It was last Thursday night when Director of the University of Rhode Island Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender (GLBT) Center Andrew Winters was called into Adams Hall because someone had spat on the door of the center.
“I was concerned that someone did that and I wanted to make sure that nothing else was happening,” he said, adding that the students of the GLBT center were grateful for his 1 a.m. visit.
“I just stopped in to see if they were O.K.,” Winters said. “I have tried to figure out what it is that we can do because obviously the things we’ve been doing are not working.”
This is just one incident that university officials say needs to be reported and acted upon.
In an e-mail from URI President David M. Dooley, which was sent to the entire URI campus community, Dooley stated that some URI community members have been “thinking and acting small” in the past few weeks.
He wrote in his memorandum that people have shouted homophobic remarks to individuals, written hateful words on white boards, drawn a swastika on the poster of Dr. Martin Luther King, vandalized a mezuzah containing a scroll of Hebrew scripture and wrote, in permanent marker, hateful statements targeting the Latin community at URI.
Dooley did not reference these incidents as “hate crimes” because only the State Attorney General can rule an incident as such. Additionally, a hate crime breaks the law, whereas many of the incidents that Dooley referred to in his e-mail do not technically break the law.
Many university officials, including Winters, have stated that they are glad that Dooley has spoken out on the issue, but if the university is going to see change, Winters said it begins with the actions of the students.
“I’m frightened by what’s been taking place for the students and for myself,” Winters said. “I really want us to do something that’s going to make a difference.”
Daniel Graney, Chairman of the Bias Response Team (BRT), said that he is pleased that Dooley addressed the issue to the entire URI community.
“I think some presidents might not be willing to do that because it could be seen in a negative light,” he said. He also added that the e-mail had brought awareness to the BRT, whose mission is “to gather information about bias incidents and to support those who have witnessed, or become a target of, an act of bias.”
Since its conception on Aug. 7, 2010 though Feb. 8, Graney said the BRT had seen a total of 24 incident reports. Since President Dooley’s e-mail thispast Wednesday through yesterday afternoon, there have been seven reports of biased acts, which is “more than usual in a week,” Graney said.
“I think it’s a good thing that it’s being addressed,” he said. “I don’t think it says anything particular about the student body. I don’t think there are any negative aspects–it’s just being unaware and this raises the awareness.”
Part of what the BRT tries to do, Graney said, is to ensure that any inappropriate and bias behavior is not tolerated. It aims at making every student feel comfortable in the URI community.
“I think the president’s letter to the community last week stated it very well,” Vice President of Student Affairs Tom Dougan said. “We want all of our students to feel welcome and to feel a part of this community and when students make biased or hate remarks toward an individual, it keeps that from occurring and therefore we have an ostracized community. When you don’t feel part of this community, it impacts you personally and academically.”
Dougan said that this doesn’t say anything about URI or the student body in particular. The only difference between URI and other univerisities, he said, is that President Dooley has “decided to speak out against those who act small when we’re trying to think and act big.”
He said bias incidents, similar to those that have occurred at URI, happen everywhere. URI, however, has always been “visible” about it and has never ignored those incidents before, Dougan said. He added that one of the main responsibilities of the police is to identify the victims of bias incidents and let them know what is available to them as a student, such as the BRT.
Dougan also said that although Dooley just recently brought light to the situation, the issue is not new. Although the Bias Response Team received more incident reports than usual in the past week, that does not necessarily mean that more incidents are happening, he said.
Kathryn Friedman, associate vice president of the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity, said that it’s important for students and other members of the URI community to speak up when they see hateful or inappropriate acts.
“It’s called witness behavior,” she said.
Friedman added that one thing the URI community needs to work on is embracing diversity and accepting differences.
“What we want to do is develop a community that values civility, and civility means that there can be disagreements,” she said. “Everyone can hold their own thoughts, their own values, their own politics, but that we all agree that at this campus, at this university, is a place where all people can be dealt with in a manner in which they can develop as human beings and the only way to do that is to have a place that is civil with each other.”
Student Senate Cultural Affairs Chairman Brandford Davis said that change at URI begins with the actions of the students.
“If we don’t take it upon ourselves to change the issues that affect us as students, nobody else is going to take the time to do it,” Davis said. “If we as students aren’t accountable for our actions and don’t actually want to change then [the incidences] aren’t going to change.”
Amy Olson, Director of URI Hillel, also said that the best way to change the attitude on campus is to encourage other students to speak up.