Office of the President

Campus Incident

Dear St. Mary’s Campus Community, 

Thanksgiving arrives this week, a tradition where we pause in gratitude for what we cherish in our lives, our families, and our communities. Thanksgiving affords us the opportunity for self-reflection and community renewal. As we consider the people and the experiences for which we are grateful, I wanted to inform you of an incident that occurred in our community earlier this semester, likely unknown to most of us. What happened was discomforting to those involved and I offer it to the campus as an opportunity to reflect on what we value, and to use it, when we return from the holiday, as the basis for community discussion.

The facts evoke vintage American racial drama in terms of how they played out. An item, owned by a white person, was missing. The thief, posing as a witness, claims to have seen a black male outside the window--the window that provided access to the missing item. Public safety officers were on the lookout. They saw a black male student of different height and stopped him and questioned him. They let him go. Hours later, after midnight, another set of public safety officers went to the same black male’s room, and asked him to go to the R.A.’s office for questioning because his name had been mentioned by two separate sets of witnesses. He said he already answered questions – but these officers did not know about the earlier interview. He was taken away for questioning and possible identification, and then allowed to return to his room. The next day, the white thief who had posed as a witness admitted he had made up the story about seeing the black male outside the window, confessing to his crimes.

Apologies have been issued, false claimants have been punished, but victims of what William Faulkner described, during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s, as “that ancient subterrene atavistic ethnic fear” remain, and our campus is diminished for it. Apologies are called for not so much because lies are evil and false accusations worse, but because we, as a community, fell short of our stated ideals of inclusiveness and mutual respect. The falling short, however, is instructive. We may pride ourselves on an inclusive atmosphere but we are not immune to the nation’s historic struggle with racial fear--emotional confusion, errors of judgment, and inexplicable behavior borne of that atavistic, or primitive fear.

Who knows what subterrene fears underlie the irresponsible accusation of an anonymous black classmate whose phantom was projected outside the white student’s window; what line the officers walked between following a description provided to them and profiling; what the St. Mary’s College student, of African-American descent, thought when not once, but twice officers asked him to account for his presence--accused, to his knowledge, inexplicably.

What happened at St. Mary’s College is one incident among the multitudes that still happen every day, around the world. But our campus is a small place and an incident such as this gives us pause. Plans are underway for a president’s forum next semester, to discuss the state of racial and ethnic exchange on campus—as well as differences rooted in sexuality and disability. We’ll talk about the incident outlined here alongside other incidents and anecdotes – not to find the bad guys, but to discuss openly those human qualities we seek to evolve away from, and those ideals we seek to cultivate in ourselves and in our community. As the holiday approaches, I am aware of how thankful I am to be a member of a campus community ready to engage in dialogue designed to bring us closer to our stated ideals.