Eastern Michigan University investigates after racist images were painted over student speech wall

‘I will keep them safe and I will address these issues at all times’

Black fraternity's message defaced at Eastern Michigan University.

YPSALANTI, Mich.Eastern Michigan University responded and condemned the racist images that were painted over a message on a student speech wall in the middle of campus. The area is designated for free speech.

Late last week, a Black Greek Letter Organization (BGLO) Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Inc. painted a message on one of the student speech walls to commemorate their new member presentation.

EMU’s NAACP chapter president MaKayla Stevens said, " ...that same night the message was covered. And there was like monkey spray painted over it as well as words that we could not understand completely by two students who then later posted their artwork on EMU Engage App with is essentially a social media for the university.”

Dr. Doris Fields, interim chief diversity officer at the university was alerted and said, “They (the two students) apologized immediately after, but the impact was already done.”

The two students explained that it was a misunderstanding and that they had no idea that it was a Black fraternity’s message that they covered. One student posted, in part, “We could’ve never predicted that a joke would turn into this but I can’t hold y’all, we deserve it.”

Stevens believes claiming the message was some sort of joke is an excuse.

“Out of all the animals that we have, you guys chose to spray paint monkeys which we know historically have been very disrespectful towards like the black community in general,” Stevens said.

A police report was made and Dr. Fields is also looking into it.

“Monday I released a letter from me addressing the students because I want to make sure that students feel safe,” said Fields.

She’s monitored the posts in the Engage app, met with the two students as well as the fraternity. She plans to meet with the campus NAACP chapter next week.

Stevens’ concern is there is a pattern with racist incidents and the university not taking action.

“There’s been an event every single year since the year of 2016. We have not gotten anything done since. Every event has been swept under the rug. It’s pretty popular on social media for about a week, a week and a half and then nobody says anything,” said Stevens.

Fields said this time is different. She has worked as a professor at EMU for nearly 30 years but recently assumed the role of interim chief diversity officer.

“We never had a chief diversity officer before. So I am here. And I want to make the students know that I am their advocate and that I will keep them safe and I will address these issues at all times,” Fields said.

Below is the email Fields sent out Monday:

Dear EMU Community,

I write to you today to address racist comments and images recently painted on EMU Student Government’s Student Speech Wall.

Racist images on the Student Speech Wall

Late last week, monkey images and racist phrases were spray painted on the Student Speech Wall covering messages previously posted there by African American fraternities and sororities. The racist images and phases were also shared on the EMU Engage app. Pictures of monkeys and/or statements linking monkeys to African Americans have long been considered racist caricatures.

Eastern Michigan University condemns these hateful images and statements. Racist rhetoric and actions are completely counter to the mission, values, and welcoming environment of our campus. Racist stereotypes, phrases, jokes, or other acts of racial insensitivity, discrimination, or prejudice on our campus are not acceptable.

I understand and share the range of emotions -- anger, frustration, disappointment, fear, sadness -- that our African American students, faculty and staff are experiencing at this moment. It is difficult to feel you belong to or are a valued member of a culture when you are devalued by those around you. We must do better. Our campus community must ensure that every student has an opportunity for a quality education. We each deserve an environment where we can thrive free from discrimination, racism, and prejudice.

Ongoing investigation

I have been in close contact with President Smith, Police Chief Matthew Lige, and other University leaders regarding this matter. We are working collectively to investigate this matter, and we share the outrage of the campus community. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) investigation is still ongoing. When that investigation is complete, DPS will share its report with the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, which has the final determination about whether to pursue criminal charges. Together, we will continue to update the campus community as more facts emerge.

The role of the First Amendment

An important component of the criminal investigation of these incidents is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gives individuals the broad right to express their views, including upsetting or reprehensible ones, largely without restriction. The Student Speech Wall was designed to foster open expression and dialogue among EMU students. It is managed by EMU Student Government, and the purpose of the space is as follows:

“Eastern Michigan University students are encouraged to paint these spaces to communicate upcoming events and other public messages. Although students have broad leeway to write messages on the Student Speech Space, Student Government urges all writers to adhere closely to Eastern Michigan University’s Core Values, namely Excellence, Respect, Inclusiveness, Responsibility, and Integrity. We encourage messages that are positive and informative.”

Clearly, racist speech painted on the wall does not adhere to these guidelines.

Unfortunately, the First Amendment may often be used by individuals to avoid accountability for hateful statements and expressions. Such conduct may not be illegal because it is protected by the First Amendment. It is, however, inconsistent with EMU’s mission and values, and we condemn it.

The University encourages students who write on the Student Speech Space (including the wall and nearby kiosks) to communicate information about upcoming events and “messages that are positive and informative.” If you plan to paint the wall, we ask that you carefully consider what outcome you hope to achieve with your statements and message. How will others hear, interpret, and be impacted by them?

Campus communication brings with it the responsibility to respect peers. Racist messages such as those painted last week exclude and convey to some that they may not be welcome on our campus. They create a culture of fear, division, and hate. People succeed in cultures that support, include, and foster a sense of safety and belonging. Each of us is responsible for the energy we bring to creating a community that welcomes and fosters the success of people from all backgrounds and experiences.

Next steps

EMU strives to build bridges and an inclusive environment across campus. We are committed to eliminating barriers and improving race relations, and making conscious efforts in building an educational institution that is accepting of all races, cultures, religions, nationalities, gender identities, and sexual orientations. Understanding that inclusion is an act and process of continuous improvement and an acceptance of differences, the University will demonstrate our commitment to inclusion by offering the following initiatives:

  • The University’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer is offering open DEI Office Hours throughout the Summer on Wednesdays from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. (101C Boone) beginning April 27 through the week of August 31. Walk-in and scheduled Zoom office hours are available for students, faculty, and staff who would like to share their thoughts on the situation and other DEI concerns across the University. (Zoom appointments must be scheduled prior to the meeting by emailing chief_diversity_officer@emich.edu.)
  • We are creating a feedback process that will be open to students, faculty, and staff to make suggestions on the development of a “Student Diversity Training Workshop”. This DEI initiative will be created by students for students, be hosted by the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer, and focus on creating the culture we aspire to have on our campus.
  • EMU students will also have the opportunity to participate in the DEI Listening Tour in September 2022 to discuss DEI projects/programs/initiatives, and DEI concerns. Dates and times will be announced as fall semester approaches. If you are interested in participating in any of these initiatives, please contact me at chief_diversity_officer@emich.edu.

Finally, we can achieve a truly inclusive campus community only if every member of our community is actively participating in the change process. I hope that you will join me in our efforts to create a more inclusive learning environment for students, faculty, and staff -- where everyone can thrive academically, feel safe, and receive a quality education.

Thank you,

Dr. Doris Fields

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About the Author:

Megan Woods is thrilled to be back home and reporting at Local 4. She joined the team in September 2021. Before returning to Michigan, Megan reported at stations across the country including Northern Michigan, Southwest Louisiana and a sister station in Southwest Virginia.