President Shepard reflects on hate speech incident

Kjell Redal

This article originally appeared in The Western Front, Western Washington University's student newspaper, and can be found here:

Near the end of fall quarter, the three words posted on the social media platform Yik Yak, “let’s lynch her”, spurred criminal charges, debates, and conversations both campus and nation-wide. The Whatcom County Superior Court has charged Tysen Campbell, a Western student now suspended and barred from campus, with malicious harassment for the post. Campbell’s post was one of many on social media now part of campus discussions, but it proved to be what pushed Western President Bruce Shepard to cancel classes on Tuesday, Nov. 24. Since then, Shepard received both praise and criticism for his handling of the incident. Here he had an opportunity to reflect, explain, and look ahead to how issues surrounding racial relations at Western might evolve in the time ahead.   

      Talk us through the last month and a half from Nov. 22 through now. How has all of what’s gone through the Western community changed how you view this job and the university at large?

The Associated Students president proposed was that we talk about the subject of the mascot. Now I knew that was going to blow up so I took it off the table by saying that we won’t have a change of mascot, not during this year anyways, but let’s have these discussions. Then comments on Yik Yak and other media created a need to act because we had people who were afraid to come to campus. That took on a bit of a life on its own. I want to keep it in the national context of where universities around the country are really trying to figure out how to deal with the facts that there are systemic and institutional biases and racism. I’m a social scientist, I study this stuff. As universities we’re embedded in American society; we should not be surprised we reflect those sorts of things. So how do we have those kinds of conversations? I’ve maybe gotten more than I wished for when I said I wanted to create a sense of urgency, but I look at every problem that arises as an opportunity. And what happened after campus closed for a day were courageous conversations all around campus. Right now we have, and have had, a president’s task force on equity, inclusivity and diversity. We’ve been gathering all this raw data, all these conversations and these thoughts and we’ve put together recommendations for all of us to look at and react to. I think that’s a positive step forward as to what our priorities should be. To me it boils down to empathy, the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others and see how our actions affect others.

      Question: How much have you paid attention to what’s happened regarding racial tensions on other campuses and other university presidents’ handlings of these situations?

We watch those things carefully and we try to learn and talk about them. We have a trade press, the Chronicle of Higher Education and I get a daily summary of all of the developments around the country in higher education so I watch it very carefully.

      Question: You talked about creating a different campus environment with the Presidential task force and classes on diversity. In this next transition period to a new university president, what is being done to bring them up to speed regarding these things, the specifics of what happened in November, and the greater campus culture?

Diversity is a very high priority on our campus. It is increasingly apparent that diversity enriches our state and our nation. The presidential search committee also wants a president who is humble, they’re not interested in arrogant sorts of folks, and they also want a president who has some courage, who’s not afraid to take a leadership position. Those all came up before the incident that brings you here to talk today. I’ve had conversations with the board about the search and I have been asked, will these events scare off potential candidates? My response to that, and it’s the board’s response too, is if they’re scared to be part of a leading institution on important issues of the day, we don’t want them. And it’s just that simple.

      In terms of campus culture and diversity, having that in a sense necessitates having differing viewpoints and opinions at Western. After the events in November you received a lot of criticism from both sides, people that said you hadn’t done enough or people that said you went too far. How do you suggest the following president balance these opposing viewpoints effectively?

What I look for is ways to try to bring the different viewpoints together. The issues boil down to two things I have sympathy with.  One is that we want a thoughtful environment in which we are civil, even in passionate discussions. On the other hand we will never interfere with first amendment rights and academic freedom, and that includes the freedom to do very objectionable things. I’m about as absolutist a first amendment person as you’re ever going to find, I just believe that. How do you reconcile these perspectives on a university campus? I keep coming back to this word empathy. Sure we have the rights, but if we want to be effective we have to see the world from other peoples’ perspectives, before we act. I think that that’s really important to do. In the classroom I knew that if I insulted my students with my views I couldn’t teach them at all. I had to get into their space and come at the subject matter from where they were coming from. Having that empathy and developing that is very important.

      What were some of the most difficult moments in this process from that first long night through the arrest? Are they any decisions you made that you now regret?

There are things I would do better. I always had a clear idea of what was right for the university. You don’t worry as much about what’s right for you but rather what’s right for the university. When that first message went out saying that we weren’t going to have classes, I included the Yik Yak quotes in the first draft. I was advised that that would not be good at that point in the investigation and I took them out. That message created a lot of confusion because on the one hand I had two different police departments at 4 a.m. telling me the campus was safe, on the other hand I had students of color who were saying they were scared and couldn’t come to campus. So how do you explain that to people? I didn’t write that first message very effectively. I think there are some other things too. We have emergency response teams that first approached this as a law enforcement issue. They did a good job from a law enforcement perspective but involving some of the students who were targeted or affected in that particular process was not as thoughtful as it could have been.

      Following that somewhat, some students are confused as to why the investigation is closed right now with other individuals having been involved in the social media conversations. Why was Tysen Campbell the only one arrested?

That is the only example in these online conversations that violated the hate speech laws of the State of Washington. We have two processes here though, we have the laws of the State of Washington and we have Western Washington University’s student conduct. Right now I’m talking about the laws of the State of Washington. For example, one of the statements posted on Yik Yak said in protest we should go out and put up nooses. Because of those two leading words ‘in protest’, that’s protected speech as far as the laws of the State of Washington are concerned. You have a right to protest. Is it acceptable under student conduct? That’s a different matter, different burdens of proof. There’s at least one, maybe two student conduct cases that have gone forward. We don’t talk about those, they’re not part of the public record, but the only one that was criminal speech was that ‘let’s lynch her speech’.

      Have all of these different Yik Yak posts and the responses to them changed some of your perspectives or opinions about social media?

Oh not really. I’m a technical nerd. I soldered together my first computer when it had 2K of memory and it’s amazing it actually worked. I got Yik Yak when it first came out. I heard that there were anti-gay, and racist and anti-feminine sorts of comments. Mainly I just found really dumb, stupid things out there, people talking about what they’re doing while they’re sitting on the john. Excuse me, but that’s what the Yik Yak posts are is stuff like that. I just think it’s worthless. But I guess because I’m a first amendment absolutist I don’t believe you get anywhere by controlling speech, I don’t think we should insulate ourselves from it. I think if people thought empathically about how their words were going to affect others they never would have posted those comments.

      Moving forward through the process, how would you now characterize your relationship with the Associated Students and has that changed in the course of these events?

I don’t think it has changed. Our AS president has made it clear that her role is to represent the voices that are not heard on our campus, it is not to represent all of the students, so that creates a conundrum for me. But I’m not going to undercut the AS. I think it’s a new world here that I don’t have answers to as to how we represent students when we have a student body president whose position is that she does not represent all the students but I think that we have to talk more widely with all of our students about where they are. That’s nothing new though, from day one that’s been Belina’s position.

      With these events and your speech that blew up in 2014, your last two years as president have been marked by these discussions of diversity and inclusion. Are these the issues that will define your tenure as Western’s president? How do you feel about that?

I think it’s just a matter of doing a job. I fear that because we elected a black president we might think we’re in a post-racial society. The social scientist in me knows that’s not the case. I always believe there’s nothing wrong with admitting you have problems, the only thing to be embarrassed about is if you try to sweep them under the rug. I believe that the leadership that leads best is the leadership that leaves no fingerprints. I don’t want to have a legacy but I want the campus to own the variety of things that have gone on.