Last May, the atmosphere on campus at UNH was tense.
A video showing a confrontation between students about racist stereotypes on Cinco de Mayo went viral. So did images of students wearing blackface. Swastikas and racial slurs started showing up graffitied on campus. Then, sculptures installed to show solidarity for minority students in the midst of all this were vandalized.
Altogether, there were close to 100 incidents of bias reported at UNH last year. Three of those reports sparked criminal investigations.
All of it left a bad taste that still lingers for some students like Brennan Donnell.
“I was kind of ashamed to be a UNH student that day, honestly. I mean, I hate Cinco de Mayo because of this but last year, this past spring, especially, it was just…not good.”
And it wasn’t just students who were affected. Julien Kouame is a staff member at UNH.
“It’s not something that I was concerned about, until the student thing happened and I said ‘oh, if this thing can happen to students maybe it can happen to me.’”
In a speech to graduating students in May, UNH president Mark Huddleston said “this is not who we are.” He added that the university would address the issues forcefully.
That effort is now some six months old. And so far a big part of it has been a slew of diversity-themed events on campus.
In October, hundreds of students crowded into a lecture hall for what was billed as a "teach-in" on cultural appropriation – that is, taking on things from another culture without showing an understanding of or respect for that culture.
The event was put together by a group of faculty, including Spanish Professor Scott Weintraub.
“The one event today cannot help to solve anything, but we hope it will be seen as a genuine effort on the part of individual faculty members to respond to some urgent needs for education around diversity and inclusion and for the support of students of color at the University of New Hampshire.”
At this event, a handful of faculty gave short talks on topics like the history of blackface and the difference between Halloween and the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos.
They also shared some of their personal feelings about how these issues affect them.
“The word that I’ve come to dread every Cinco de Mayo, every Halloween, and lots of other times around the year - that word is ‘just'.”
Stephen Trzaskoma teaches classical mythology at UNH. He’s also Mexican-American.
“When you put on that sombrero, or that bigote – that mustache, you are tying in to decades and decades and decades of stereotypes of negative portrayals. So when somebody sees you doing that, it is not ‘just’ having fun, or just putting on a funny hat, or ‘just’ doing anything to the person who is looking at you who is connected to that culture.”
Elsewhere on campus, some students, faculty, and staff have been attending training events on how to respond to acts of bias in the moment. There have been panel discussions with law professors about hate speech and free speech. Events have also focused on inclusion for LGBTQ students; on tackling racial and gender bias in STEM fields; on what white people can do to combat racism.
But are all these events working?
“The likelihood is that individuals who are predisposed to appear in blackface aren’t necessarily taking part in these diversity training issues.”
That’s Rogers Johnson, president of the Seacoast chapter of the NAACP. He’s also a UNH alum and a member of a task force on campus climate that the university created in response to the events in May.
Johnson says UNH is doing some things right –he gives them a grade of C+ overall. But he says the university could be a lot more aggressive, especially when it comes to addressing threatening hate speech on social media – something he and others have seen online.
“There’s a law that says you cannot threaten someone in public, and social media is public. The university should be telling students that if they do that they could be held accountable to the UNH police and then prosecuted by the Strafford County Attorney. Why they won’t send that message out is beyond me.”
UNH says it is reporting any criminal threatening to police. And it says it is working on updating its policies in the student handbook about student speech on social media.
Johnson says he worries that UNH could wind up like another school that recently struggled with racial tensions: the University of Missouri.
A few years ago, huge student protests there about racial discrimination led to the resignation of top university officials. In the fallout that followed, undergraduate enrollment plummeted by more than 35 percent. Seven dorms were closed and more than 400 staff and faculty were let go.
“That’s what I’m worried about. That they’re not careful and they create that scenario.”
UNH officials say they’ve made real progress on these issues over the last several months, and they stress that the work is just beginning.
In March, the task force on campus climate will present its findings to the UNH community. Those will include a set of recommendations on where to go next.