William & Mary faculty and staff packed the Campus Center’s Little Theatre on Thursday morning to engage in a conversation about Charlottesville: how recent events there affected them and what plans are in place should something similar happen in Williamsburg.
On Aug. 11 and Aug. 12, several white supremacist hate groups, such as the KKK and neo-Nazis, converged on Charlottesville and the University of Virginia campus, inciting violence that led to tragedy, including the loss of three lives. In the aftermath of the violence, communities are coming together to attempt to understand what occurred, why it occurred and how to prevent it in the future.
Dania Matos, deputy chief diversity officer, organized the “After Charlottesville” event at W&M for people to share personal reactions and ask questions. More than 200 faculty, staff and administrators from throughout campus attended, with some people even having to stand in the hall due to the high turnout.
Policies and procedures
Several people asked questions about the university’s policies on external groups hosting events at W&M. Anne Arseneau, director of student leadership development, said the university has a Use of Campus Facilities Policy, which is posted on the William & Mary website. Students, faculty, staff and recognized student organizations can request to reserve space on campus through the W&M Scheduling Office, but external groups without a university sponsor cannot, Arseneau said. There are also several spaces on campus designated for spontaneous demonstrations, and those spaces are also only available to members of the W&M community. Outside of the academic year, external groups without a sponsor may make requests through Conference Services.
Provost Michael R. Halleran said three factors are taken into consideration when potentially controversial events are reviewed: safety, free speech and inclusion.
The university values free speech and is committed to protecting a person’s right to express themselves on campus, Halleran said. He also added that not all forms of speech are protected.
“We all know that free speech is not absolute. For example, you cannot in a crowded theatre yell, ‘Fire!’ unless there is, in fact, a fire,” he said. “We need to be careful, but we also need to be firm that even if it’s permitted speech, meaning legal speech, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. It doesn’t mean it’s equal to other forms of speech. We should call hatred and bigotry what it is.”
Cheesebro, who managed highly charged events with groups such as Westboro Baptist and the KKK when she was deputy police chief the University of Michigan, discussed the planning and training William & Mary Police and others around campus have done to prepare for potentially disruptive groups or events.
“We really do have an extensive plan to deal with these sorts of things,” said Cheesebro, adding that in cases of immediate threat, the campus community would receive information and instructions via the mass notification system, which includes text, email, website, social media and cell phone messaging.
When asked how members of the W&M community might safely voice their opposition to events on campus, Cheesebro requested that people respect the boundaries that police establish.
“If you’re in a situation and you want to come out because you want your voice heard, too, because you’re not in agreement, we want to protect your right to do that,” she said.
Cheesebro said that her department works closely with the City of Williamsburg and its police department, and they keep her well-informed about events in the area that may have an impact on campus. Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn, who attended the discussion with Deputy Chief Andy Barker, agreed and added that both administrations are also in regular contact.
“It’s a great situation, a wonderful partnership and a wonderful working relationship,” Dunn said. “We are here to serve the W&M Police Department, the student population and all of you, so if there’s anything at all we can do now or as we move forward, don’t hesitate to reach out to us to let us know.”
While some of the faculty and staff who attended the discussion raised questions related to a Charlottesville-like scenario playing out in Williamsburg, others commented on everyday situations related to bias on the campus community, including equity concerns among staff and inappropriate statements or behavior among students.
Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler said that her team works to educate students from the moment they step onto campus. “We have to be very clear about what we value and what we will and won’t tolerate, and then we need to communicate those values regularly in small groups and large groups,” she said.
Roxie Patton, associate director of the Center for Student Diversity, also talked about the importance of all community members – no matter their race – playing a role in building a more unified community. Patton said she often hears from people of color on campus that they are exhausted trying to educate others on issues related to racism and bias.
“People of color are burdened with this every day whether they want to be or not,” said Patton. “White people get the choice. We get the choice of whether or not we want to engage in that conversation. … Let’s not expect every person of color to take every second out of their day exhausting themselves trying to educate people when they’re the ones being the most emotionally harmed by what’s happening. We have to be willing to take that, and that may be uncomfortable to us but I think that’s a huge part of our responsibility for the community we say we want to create here.”
Matos and Chief Diversity Officer Chon Glover said that the Office of Diversity & Inclusion would host more events like the one on Thursday. Glover thanked everyone for attending and encouraged them to participate in the training and other opportunities already available through her office.
“We don’t want to wait until there’s a tragedy for us to sit down and talk,” she said.
Glover encouraged conversations outside of formal settings, as well.
“William & Mary is not where we want to be; I will say that with regards to diversity and inclusion. We have been working really hard, and we will continue to work hard, but it’s not just our office that can do it,” Glover said.“We’ve got to do it together.”