the usual politically correct assumptions of victimization and oppression and then see how it leads to a series of bizarre and cruel conclusions. The sane person then is forced to question the assumptions. At DePaul, thanks to the initiatives of some courageous and idealistic students we are making progress but we are not there yet.

Jonathan Cohen teaches mathematics at DePaul University.

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