University of South Carolina diversity officials got an earful Thursday night from students angry about racist flyers that were posted on campus as students were returning from winter break.
A racially diverse crowd of about 300 students packed into a theater in USC’s student union to express their anger about the incident, some criticizing the school’s response and one suggesting president Harris Pastides should be fired.
At one point in the discussion, school officials turned off a projector displaying students’ written comments because the conversation had turned sour.
However, USC director of multicultural student affairs Shay Malone called the discussion “positive.”
“Students still have a lot of unanswered questions,” said Malone.
USC held the discussion two days after students returned to the Columbia campus from winter break to find racist flyers taped to a display case outside the offices of the university’s African-American studies program.
The flyers, posted around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, prompted condemnations on social media from the school, Pastides and student government leaders. Wednesday, a student group responded to the flyers with an on-campus photo session that will be used to create posters of African-American students.
USC is investigating the incident but has not learned who posted the flyers.
During the meeting, students – who did not identify themselves – asked about the investigation and said they wished USC had responded more harshly to earlier incidents.
Last fall, students found flyers saying, “It’s OK to be white” taped on several buildings.
Three years ago, a USC student was suspended after she was photographed writing on a whiteboard that displayed a slur about African Americans.
Chief diversity officer John Dozier said USC believes off-campus groups or individuals were responsible for the most recent incident and several others. The school can’t always crack down on offensive speech because of the 1st Amendment, he added.
“There is no crime, per se, for putting up a sign that includes offensive or even deeply offensive language,” said Dozier, who calmly bore the brunt of several barbed questions.
Students also criticized USC’s decision to respond to the flyers first on social media instead of sending out a campus-wide email.
Dozier said USC would re-examine its reaction to future incidents.
Several students said president Pastides’ statement condemning the flyers had not been strong enough. One student, who described herself as a public relations major, suggested Pastides should be fired.
“I didn’t feel safe,” she said. “There needs to be a change in leadership.”
Pastides’ statement described the incident as “an abhorrent and unacceptable display of hatred,” adding the flyers contained “despicable words of bigotry and racism.”
Another student suggested USC should require diversity training for incoming students, similar to the online alcohol training currently mandated.
Dozier said the school is looking into that idea.
He also defended the university’s efforts, saying the flyers were indicative of a cultural problem, not a policy problem.
“We all own this university culture,” he said, adding students should ask themselves what they can do as individuals to promote a culture of acceptance and inclusion.
Some students left the meeting unsure if it had been worthwhile.
“I was very disappointed at how the student body attacked him,” Yaunna Hunter, a 19-year-old public relations major, said of Dozier. “There’s not that much he can do (about the incident) within his power.”
But Denzel Carson, a 21-year-old criminal justice major, called the meeting productive. “It showed the division on campus, not just with administrators but with the community as a whole.”