Racist Outrage at UMass-Amherst

— Jeffrey Napalitano, Mishy Leiblum, Barak Sered and Stephanie Luce

OVER THE PAST decade, students around the country have fought a conservative backlash on college campuses that has sought to reverse many gains won in the 1970s and 1980s.  Along with attacks on labor studies, women's studies, and progressive student organizations, this has also included efforts to roll back affirmative action policies and programs for students of color.

Despite a history of student organizing and being located in a so-called "liberal" region, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is no exception to these trends.  In 1997, and then again after the precedent setting Michigan affirmative action case in 2001, the UMass administration has decreased emphasis on race and ethnicity in its admissions decisions.

Furthermore, the administration has slashed funding for academic support programs for students of color and has worked to undermine student of color organizations, such as the Office of ALANA Affairs (African, Latino/a, Asian/ Pacific Islander, and Native American).

The past year highlights the depth to which the administration appears to stoop in order to reverse previous gains on campus.  What is particularly surprising, perhaps, is new evidence that suggests that the administration has been collaborating with conservative students in these efforts.

In the spring of 2004, the undergraduate Student Government Association (SGA) held its annual presidential elections.  When Eddie Bustamante, a Latino student running on a progressive slate, won the presidency over Patrick Higgins, a conservative student leader, a group of students who had been continually antagonistic to ALANA members of the SGA successfully overthrew the election results.

The election was re-run, and Bustamante and his white progressive running mate for Trustee (Matthew Murphy) won by a landslide.

However, the battles were not over.  For over twenty years, the SGA has housed a Caucus for ALANA students and their allies.  Over the summer of 2004, Higgins (who had become the SGA Speaker after losing the presidency), approached the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and insisted that the ALANA Caucus was, according to state and federal law, an illegal organization. 

He went on to suggest that the University was open to litigation and liability, claiming that Attorney Charles DiMare, the Director of Student Legal Services, bragged that he could go into business by suing the school on just this one issue.

Attacking ALANA Caucus

During the summer, Vice Chancellor Michael Gargano approached SGA President Bustamante and told him that the Caucus was not legal, and instructed him to request a formal legal opinion from the General Counsel Terrence O'Malley. 

Upon hearing this, Caucus members were alerted and came back from various parts of the state to have a meeting with Gargano and Higgins, at the beginning of which Gargano declared that he was going to suspend the Caucus. 

Protests from members of the Caucus made him change his mind, but Gargano still insisted that the Caucus request a legal opinion, and that they, not he, make the request.  The Caucus reluctantly agreed.  Weeks past, and neither Bustamante nor the Caucus heard word from Gargano or General Counsel. 

Finally, Gargano and Higgins contacted Bustamante and suggested that he schedule and meet with General Counsel to discuss the issue of the Caucus.  Neither Gargano nor Higgins gave mention of an opinion, and a meeting with General Counsel never materialized.

Smoking Website

Then, at the beginning of the semester, students discovered a personal website that held dozens of photos that showed Higgins and his friends (then SGA Senators) partying in a university office the night, with bottles of hard alcohol strewn around the office and students ostentatiously pouring beer into each other's mouths.

This party took place a night before Bustamante's first election results were thrown out, thrown out by most of the people in the pictures.  Several of the photos capture Higgins posed with a wide grin in front of "a marker board with a caricature of [himself] dressed as a 'grand wizard' of the Ku Klux Klan,'" with the words "I love ALANA."  (See note 1)

Others were also shown posing with the caricature, including one student imitating the burning cross drawn in the hand of the caricature.  In light of the photos, Higgins withdrew from school.

An uproar went up over the pictures, and community meetings were held.  At the first such meeting, Gargano appeared and declared, "We will get to the bottom and we're going to charge them with everything we possibly can. There is zero tolerance, we will take swift decisive action."  (See note 2)

Almost two weeks later, however, all students featured in the photos still retained their positions in the SGA as well as those in the office where the pictures were taken.  Only Higgins was gone, after voluntarily resigning.

Collusion Revealed

A panel consisting of Bustamante, Gargano and distinguished faculty was convened to discuss diversity on campus.  To his dismay, nearly all panel members, as well as a majority of audience members, criticized Gargano and the administration's lack of commitment to diversity issues.

A week later, a rally was held, at which the administration was taken to task for their inaction.  "University inaction towards the students who committed this inexplicable act of hatred is indicative of this administration's lack of interest in fostering diversity," declared one speaker.  (See note 3)

Another called for the resignation of Attorney DiMare, who was seen as politically protecting the students in the photos.  The rally turned into a march into the administrative building, and ultimately into Gargano's office, where chanting students called for Gargano to resign.

A short while later, emails were leaked to the press from Higgins' account as Senate Speaker.  These emails demonstrated a series of illicit communications between Higgins, Gargano, and DiMare.  Included was an email proving that the Vice Chancellor had received a legal opinion from General Counsel.

Instead of reporting this ruling to Bustamante, he sent an email to Speaker Higgins, which said, "Hi Pat. If you get a chance please call me this weekend or early Monday.  [gives cell, home and office numbers].  I heard back from General Counsel and the news is different than what anticipated."

