Ten days after the racist email assailed Dean Mike Edmonds, Dean Rochelle Mason, and the black community, Colorado College has gotten its sea legs and begun to weather the storm on campus. However, the college is now faced with the responsibility of addressing ongoing issues of marginalization through more than a response to the email.
To paraphrase Dr. Michael Sawyer’s pointed remarks made during a faculty panel responding to the incident, Colorado College has done its immediate duty and enlisted all hands on deck to clean “the shit out of the middle of the room.” However, in Sawyer’s words, “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it don’t stink.”
Like students, many administrators were off campus when the email was initially sent. President Jill Tiefenthaler opened the email while at Denver International Airport: “To be honest with you, I only read a couple of sentences and put it down, and then I immediately called Mike.”
She forwarded the email to Jane Turnis, Vice President of Communications, “in case other people were getting it,” and then called Mason. Tiefenthaler put her phone away to go through airport security, and when she pulled it back out on the train to the gate, she had hundreds of emails. After realizing the scale of the incident, Tiefenthaler felt forced to compose her first response on the plane before takeoff.
The absence of key administrators on-campus complicated the college’s ability to respond. Edmonds, Dean Sandra Wong, and Dr. Paul Buckley were all away from the college. Buckley, who was out of the country leading a Bridge Scholars trip, couldn’t be contacted until Friday, two days after the email was sent.
“Normally if I were here, I would have pulled people together, especially the people who are experts,” said Tiefenthaler. “I’m an economist, right? So I would have called Paul and said we need to respond. And Mike is usually one of my key people for anything, especially around student life; Rochelle is, too.” Tiefenthaler continued to describe how the targeting of the college’s senior leadership further hampered the response, making it feel unfair to ask Mason and Edmonds to engage in the response.
From there, the college began its multiple attempts to address the situation. “I said to Jane, ‘Send out an email telling people it’s coming from the outside. We don’t know what it is.’ Because people were just forwarding it and calling IT, and IT was actually trying to figure out what to do and how to block it,” Tiefenthaler explained. This first response called the email “spam.” The initial intent of the email Tiefenthaler explained, was to relieve college officials, especially ITS, of the steady flow of inquires.
In the messages to the college, some, including many faculty, suggested the email be deleted directly out of student accounts, a labor-intensive process that would’ve required the college to have infrastructure in place to scan college communication en masse.
Others initially requested that sites, like Hushmail, the email encryption service used to send the message, be blocked entirely from sending correspondence to anyone using a college email address.
“People are saying, ‘Why don’t we block these sites that are sending these emails?’” said Tiefenthaler. “I mean, we have to have a really hard conversation … about that issue on campus before I decide what sites we block from your email accounts.”
Banning websites begins to tread into the contentious territory of freedom of speech on college campuses, a conversation the college began to grapple with in the national spotlight after the Yik Yak incident of 2016.
The new situation is a waking nightmare for any college president, particularly for the president of a predominantly white campus with a small community of black students. This email was an entirely new level of ugly, though, with language strong enough to be subject to criminal investigation under the Colorado Revised Statutes for harassing behavior. This time, free speech could not be called upon to varnish the underbelly of the message.
This debate is, in some ways, not unique to Colorado College. Propaganda and messaging from alt-right and white supremacist groups on college campuses has been surging nationwide since 2016. The Anti-Defamation League reported in early 2018 that since September 1, 2016 they’ve recorded “346 incidents of white supremacist propaganda—fliers, stickers, banners, and posters—appearing on college and university campuses.”
The schools where these incidents have occurred span from Ivy League institutions to local community colleges, the incidents taking place in 44 states as well as the District of Columbia. 290 of the incidents were recorded in 2017, and according to the report, 15 have occurred so far in 2018, three of which happened in Colorado.
Much of the targeting is tied to a handful of prominent White Supremacist groups looking to recruit on college campuses. One such group, Identity Evropa, was behind almost half of the 346 incidents, according to the Anti-Defamation League. There is no evidence to suggest Identity Evropa played any part in the email sent to Colorado College.
