APPLETON – Lawrence University administration apologized Saturday for including in its most recent annual report a photo of President Mark Burstein and his cabinet in which racist graffiti is clearly visible.
The photo was taken over the summer inside the cupola of Main Hall, which is currently undergoing renovations. It’s long been a place where students sneak in and write their names and other slogans on the wall, says Associate Vice President for Communications Craig Gagnon.
Neither the six people in the photo — all white — nor the photographer noticed the n-word scrawled on one wall, nor did any of the dozen or more people who proofread the annual report, Gagnon says.
“If you were in there, you’d probably understand why” no one noticed, Gagnon says. “There’s lots and lots of graffiti in there, and none of it is offensive, except for that one. It’s not artificially lit. It wasn’t easy to see.”
Others disagree. “It’s so visible. It’s something that you could clearly see. There really is no excuse,” says Lawrence senior Oumou Cisse.
The n-word appears in the photo to be written in white on a dark wall, and appears directly above the head of Ken Anselment, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. The graffiti has since been removed, Gagnon says.
“It’s a careless and complacent mistake,” Cisse says. “This just confirms that the administration couldn’t care less about students of color. It just goes to show that they really don’t care, plain and simple.”
“It’s pretty apparent,” says 2015 graduate Eli Massey, who received the report in the mail. “What’s powerful about this is this is the administration, and they’re oblivious to it. This is the embodiment of that.”
That administration doesn’t care about students of color is an allegation that’s been made regularly in recent months as racial tensions have risen on campus. Students have alleged intimidation by professors in classrooms, harassment along the popular College Avenue entertainment district, threats of violence, and an administration deaf to their concerns. A group of students has recently emerged with a list of demands, including a formal apology for not acting proactively on race issues, a committee to recruit and retain more students of color, the formation of an Ethnic Studies major, and more funding for the Diversity Center, among many others.
Media coverage of their demands drew racist and violent online comments.
“They made some good points and once they get back on campus and we can engage in a conversation with them, we will do that. A lot of those issues will be addressed,” Gagnon says.
President Mark Burstein has pledged to consider the demands, and has noted that some efforts are already underway. Burstein has said that faculty and administrators are meeting in committees over the holiday break and he will meet with students to address their concerns in January.
“It’s an interesting time for this to happen,” Cisse says. “It’s 20 steps back from where we started.”
“If you view this as an isolated incident, you’d be able to look past it,” says Massey.
“This comes at an unfortunate time, but as far as I’m concerned any time is an unfortunate time” for racist graffiti, Gagnon says.
“It’s a huge embarrassment to me, personally, and to the university as a whole. We take no pride in that (graffiti) even being there, much less photographing it and putting it out there,” he says. “This is not the way Lawrence rolls.”
Gagnon estimated that about 12,000 recent alumni and recent donors received hard copies of the annual report over the last two weeks, and the administration keeps some copies on campus for fundraising or informational purposes.
Saturday’s apology email, which was signed by Gagnon, offers a new copy of the annual report to anyone who wants one.
Only those who received hard copies received the apology email, even though the email reads, in part, “I apologize to the entire Lawrence community of students, staff, faculty, parents and alumni.”
Gagnon says that the apology was sent to a limited list because it was late in the last day before the entire campus shut down for Christmas break.
“I had to call in favors just to get that list,” he says.
But again, not everyone buys that — at least in part because trust in the administration has been eroded of late.
“Everything is so hush-hush,” Cisse says. If a few recent alumni hadn’t posted the photo in social media, she speculates, “the school would have pretended nothing happened.”
“The apology is more of the same,” Massey says. “It’s more words. An apology is never enough.”
Additionally, Massey says he suspects any attention paid to race issues are motivated by the bottom line rather than pure educational motives.
“It’s really about preserving the institution,” he says. “That’s their job ultimately.”
“It’s exhausting,” Cisse says, of the struggle against racial disparities, intimidation and harassment. “Students are here to get an education, not to do anyone else’s job. They keep saying ‘we have work to do,’ but does the work get done? No.”