UNR Community Talks Charlottesville, Racism On Campus

Aug 24, 2017

The University of Nevada, Reno community came together Wednesday to address the actions taken by a UNR student during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month.

But many faculty and students are frustrated at what they say is a lack of action by the school’s administration to fight racism and bigotry on campus.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick reports.

“I’m here because I’m hurt and others are here because they’re hurt and they don’t feel safe. And some people aren’t as outraged because they don’t feel directly attacked, as myself and others do. And in Judaism we have a response for something like that: ‘If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?’”

Rachel Katz is a member of the UNR Jewish club and sorority on campus. Last night, she joined more than 150 students at what might end up being the most well-attended meeting of student government all year.

For more than an hour and a half, students denounced the actions of white supremacists at Charlottesville and argued whether the university should take action against Peter Cvjetanovic, the UNR student who was identified participating in the event in a now infamous photo.

Cvjetanovic has since said he is not an angry racist and that he cares for all people.

But Zachary Jacoby, who identifies as gay and Jewish, urged the student body to take legislative action against hateful rhetoric.

“I literally cannot co-exist with these people because their ideology threatens my existence,” he says. “Now is not the time for centrist ideas and compromise.”

The student senate is now considering what moves they can make, if any. Earlier this month, UNR President Marc Johnson sent an email saying that there is no constitutional or legal reason to expel Cvjetanovic or terminate his employment with the university.

UNR Media Law Professor Patrick File explains why.

“Because the university’s a public institution and therefore is the government, the student does have First Amendment free speech rights,” he says. “And therefore, punishing, sanctioning or expelling this student for the speech and the speech alone, would be itself quite likely considered to be a violation of First Amendment rights.”

Dear Colleague Letter on Charlottesville Follow-up by KUNR Reno Public Radio on Scribd

But for students of color, that legal reasoning doesn’t help them feel secure on campus. Brittany Brown is a senior majoring in social work. She says it’s hard to focus on studies when you’re worried about your safety.

“Last week I was on the quad and I saw Peter in person,” she says, “And it’s a scary feeling to walk around and see that person you’ve seen all over the news, walking around care free like he has no issues in the world, when his presence in your space is scary.”

Thomas Hassen agrees. As a fellow black student, he says it’s hard to feel like he has a voice.

“We’re not a lot of people here. We don’t have much say in what happens,” he says. “And the fact that I’m going to be in the same classroom as this guy, when I know damn well he’s not the only person who has this belief. He’s just the poster boy for it. And I don’t feel safe, and this university just proves that I can’t feel safe here.”

Black students made up roughly 6 percent of the student population last fall. And overall, minorities comprised nearly 36 percent. Bolstering those numbers is something the university is working on.

Banners promoting the university's commitment to diversity can be seen on multiple buildings around campus, ahead of the first day of school.
Credit Noah Glick

Walking around campus, it's easy to notice the new banners hanging above building entrances, touting the university’s commitment to diversity. In giant letters, it says UNR welcomes you…all races, languages, political affiliations and beliefs.

So does that mean white supremacists are welcome on campus? University President Marc Johnson says no.

“Actually white supremacy is the antithesis of openness, inclusion and the like,” he says. “So no, we don’t want those ideas on campus, because they actually say one small group, or one large is supreme over all the rest of these groups. So that’s just the antithetical to open and respect for everyone that comes on to the campus.”

Johnson and UNR administrators held a meeting earlier in the day to give faculty a chance to share their thoughts and feelings about Charlottesville. Johnson says it’s important for teachers and staff to challenge hate-filled arguments.

“If we run across white racist comments for example, we’ve got to put them down and challenge them, so that everyone around can see that if someone comes up with those ideas, they really have to defend them. And it’s not defensible,” he says.

UNR President Marc Johnson (pictured standing) addresses a crowd of about 200 campus staff and faculty during a closed campus meeting on Wednesday to discuss the actions of white supremacists at Charlottesville, Virginia.
Credit Noah Glick

But part-time instructor Anne Carpenter says the university should not entertain hate speech as part of normal discourse and debate.

“I think that’s really inappropriate in this context,” she says. “I think what that’s going to do is embolden some of the white nationalists to start expressing their ideas on campus.”

While there were some disagreements in both meetings about whether or not the university could do more to sanction this kind of activity, administrators say the first step is for everyone—including faculty, staff and students—to take personal responsibility by reporting any instances of racism on campus.

As a point of disclosure, the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education owns the license to this station.