Racial Tensions High On College Campus After Students Mock Black History Month

The frat house that hosted a "Compton Cookout" in honor of Black History Month is receiving a lot of national attention. Host Michel Martin speaks with Utsav Gupta, the UC San Diego Associated Students President, and Penny Rue, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs for more on the situation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we conclude our Black History Month series with a closer look at race relations in the North. Historian Jason Sokol wrote about this in his new book, The Northern Mystique: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn, and well have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about another campus controversy with racial overtones - this at the University of California at San Diego. A party hosted by a white fraternity there earlier this month has sparked a tremendous response. They called it the Compton Cookout and party goers were encouraged to dress and speak in a manner that many other students found stereotypical and offensive. After several student organizations spoke out against the event, the editor of a campus newspaper appeared on a student-run television, last week, to mock the protesters. He slurred black demonstrators - and I have to warn you, this will be offensive to many listeners - as ungrateful niggers.

Now, the universitys student president has shut down the student-run station and frozen all student fees to campus media organizations. We wanted to know more about this. Weve called Utsav Gupta. He is the student president of UC San Diego. He is with us now. Also with us is vice-chancellor of student affairs, Penny Rue. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. UTSAV GUPTA (President, Associated Students, University of California, San Diego): Hi Michel, thanks for having me.

Ms. PENNY RUE (Vice-Chancellor, Student Affairs, University of California, San Diego): Thanks for having me as well.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming. And Utsav, what prompted you to take this action?

Mr. GUPTA: Well, I went to the Black Caucus Forum on Thursday, just this past Thursday and then I witnessed the protest on Friday and I saw the pain on peoples faces. Students were scarred by the comments that have been made by The Koala, which is a very controversial publication here at UC San Diego. And they were demanding a stop - a freeze for the student fees going into this publication.

MARTIN: And what about the issue of free speech, which Im sure that some have raised?

Mr. GUPTA: Sure, I mean, this is not an issue of free speech. This is an issue of how we decide to fund student organizations. Any student government has the ability to set objective criteria on how it funds student media on its campus. Um, and thats what were revealing here. Weve been content neutral on the way weve instituted the freeze. The freeze affects all campus media outlets, just to give us time to review how we do it.

MARTIN: Well, I think that would be the other question. And Penny, I havent forgotten about you, but there would be those who would argue why should students who are handling their responsibilities responsibly be punished along with those who are engaging in a manner of a speech or in activities that some might find offensive? Utsav?

Mr. GUPTA: Oh, sure. Yeah, I mean, the issue is not that this is some sort of punishment to all those organizations. This is really a call for action on intolerant comments made by one particular media organization. Um, and that's -its saying that what is the (unintelligible) for intolerance that is going to be supported by our student association? What is our student association here to do? I believe our student association is here to represent all of the collective interests of every member of that association. And if were supporting an activity that is hurting even one single member of our association, thats something we should review.

MARTIN: And Penny, whats the school administrations role in this controversy?

Ms. RUE: Were obviously concerned about the larger issue of climate and well being. And our concern is to make sure that our students are able to focus and concentrate on their academics, to be able to live and work in a climate that's supportive of them. So, student safety and student well-being is our highest priority. Im very proud of the work that Utsav is doing and confronting kind of a pernicious campus challenge and were very supportive of that as well.

MARTIN: You know, I understand it was reported in The LA Times that black students walked out of a teaching on campus yesterday because they were saying that they dont believe the administration is going to do anything significant to address this. So, Penny, I wanted to ask you first if, first of all, do you think that how do you respond to that criticism and what do you think the atmosphere on campus is like for students of different backgrounds? They seem to feel theres a certain, sort of, toxic environment - that theres a certain hostility that theyre experiencing. Do you think that thats true?

Mr. RUE: You know, were in extremely diverse campus and the challenge is that our African-American students are seriously underrepresented. So, we completely understand that they feel isolated. But lots of students have aligned in solidarity with them. And so I think theyve been able truly to see the depth of the support that they have on campus.

And yesterdays rally that the students handled was a beautiful example of that. And, I was actually quite proud of our student organizers for finding their voice and for the community for supporting them.

MARTIN: How do you respond to the editor of that paper, that campus newspaper, who uttered those words about the student demonstrators being ungrateful, and I just I just...

Dr. RUE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...dont need to repeat it again, the N word. How do you whats sad about?

Dr. RUE: Its so completely heinous, but the interesting thing about this provocation is its in its heyday right now. They live to create controversy. So this is exactly the kind of reaction that they would hope for. And I try not to dignify them with our attention, but when it crosses the line like this (unintelligible) its imperative that we respond.

MARTIN: Is there any response? Is there any official response to this utterance by this person on a campus run station and a campus its a campus publication on a campus run station, is there going to be any response by the university to these comments?

Dr. RUE: Certainly. The institution is currently investigating all the standards of conduct that may have been violated in that incident. Because it involved an individual students judicial record, Im not at liberty to discuss that investigation. But I can tell you that we really believe that the remedy for silly or offensive speech is more speech, not less.

And so my goal is to make sure that our collective voices are heard, that this will not be tolerated, that this is an outrage, and to isolate this student and his asinine friends that conspired with him to essentially hijack our student run television system in this heinous way.

MARTIN: You were saying that this newspaper exists to, you know, be provocative. As I understand it, theyve been accused of, you know, slurring Asians, Jews, Mormons, Indians. Theyve even been accused of mocking the earthquake victims in Haiti in the latest issue. So I understand what youre saying, that this is meant to be provocative.

Thats a final thought for you - what do you think should happen going forward? How do you think these issues should be addressed going forward? And what do you think the atmosphere is like on campus for people from diverse backgrounds?

Mr. GUPTA: Sure. I think, I mean, from this point forward I think its going to take a lot of dialogue between a lot of different campus communities and a lot of different students. And Im happy that at this campus where were finally having this dialogue, that were talking about how we feel on this campus and that if for once - I mean this is an issue thats probably not going to go way. This is an issue that were going to be talking about for quite a bit. And I think that its really important that this dialogue is happening.

I think, you know, the steps are going to be - we really need to come together as a community, we need to come together as students, we need to talk about what we need to do as an institution to make sure that every student here feels safe, that every student here feels that theyre welcome and that they can be provided an education.

MARTIN: Now, it may be a silly question because youre the president of the student body, but do you do you feel safe and welcome at the university?

Mr. GUPTA: I mean, Ive I mean, I personally feel pretty safe here at the university. I mean, I think the university does do a good job at making students feel safe. But I think this is an issue of a campus climate that affects just some students here at the university. And thats something that just because I feel safe and someone else doesnt feel safe, that doesnt mean I can ignore that.

MARTIN: All right. Utsav Gupta is the president of the student body at the University of California, San Diego. Penny Rue is the vice chancellor of student affairs there. And they were both kind enough to join us from their offices on campus there. And we appreciate your taking the time. Thank you both so much.

Mr. GUPTA: Thank you.

Dr. RUE: Thank you.

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