Also exposed were emails between DiMare and members of the administration and unions which DiMare had BCC'ed (Blind Carbon Copy) or forwarded to Higgins.

As of today—five months later—Bustamante was never given the legal opinion of the General Counsel.  It was only when the leaked emails were discovered that the SGA leadership was even aware that an opinion had been given.

Bustamante, the student government President, was kept out of these conversations between Gargano, DiMare and Higgins.  Instead, they collaborated behind the scenes with lower-level student government official Patrick Higgins.

Standing Up for Diversity These incidents are only the most egregious out of a long list of attacks the administration has made on the Office of ALANA Affairs (OAA), as well as other offices regarding diversity, such as the Stonewall Center and the Everywoman's Center.

For example, throughout this period the administration has blocked and hindered hiring new staff for the OAA. Two graduate students hired through the office had their paychecks held up, because the administration has refused to sign their contracts.

ALANA students and their allies are fighting back.  After Bustamante's election results were first overthrown, an organization called Take Back UMass was formed to deal with conservative backlash on campus.

The group has been persistent in keeping the public eye on the issues.  They have held a rally and march, large community meetings, and educational events.  Undergraduate members of Take Back UMass also successfully lobbied the SGA to vote a nearly unanimous vote of "No Confidence" in Vice Chancellor Gargano.

Take Back UMass membership also include campus unions.  Two unions represent workers directly impacted by some of the attacks on the Office of ALANA Affairs—a UAW local that represents graduate student employees, and an SEIU local that represents campus staff.

Both unions have filed grievances and held press conferences, and participate in the Take Back UMass coalition.  In addition, the faculty union, an NEA affiliate, voted to call on the University President and Chancellor to conduct an investigation into the apparent attempts of Gargano and DiMare to undermine the Office of ALANA Affairs and the SGA.

Students see the attacks not only as an attack on student of color organizations, but also on the larger concept of student self-governance.  The administration is required to sign off on acts of the SGA in order for them to be official University recommendations, and the fact that Gargano worked behind the scenes with Higgins was not lost on others in the SGA.

Rats Come Out

The "Ku Klux Klan" picture scandal brought out a few interesting players out of the woodwork.  Within a week of the publicizing of the pictures, a right-wing "civil rights" organization, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), sent out press releases and managed to get editorials published in The Boston Phoenix and Boston Herald in defense of the students in the pictures. 

FIRE has a biased history of defending the civil rights of conservative students, such as a student at UNH who was disciplined for posting a flyer in his dorm advising overweight girls to "take the stairs," because "not only will u feel better about yourself but you will also be saving us time and won't be sore on the eyes."  (sic)

In media statements, FIRE members compared the treatment of Rene Gonzalez, a UMass student who wrote an editorial criticizing Pat Tillman, a football player who died as a soldier in Afghanistan, to the administration's treatment of the students in the pictures.  It was claimed that there was a double standard because no administrative action was taken against Gonzalez.

However, none of the statements by FIRE members pointed out that Jack Wilson, the President of the UMass University system, publicly criticized Gonzalez in a formal press release by the University, the very day his editorial was published, whereas no formal statement at all was ever issued regarding the released pictures.

When an ALANA student confronted the President at a Faculty Senate meeting, and pleaded with Wilson to do something about the high racial tensions on campus as a result of the pictures, Wilson deflected the issue to the Vice Chancellor and stated that the issue was something to be dealt with within the Amherst community, not something that would involve the University President.

Also, the President of FIRE, David French, faxed and mailed an open letter to the President of the University, the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, and other administrators at UMass Amherst, in which he called the University's treatment of the students in the pictures "unwarranted" and "shameful," and demanded the University drop all harassment charges.  If not, FIRE threatened to "use all of our media and legal resources to combat the UMass Amherst."  (See note 4)

It is hard to imagine that the administration's lack of action against these students, to even mildly admonish the students involved, was not swayed by this avowal.  It is even harder to imagine that the recently exposed relationship between Gargano and Higgins did not also influence the lack of reprimand.

Demanding Accountability

While the means and resources of student activists do not match that of a privately funded organization like FIRE, Take Back UMass is continuing to try to make the administration accountable for its actions, as well as making process transparent.

Since the email scandal, Chancellor Lombardi has reaffirmed his confidence in Vice Chancellor Gargano, but tensions are still running high.  An editorial in a recent graduate student newspaper closed with, "This is our school, not your playground.  And it certainly isn't your country club.  Those of you who promote racism, pack your bags...Your party is over.  Say good night, Mike [Gargano].  Next?" (See note 5)

NOTES

  1. Andrew Varnon, "The Smoking Gun?" The Valley Advocate, November 11, 2004.
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  2. Julie O'Donnell and Erika Lovely, Daily Collegian, September 27, 2004.
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  3. Brian Duffey, Daily Collegian, October 6, 2004.
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  4. Letter to UMass Amherst, http://www.thefire.org/index.php/article/4973.html, October 7, 2004.
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  5. From the Editor, Graduate Voice, November 2004.
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  6. ATC 114, January-February 2005