CC’s two most haunting instances of hate speech differ from this nationwide trend in an important way: both the Yik Yak incident and this hate speech-filled email were disseminated to large groups of people under the veil of technological anonymity.
There have been no masked students demonstrating with torches or mass-produced white supremacy fliers, but the result has been equally, if not more, fracturing and poisonous within the small college community. Out of many of the abhorrent principles the email operates under, this is one that particularly bothers Tiefenthaler.
She counters, saying there is no such thing as anonymous free speech, “which [was] also my point with the last issue on campus as well … anonymous speech is not free speech. If you have free speech, then you need to own it. And if you can’t own it then you need not to say it.”
The line between free speech and hate speech comes up frequently when talking about issues of hate on any modern campus. Changes in the national political climate have emboldened white supremacist groups to come out of the shadows and into places of discourse, like college campuses, to proudly espouse their views. This phenomenon has drawn the fascination of non-students. The country, particularly the media, is gripped by the line between free speech and hate speech.
A yellow, almost full-page illustration in the Sunday Washington Post Outlook section, loudly proclaimed “There is no campus speech crisis, there are only aggrieved customers,” just two days before the email was sent to the student body.
In the corresponding article, Andrew Hartman calls upon recent examples of the fascination: “Bari Weiss frets in the New York Times that today’s university activists believe in free speech ‘only when it doesn’t offend them. Which is to say, they don’t believe in it at all.’”
He furnishes another example, citing a recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks that cried, “‘Student mobbists manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.’”
CC is often subject to similar critiques decrying “liberal snowflakes,” “PC culture,” and a lack of freedom of speech. In recent tensions that boiled over on a Facebook forum exclusively open to the CC student body, Free and For Sale, students cited the red stoplight rating given to the college by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The rating was used as a rebuttal to criticism from students of color that their allegations of insensitivity were nullified by the poor free speech rating the school had received.
The email also brought up information released by FIRE, specifically a letter written on behalf of the nonprofit addressing the appeal of Thaddeus Pryor, one of the students suspended by the school after his anonymous comments on the social media forum Yik Yak.
When contacted, representatives from FIRE noted that the red free speech rating, the worst a college can receive, was not in fact the result of anything related to the Yik Yak incident, but rather due to the college’s written speech code, specifically definitions of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which the organization views as too vague.
The appeal related to Pryor and his comment on Yik Yak—which was widely viewed as harmful, insensitive, and hurtful to black students, especially female black students on campus—is part of the organization’s involvement in what they consider “censorship cases.”
When reached for comment, Pryor clarified his lack of involvement in this most recent incident: “It’s very unfortunate to hear what has happened at 902 N. Cascade Ave., my home for four years, this past week. Why it focused on my disciplinary case involving a joke in bad taste from 2015 is beyond me. To the person who wrote the hateful, disgusting, abhorrent, racist email, you will be found. CSPD has submitted a warrant to a server in Canada that will come back with an IP address within the next month or two. Justice will be served. To those who will inevitably claim this statement is insufficient, or that any responses from the school/community are insufficient, I encourage you to consider that CC, the country, and the world do not need any more division -especially on the basis of ideological orthodoxy- of those who sit on the same side. Hug your friends, be decent to people (even if you don’t agree with them), and work against actual racism (like the disgusting email in question).” Pryor requested his comment exist in full and unedited, as it appears above.
In regard to FIRE’s stoplight rating, CC has actually received a green light for their policy regarding “Acceptable Use of Information Resource Technology,” which says, “Information technology resources may not be intentionally used to view, store, print or send obscene materials or slanderous, harassing or threatening messages,” of which the email is a clear violation.
However, when asked if FIRE took umbrage with people citing their stoplight ratings to support or make points around cases in their individual rights defense program, Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Vice President of Policy and Research, said the two weren’t entirely separate. “The fact that a school has any policy restricting freedom of speech … is reflective of free speech concerns at the college. I wouldn’t say that it’s unrelated.”
Harris also clarified, “The stoplight rating doesn’t depend on whether or not we’ve had actual cases of censorship at a university . . . however, the fact that the university has written policy on free speech isn’t unrelated.”
