Northwest students — and some staff members — of all races have expressed outrage in the aftermath of a statement from Northwest President John Jasinski, which addressed the racially-insensitive video that circulated on Twitter last weekend depicting an incoming University freshman who appeared to be re-enacting the incident that killed George Floyd May 25.
Jasinski’s statement and the video come against a national backdrop of intense racial tension and civic unrest, sparked by the death of Floyd, who died early last week after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd facedown on the ground and pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
In his statement on the video where two recent graduates of Lee’s Summit High School appear to mock Floyd’s death — with one girl shouting “I can’t breathe!” through laughter — Jasinski said Northwest stands “for principles of inclusion and racial equality” and that the actions displayed in the video, which has been viewed more than 700,000 times on Twitter, do “not uphold those values.”
Two paragraphs later, after citing First Amendment concerns and the value of immersive education, Jasinski confirmed that the student would be allowed to enroll at Northwest, writing that the University stands “ready to engage with the individual involved when she arrives on our campus next fall.”
“What better place to engage in that daily confrontation than that of an institution of higher learning?” Jasinski said in the statement. “Northwest is located in the middle of the country and is a place where convergence occurs – urban and rural, viewpoints and predispositions, growth and enlightenment.”
But the notion of a convergent campus that upholds values of principles and inclusion, along with Jaskinski’s statement as a whole, has been subject to a wide array of criticism in the days since its release, with many students — particularly black students — voicing disappointment with the University’s decision to welcome the student to campus.
“Upsetting,” Northwest sophomore Laura Watson called Jasinski’s statement.
“Insensitive,” junior Anyah Roundtree said.
“A joke,” is how senior Summer Warren, treasurer of Northwest’s Black Student Union, described the statement — the first and last correspondence to students and the public from the University’s president amid the growing racial tension, both in the Northwest community and around the country.
The three students — all of whom are black women — vocalized the degree in which Northwest’s black student population feels disregarded by the University, where black and African-American students make up 6% of the student population, according to the latest figures available on Northwest’s website from the fall 2017 term.
“Everyone’s seen the video. Like it’s all over Twitter, it’s all over Facebook, it’s all over Snapchat. ” Warren said. “And no one did anything. And I know they watched the video.”
Behind the University’s response
John Jasinski has indeed watched the video. Everyone on the school’s Northwest Leadership Team, along with select members of the University’s Crisis Management Team, have too.
Since it first began circulating on Twitter May 29, a group of Northwest officials, including Jasinski and Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion Justin Mallett, have met daily to talk about the issue at hand, the effects it would have and the actions the University could take, Jasinski said in an interview with The Missourian June 4.
It took roughly 70 hours from when Northwest officials first saw the video circulating on social media to when Jasinski released his initial statement June 1. The time between, the president said, was consumed by fact-checking, meetings with the NLT and legal counsel, and phone calls with the presidents of two other Universities — Mizzou and Missouri State — which also had prospective students in the video.
“What are the actions that we can do? What are the actions that we’d like to do that we can’t do? What are the actions that, you know, are focused on the legal? What are the actions focused on the moral?” Jasinski asked as he recalled the processes the NLT followed and the conversations the team had. “So we walked through all of that. And grappled with it — grappled with it.”
And on the morning of June 1, hours before Jasinksi released his statement, University leaders had what the president called an “important” and “critical” meeting with the President of Northwest’s Black Alumni Chapter, Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge, along with a select group of faculty, staff and student leaders to gauge their response to the drafted statement — though, in the interview with The Missourian, Jasinski didn’t mention the meeting in his recap of the weekend until Mallett brought it up.
Mallett said student representatives from Northwest’s Student Senate, the Panhellenic Council, the Black Student Union, the Minority Men’s Organization and SISTAH were involved in the meeting.
“Those were important conversations,” Jasinski said. “We were fact-finding, we were trying to figure out, you know, what — where the pushback is, what was struggling. We changed (the statement) a little bit, frankly. But we also knew and heard that this is — tough, tough as it is. It is tough. But at some point, as a leader, you’ve got to say, ‘You know what, this is the right thing to do with the information we have today.’”
The bottom line, it seems, for Jasinski and Mallett and a cohort of Northwest officials, was the First Amendment. Jasinski said the content of the video, which he described as “repugnant” and Mallett called “tasteless”, is still protected by the constitution. As the president of the public University where the student had already been admitted, Jasinski was ultimately powerless in reversing that on the grounds of free speech.
Missouri State president Clif Smart came to a similar conclusion. The two other students involved in the widely-circulated video have withdrawn from their respective Universities. It’s still unclear if the prospective Northwest student will attend this fall, Jasinski said. In an email to The Missourian May 30, the student offered no comment on the video but said that she was working with her attorney on a response. Follow-up emails were not returned.
MoState President Clif Smart said in a release that he was repulsed by the video, but that it was protected by the 1st Amendment. He intended to allow the student on campus, requiring her to complete cultural sensitivity training. The student withdrew.https://t.co/2PaR82vmA2— Andrew Wegley (@andrewwegley) June 2, 2020
Jasinski said he understands that some students, alumni and community members may think he’s hiding behind the First Amendment, unwilling to confront racism in the Northwest community even as the country nears the start of its third week of unrest. In his 11th year as Northwest’s president, Jasinski said it’s hard, at times, to support the First Amendment. But he doesn’t have a choice.
“What the student did was free speech. And here’s what I would say, and here’s what I told some alumni: What if, you know — replace this person, this student, with a student from a different town, different background, different whatever. Color, sexual orientation — whatever. And what if that student did something similar once or twice on social media this summer off-campus in Omaha?” Jasinski said, before pausing for close to five seconds.
