The following op-ed was written by Eric W. Corty, interim director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, in response to an incident of hate speech on campus:
Late at night on Nov. 10, someone scrawled a piece of homophobic hate speech on a sheet of paper and pinned it on the bulletin board next to a friend’s office door. There it rested, a little time bomb, ticking away, meant to intimidate my friend, to make him feel unwelcome, to make all gay people at our college feel uncomfortable, and to polarize our campus.
As a heated debate over race, “safe spaces” and social identity has gripped American campuses, spurring protests at Yale University and prompting the resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, I have a different story to tell. When hate language surfaced at my campus – Penn State Erie, The Behrend College – the response at all levels was swift, sensitive and professional. We responded not only as community members, but as educators, and we turned an act of hate into a teachable moment.
A member of the custodial staff discovered the sign very early in the morning. He informed his supervisor, who notified our campus police. They took the sign down. The next morning, an officer, with considerable care, told my friend what had happened. An investigation already had begun.
When the interim chancellor at the college learned what had happened, he called my friend to express his outrage and support. He sent an email to our entire faculty and staff, and another to our students, explaining what had happened and asking us to work together to maintain an inclusive community.
As I thought about how to respond to the incident, I remembered an apocryphal story about Denmark. The Nazis, having taken over the country, passed a law requiring all Jews to wear the Star of David. The next day, when the king went for his daily ride, he proudly – defiantly – wore the Star of David sewn onto his coat. The message was simple, elegant and profound: We are all Danes, and we stand together.
I informed the faculty members in the academic school I lead that on the following Wednesday I would be wearing a piece of rainbow-colored clothing. I invited others to join me and asked that, if they did, they spend a minute or two at the start of each class to explain why they were doing so.
The response was tremendous. We passed out rainbow buttons. Our Health and Wellness Center and Athletic Department bought thousands of rainbow ribbons and made them available to everyone on campus. An instructor in our communication program designed a poster and started a social-media campaign. The other academic schools joined in.
I have never felt prouder of our campus community. Not everyone wore rainbow clothes, or even a button or ribbon, but many did. Faculty members, students and staff were united. Every time I passed someone with a ribbon, I felt camaraderie. In a quiet, symbolic and peaceful way, we had made our point.
From custodian to chancellor, I think we responded well this time. We defused this time bomb with openness, inclusiveness and support for a person who had been targeted. My friend was moved by the show of support and our public stance against incivility.
I’m no Pollyanna: I realize it’s possible that more hate speech – homophobic, racist, xenophobic, or anti-Semitic – will occur at my campus. Thomas Jefferson said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Maintaining that vigilance with such a forthright response needs to be our goal.