An article published in The Gazette was also quick to characterize the email as the rekindling of the ‘free speech versus hate speech debate’ on campus, titling the article “Offensive email revives free speech, racism debate at Colorado College.” The title of the article has since been edited to strike mention of free speech.
President Tiefenthaler is quick to differentiate between media fascination and what she feels is an entirely different category of event. “I think I just want to be really careful,” said Tiefenthaler. “In my mind some of the publicity has tried to paint this as a free speech issue and while the last issue was . . . we were clearly in that battle ground around free speech with the Yik Yak incident . . . [but] I haven’t heard anybody who’s read the email actually [argue] to me that this is free speech.”
Tiefenthaler paused before adding, “For one thing, it’s slanderous, and it’s hate. It’s definitely hate speech. If it were a free speech issue, the Colorado Springs Police would not be investigating it as a crime.”
When asked if she thought that publicity from organizations like FIRE around free speech at the college made the school more vulnerable to attack from alt-right and white supremacists troll crusaders, she said, “I don’t know. I mean it’s two and a half years, which is interesting, I think. I just don’t know . . . I mean I’ve had five million theories come up in the middle of the night in the last three days to try to figure out what I think, is happening, but I honestly don’t know.”
“Although this attack could have been from inside our community, I hope it wasn’t. I hope it’s from outside,” Tiefenthaler added. She’s aware that the email exacerbates every trauma felt by some students, saying, “It brings up every wound that our community of color, particularly our black community, has [accumulated] over all of the incidents, from Yik Yak [to] everything else in between.”
Tiefenthaler elaborated, “I would say that for our community of color, particularly our black community, that continuum is every day at Colorado College to some extent, right? … I think [the email] challenges us to think about the continuum, as members of the community.”
Outside of the office of the President, Colorado College grapples with this continuum of violence. A faculty panel was one of the many events organized by the school’s administration in response to the email. The panel featured First Monday speaker Gregg Deal and professors Dwanna Robertson, Christina Layza, and Michael Sawyer. The room filled with more students than expected at a first Monday debrief, leaving dozens of attendees to stand or sit in clusters on the floor.
Panelists took questions from the audience, giving blunt advice and recounting personal experiences of racism. When asked what white students can do to combat racism, Robertson emphatically answered that white students can stop consuming racist rhetoric. Over the course of the panel, each speaker grew increasingly impassioned, though it is hard to know how the massive audience received the message.
Among black students, the email has continued to remain a focal point, with black community members writing countless supportive letters to faculty and staff of color. Several students alongside Cam Kaplan ‘20 have begun composing an open letter to the administration.
“Admitting that the views in the email could have come from campus would open up a conversation on how the school has to make drastic structural changes to reduce racism on this campus if they want to call themselves a diverse, welcoming school and put pictures of black folks all over their website. In an effort to force that conversation to happen, I and other black students are writing a letter detailing the ways in which CC can become an actively anti-racist institution, as it claims to be.” said Caplan.
Caplan’s remarks are some of many that critique CC’s policy of using photos of black students. On Wednesday night, many black students attended a three-hour long meeting with Tiefenthaler, the Butler Center, and Deans Edmonds and Mason to discuss this and countless other issues
There is no consensus as to who’s obligation, and whose abillity it is to tackle these issues, but frustration is palpable among students, faculty, and staff.
For her part, Tiefenthaler noted while policy from the administration bears responsibility for the campus climate, things need to change, saying, “I hear from a lot of students they want me to fix it. And I just can’t. I mean I’m trying to do what I can, and I am open to doing more. And I will listen to whoever wants to talk and tell me what they’d like us to do. But I can’t wave a wand.”
“Everybody is going to have to own this from everything that happens in the classroom, to what happens at social events, to what happens in Rastall, you know. It’s much bigger than a policy. I can’t—if I could say, you know, we’re going to have a policy and we’re going to be 100 percent inclusive environment, I would.”
Discussions of culpability have become contentious in the wake of the email with demands to address a continuum of racist violence on campus—the most prominent of those requests comes as critique of the curriculum. The college requires two blocks of “West in Time” studies yet has no requirements to study decolonization with specificity or depth.