“Where do you want us to draw the line?”
Black students near a boiling a point
For many black students, Jasinski’s statement and the decision to admit the involved student were a “slap in the face” to the black community. While Jasinski wishes the circumstances surrounding the video were different, black students at Northwest wish his response was.
After watching Mizzou announce the suspension and investigation of its involved student who filmed the racially insensitive video, students at Northwest want more to be done. Warren, a board member on the Black Student Union, said she was “blindsided” by Northwest’s inaction and “disappointed” by Jasinksi’s statement.
Warren, by now, is tired. She’s tired of seeing the Confederate Flag window stickers on trucks across Northwest’s campus, she said. She’s tired of feeling the eyes of locals at grocery stores who pay closer attention to her than they need to, than they do white students, she said. She’s tired of being the only black student in her classes.
But mostly, Warren’s tired of hearing about the “principles of inclusion and civility” Jasinski touted in his statement, principles she said she doesn’t always see at Northwest.
“We just want the actions to match the words,” Warren said.
Roundtree, a black woman set to start her junior year this fall, said Jasinski’s response should have been more sensitive to the needs and thoughts of black students. Instead, Roundtree said, the announcement came as “a slap in the face” from the University on the heels of the video that was already “hurtful” to black students.
“It felt to me like they didn’t really care about us as individual people,” Roundtree said.
As protestors around the country have reached a boiling point in the weeks since Floyd death, so have students at Northwest. An online petition calling for the student to face consequences has garnered more than 2,500 signatures. Roundtree said her and a group of friends planned to organize a protest of the University’s decision. She said a number of her friends have voiced a desire to transfer. Warren said if she wasn’t so close to graduation, she wouldn’t be attending Northwest this fall.
“If I didn’t figure that the credits wouldn’t transfer, I would transfer,” Warren said. “Nothing the school does is to help us feel included.”
‘Their voices are being heard’
As social media pleas and public calls for reconsideration in the aftermath of Jasinksi’s statement have been met with silence by Northwest’s administration, Jasinski and Mallett are adamant that student voices aren’t going unheard.
Jasinski said he’s listened to the voicemails students, alumni and others have left on his office phone. He’s seen the emails that have flooded his account before and after his statement was issued. He’s aware of the calls for action that reside in his Twitter mentions. He takes issue with the notion that student voices have been ignored.
“To say that students of color — black students, alumni were not heard, I think would be inaccurate,” Jasinski said. “If anything, we hear. We feel. We see. The pain. The anger. Absolutely, unequivocally. We’ve talked about it in our team meetings.”
Mallett has definitely heard the voices of black students and alumni in the days since Jasinksi’s statement was released. In a post he published on the Facebook page for Northwest’s Diversity and Inclusion Office, he touched on challenges faced by the black community in America over the last several months before shifting towards challenges faced by the University in its attempt to discipline the incoming student.
The message was met with general backlash in the form of more than 700 comments, backlash that Mallett admitted was painful to read. The criticism came from active students and alumni, some of whom were upset with Mallett for misspelling the name of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man who was chased and killed by two white men while jogging in February. Mallett said he regrets the spelling error, which has since been corrected.
“The one thing that I will never ever question about myself is the work that I’ve done for black students since I came here in 2017,” Mallett said. “I’ve worked my butt off. And I worked hard. And I did a lot to make sure that our black students were — that they have been represented, they’ve been taken care of. I’ve done everything in my power to make sure that that happens. And I’ll continue to do that job. This isn’t gonna stop me from doing my job.”
As Mallett, both in the post and throughout the interview, urged students to share their stories and use their voices, calls for change and further explanation have been met with public inaction from the University.
Mallett and Jasinski said the University is working behind the scenes to make change and have plans to provide further training and education for the student if she chooses to attend Northwest this fall. Additionally, Jasinksi said Northwest had been working to develop an “equity scorecard” and was focused on enhancing “diversity and inclusion and civility” even before the video began circulating last week.
But the two University officials declined to provide details in regards to what tangible changes the school might see, and Mallett said the training the incoming student would be subject to will remain private.
“But what I would assure the students is — is that discussions are happening, dialogue is taking place,” Mallett said. “And their voices are being heard. That’s one thing, 100%, unequivocally that I can go back to. Their voices are being heard and I encourage them to be patient.”
In the post he pinned to the Diversity and Inclusion Facebook page, Mallett pointed out that the University’s Student Code of Conduct policy has no direct policy that allows the University to discipline hate speech — an issue that students have organized an online petition to change.
The cowardly responses of Northwest must change.— •Asma• (@AsmaHassan13) June 4, 2020
Sign the petition below to show support and include a comment. Share a story of when Northwest dismissed an act of racism or any other discrimination that you have witnessed or were apart of.https://t.co/oZaDXIGxvD
Jasinski said the University is constantly reviewing its policies, but even as Westbrooks-Hodge, the Black Alumni Chapter president involved in the refining of Jasinksi’s statement June 1, has called for an update to the Code of Conduct policy to specifically address hate speech, Jasinski said there won’t be a policy change that oversteps the First Amendment.
“Well, hate speech is protected speech,” Jasinksi said. “So, we’re going to make sure (policies) uplift the First Amendment — the constitutional right to free speech.”
As Northwest and Jasinski continue to promise to uplift diversity, inclusion and civility, it’s unclear if the University has any legal, tangible way to do so — at least in regards to hate speech. There are no plans for that to change.