In the run-up to the election of a new Student Association (SA) Vice President for Academic Affairs (VPAA), a screenshot of a GroupMe message suggesting “tar and feathering” be used as a consequence for campaign violations prompted cries of a hostile atmosphere for minority groups on campus at Student Congress.
The message was written by Jeremy Rosenberg, a senior triple-majoring in economics, environmental studies and geology and a member of the Planning, Research and Elections (PRE) Committee, which is in charge of coordinating student elections on campus. It was directed at potential candidates Raul Cepin and Julia Townsend, who has since dropped out of the race, after they both allegedly violated campaigning guidelines.
Cepin posted on Facebook announcing his campaign, and removed it after being notified that he was not yet allowed to advertise his campaign. When the question of penalties was raised In the PRE GroupMe, Rosenberg wrote “Tar and feathering,” followed by another comment stating “Sorry I’m losing my mind.”
The screenshot quickly circulated, and Cepin posted it to Facebook saying he was “very concerned for [his] safety and other students who come into contact with the harasser,” that “the history of tar and feathering is a particularly problematic one for African Americans” and that a lack of response from Jesse Wong, the chair of PRE and a senior majoring in industrial systems engineering, “indicates an alarming negligence with regards to cultural competency.”
On Monday evening over 200 students attended Student Congress. The normally brief meeting lasted three hours, and the issues of the past week’s events were debated, culminating with a student being asked to leave after a brief confrontation.
Jermel McClure, Jr., the vice president for multicultural affairs and a junior majoring in political science, opened up the discussion on the topic and cited his concern for the welfare of students.
“One of my jobs is to make sure that students on our campus feel safe, and when we have death threats and when we have hate speech on our campus, that prevents students from being able to do so which is very problematic,” McClure said. “Not only does it create divides within the cultural or social sphere of our campus, it can also impact students when it comes to their academics.”
The validity of sanctions imposed on Cepin were also discussed, and he and McClure argued that PRE had overstepped their boundaries. The SA constitution’s bylaws state that a candidate may use Facebook to advertise their campaign but a section of the actual constitution, which supersedes the bylaws, states that PRE must conduct “fair elections.” In the past, this has been interpreted as giving the committee the right to impose restrictions on campaigning, although this is never explicitly written in the constitution.
According to Wong, the sanctions were administered in accordance to how it has been done in the past, and previous election candidates were restricted from campaigning until a deadline outlined by the committee. He also spoke about the comment that was made, and offered an apology for the events that have taken place.
“I, the PRE chair, have accepted the resignation [of Rosenberg], and he will no longer be a member of congress or PRE,” Wong said. “I sincerely want to apologize on behalf of PRE for what has been going on. Myself and the current members of PRE do not condone this racism.”
Cepin reiterated that cultivating a culture of racism on campus would not be tolerated, and he and other attendees called for Nicholas Ferrara, the president of the SA and senior majoring in political science, to take action in response to racism. He also accused the SA president of calling the situation “foolish” in an SA E-Board meeting.
“There are problems on our campus, and the responses are very slow,” Cepin said. “The SA did not send an email out until they found out [people were coming to the congress meeting], and Nicholas Ferrara … was saying that this comment was not that serious.”
Ferrara responded to these accusations, claiming that he referred to the request for Wong to step down as “foolish.” The SA also eventually issued an announcement through SA-Line on Monday, a week after the initial incident took place. Ferrara also took suggestions from those in attendance of ways in which he could work in the future to foster inclusivity on campus, such as expanding office hours and attending multicultural student group meetings.
“I’m very, very sorry that this happened, as myself, as Nick, but also on behalf of the Student Association and I want to work diligently to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Ferrara said. “I am going to do everything in my power to make sure something like this doesn’t happen ever again.
The sanctions against Cepin were disapproved by Congress with one “yes” vote, 21 “no” votes and one abstention. Additionally a piece of legislature introduced by Cepin, which called for a black leadership conference on campus, was passed with 25 “yes” votes, 2 “no” votes and 4 abstentions. Reports from members of the Student Association and chairs of committees wrapped up the meeting. Six candidates were approved for the vice president for academic affairs ballot.