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College Coffee reflects Elon spirit of inclusion

A special College Coffee on Sept. 13 brought the campus community together in support of Elon's values of tolerance, diversity and respect.

President Leo M. Lambert and Vice President Smith Jackson spoke at the special College Coffee.

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In a show of solidarity for Elon University's values, people gathered Sept. 13 for a special College Coffee to demonstrate their commitment to tolerance and diversity following two recent incidents of demeaning behavior directed at African-American students.

The Academic Village program included remarks by Elon President Leo M. Lambert and Smith Jackson, vice president of Student Life and dean of students. An estimated 2,500 students, faculty and staff crowded the Phi Beta Kappa Plaza and the lawn outside the academic pavilions – nearly everyone wearing “Not on Our Campus” stickers – to hear messages from the two university leaders.

“It is gratifying to see such a strong turnout at College Coffee this morning. Thank you for standing in this place today. Thank you for taking a stand against intolerance, racism and uncivil behavior,” Lambert said. “Your presence here is a statement that you cherish this university, its Honor Code, and the well-being and dignity of each and every member of our community.”

“Your presence today is more eloquent than anything I can say this morning.”

Lambert told the crowd that the “easy road” would have been for individuals to do nothing and say nothing, to “ignore injustice” and let the events of the past week recede without comment.

The events in question involve two African-American students who told authorities of receiving derogatory racial insults from passing vehicles on separate occasions. One woman told police that on the evening of Sept. 7, as she attempted to cross North O’Kelly Avenue in the direction of the Colonnades, a convertible BMW with five college-aged male occupants approached her with at least one person yelling the insult.

That initial report prompted a community forum in McKinnon Hall just two days later. About 75 students, professors and staff joined with administrators in the forum to discuss the circumstances of the incident, and remarks from the victimized student brought perspective to what she hopes will be a learning opportunity for the men who made the disparaging comment.

On Sept. 10, another student contacted police to report being the victim of a racial insult as she walked along Williamson Avenue. Campus investigators do not believe the occupants of that passing vehicle are tied to the university community.

In both instances, law enforcement is reviewing camera footage from throughout campus as officers attempt to identify the responsible parties. Any Elon University students found to have been involved will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct for possible Honor Code violations.

“Our duty in caring for one another, and standing up for the values of Elon University, should never end,” said Lambert, who cited civility, inclusion, honor, integrity, respect and responsibility as “the mortar that locals each building block of this community together.”

Jackson encouraged the audience at College Coffee to make a difference in their own communities by taking a stand against intolerance and speaking up when they see racism or bigotry rear their heads.

“While we may not feel able to influence world politics or global events, each and every day we have multiple opportunities to shape circumstances and have influence with those around us,” Jackson said. “It is within the sphere of the classroom, our group of friends and colleagues, and students’ clubs and organizations and residence halls that students, faculty and staff can work to create an environment of tolerance and acceptance right here on the Elon campus.

“Just imagine the impact we as a university can have if each person here is willing to take a stance and not be a by-stander when we see hate or injustice.”

Those attending the event wore "Not on our campus" stickers in a show of unity.

Several students attending the College Coffee held signs reading "Now What?" and asked what steps the university will be taking to respond to the incidents. President Lambert, Jackson, Multicultural Center Director Leon Williams and Brooke Barnett, faculty administrative fellow for diversity and global engagement, will be meeting with the students to get their input, answer their questions and clearly define steps students should take if additional incidents occur.

Several students offered their observations on the university's response to the racial slurs, with opinions that were generally positive but reserved. Some felt the response was appropriate; others said they believe it may not go far enough.

"It's encouraging how quickly the university responded, and it's great that our immediate response was to shun the behavior completely, " said Maggie Mial, a senior music theatre major from Raleigh, N.C. "On a personal level, I'm concerned that some students feel this is an overreaction. And in years past, when there have been issues of women being harassed, this was not the response."

Like Mial, university sophomore Katy Steele, a journalism major from Centreville, Ohio, said she was happy at the prompt attention administrators paid to the events. "The way we've reacted so quickly shows we're not the type of university that will tolerate what happened," she said.

Some students, like senior political science major Amber Glenn-Thomas, recommended that the university hold more events to foster personal conversations on matters of tolerance, diversity and respect. As she and junior business management major Anthony Lantigua waited for the president's remarks to begin, the duo expressed hopes that people stop using racial slurs and that the university, while it "can't control what people do," will organize future programs to address problems should they arise.

"I hope this isn't the only time we try to do something," Lantigua said. "A lot of my professors have encouraged us to come to this, and I appreciate that."
 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
9/14/2011 10:51 AM