President Tiefenthaler noted that she is helpless to change the curriculum; those decisions lie in the hands of faculty. However, faculty without tenure feel powerless to confront or condemn their tenured peers, expressed Robertson during the panel. Faculty and staff seem to point back to students as the main holders of power at the institution, asserting that they need to push for the change.
Despite continual issues of racism, sexism, transphobia, erasure, and other issues of marginalization, the college has changed in the past several years. Tiefenthaler is proud of the advances the college has made in her time at the college citing the approval of the REMS major, the founding of the Butler Center, the board approval of a diversity commitment, a faculty and staff committee dedicated to work on issues of diversity, and a six percent increase in students of color represented in the student body.
Tiefenthaler mentioned other college initiatives like Dr. Paul Buckley’s Good to Great multi-day professional development program available to staff (although, not mandatory), joining Quest Bridge, an increase in block break opportunities, efforts to increase inclusion in the outdoor space and increased funding for blocks and semesters abroad.
However, it must be said that despite the campus initiatives with or without the sending of a heinous email targeting people based on race and identity, students report the experience at Colorado College changes dramatically based upon race. This is something Tiefenthaler is painfully aware of as President.
“We’re a predominately, historically white institution and we have a hundred and some years of being that (which is frustrating to students, and I understand that). Change is really hard. And this kind of work—it takes time. And you know I get frustrated with it too. But as Dr. Buckley, I think, eloquently said yesterday, we’ve got to keep working on it, and we can do it. But it takes commitment from everybody.”
This racist, anti-black, misogynistic and anti-trans email exists on a continuum of violence that marginalized students can see and feel on campus every day, a context that is important to remember.
When asked if she believes that CC can ever be a safe space for students of color while remaining a predominately white institution, Tiefenthaler responded, “I hope so. I’m willing to do whatever we can to make that make that the case. I think so…I think so. We want students to feel safe and at home here. This is their home . . . So, I think we can. And you know I—I’m confident.”
She continued, “But that’s going to require not just spaces, it’s going to require community commitment. I think we can do it, but it’s going to it’s going to take a commitment and hard work.”
Further context is needed, however, to understand the specific attacks on Mason and Edmonds. Each has served the college in some capacity for 28 years, meaning together they have sacrificed 56 years to building up Colorado College.
Mason is the Senior Associate Dean of Students, managing everything from new-student orientation to freshman residence halls and beyond. She is one of the earliest advocates for diversity and inclusion on campus, commiting to immense amounts of work at the college before the establishment of the Butler Center four years ago.
Over the years, Mason has earned countless awards from the NAACP, chaired national committees, and been recognized at the college for exceptional work. Before she worked here, Mason graduated as a first generation college student from Colorado College.
Edmonds is the Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Life. He is responsible for overseeing the entirety of student life and working on students concerns that exist outside of the classroom.
Edmonds has served senior leadership at the college for years and is often praised for his constant connection to the student body; at the start of most school years, Edmonds will host groups of students at his home as frequently as every other day.
Edmonds has also sat on more boards and committees than is practical to count, including as a trustee at the liberal arts school of Ole Miss, as a board member at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and previously as a board member at Memorial hospital. Edmonds has earned many awards for dedication to all manner of organizations, for his dedication to higher education, and for his work in diversity and inclusion.
Associate Dean of the College, Pedro de Araujo, who has worked at the college for 10 years, says it is impossible to work here without knowing of and being affected by Edmonds and Mason. His respect for Edmonds and Mason seems to echo most members of the community: “If you’re going to criticize anyone on the basis of anything at this college, and let’s say you could rank that, they wouldn’t even be ranked.”
Many colleagues of the deans refused to comment as they did not believe in dignifying the suggestion that Edmonds or Mason are anything but valuable members of the college.
Tiefenthaler put that sentiment into words: “I think we can’t diminish the fact that they were targeted as leaders-great and powerful people. While they clearly were attacked in this case… in no way do we want that attack to diminish [them]. They don’t need any saving, or help, in the sense of their value because they are powerful important people at this campus and some attack is not going to change that.”
Rochelle Mason and Mike Edmonds have respectfully denied interviews but want the community to know they are thankful for the countless emails and messages of support they received.