Dear President Hargis

December 30, 2014

Dear President Hargis,

It is with deep disappointment that I feel compelled to write to you after our meeting earlier this month, when we were supposed to discuss my safety after I received a death threat on campus. Yet I am left with no other choice, as you made it (explicitly) clear at that meeting that my presence is no longer welcome in your office. I was shocked to walk out from your office not with your unconditional support, but with you literally upholding my marginalization as a threatened student. When students of color like myself are targeted by gun threats and black students receive lynching threats, the university president—who sets the tone for everything that happens on our campus—should not respond by trivializing the attacks or shaming a targeted student for speaking up. You have left me and others like me with no choice but to continue using our voices.

As your administration is aware, on December 6, a student threatened to use his gun if he saw me or anyone (implying predominantly black or brown students) who went to a #BlackLivesMatter protest. One day prior, on December 5, an anonymous community member sent a (second) lynching threat to a black student on campus. Following those events, every time I see a black peer, the words of my classmates ring in my ears: “Black students host a vigil, and we get lynching threats; we plan a fundraiser, we get attacked. To be black on this campus is to be constantly watching my back.”

It is not a coincidence that community members issued the most recent threats during and shortly after a #BlackLivesMatter protest on campus. Over 40 professors and students occupied the streets to call attention to a series of demands made on behalf of Oklahoma Students in Solidarity:

  1. that the university transparently investigate unaddressed cyber attacks on students of color
  2. that the university apply the student code of conduct based on the results of the investigation
  3. that top administrators meet to discuss more systemic demands with Students in Solidarity.

Until now, the administration has failed to address these demands. One of the cyber attacks referenced above (from before the protest) included yet another lynching threat that featured a hand-drawn noose beneath the phrase “All n***** must hang.” Applauding comments included: “The South will rise again, down the blacks.” The administration did not take any disciplinary action following any of these cyber threats. I summarized the implication of that track record on my personal Twitter page:

  • Tweet 1: Black students were dying in die-in to symbolize modern-day lynching as they received lynching threats from peers. @okstate ignored threats.
  • Tweet 2: Prez @burnshargis and @okstate are telling black students their safety doesn’t matter. Black lives don’t matter #okferguson#HWinTheStreets
  • Tweet 3: To @burnshargis this is violation of student code @okstate repeatedly ignores when black students are threatened:studentcodeviolation

Let me be clear: President Hargis, when you agreed to attend an emergency meeting with student protestors to discuss these death threats, that conversation was already long overdue. Whereas students came in prepared to discuss the cyber attacks threatening their safety, you instead decided to redirect the conversation to my tweets and how they affected you. In your exact words, you were concerned that I had “defamed” your commitment to diversity: “Ayah, if you had a clue who I am, I don’t think you’d ever claim that I don’t care about diversity. The numbers show that we do.” The Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Dr. Kirksey, echoed your point: “It’s all about the numbers.”

First, it is troubling that when students raise serious questions about diversity, you immediately attempt to define diversity in terms of numbers. As a student of color on this campus, I do not experience bias or marginalization in terms of numbers, but rather in terms of experience. Your meeting should have focused on the stories we told rather than the numbers you sought to publicize.

Second, when you define diversity as recruiting more minority students while denying those very same students their right to safety, you are using diversity to uphold inequality. When my ability to sit at the same table with you and other white administrators is conditional to refraining my criticism of institutional racism, the contingent invitation is not dismantling the white supremacist foundation of OSU. It is maintaining it.

Despite the segregationist founding of this university, everyone—as both you and Dr. Kirksey affirmed—deserves the opportunity to pursue an education. It is their right in the same way that they are entitled to sit at the same table as a white person at this university. Imposing conditions for these rights is the definition of segregation. Establishing stipulations for the integration of black or brown students in classrooms or at discussion tables is, therefore, a renewed guise of segregation.

Integrated segregation is not a progressive stance to celebrate, although you and Dr. Kirksey insisted otherwise. The actual numbers you cited included an increase in black student enrollment from 154 to 211 freshmen (out of the current total of 25,708 students) between 2009 and 2014, among other enrollment statistics from the PowerPoint presented at the beginning of the meeting. Don’t misunderstand me. I commend your dedication to increasing representation at our university; that work is desperately needed at OSU. However, those numbers should not be used to justify applying the student code of conduct unequally. And integration certainly should not be viewed as some sort of burdensome favor to black students and other minority populations, but as a moral obligation of a predominantly white administration at our predominantly white institution—one that was founded upon white supremacy.

Yet, you and Dr. Kirksey suggested that because you are working hard to fundraise minority scholarships and increase representation on campus, our demands were somehow irrelevant. In the words of Dr. Kirksey, “students were issuing demands in the 70s because their safety was at stake.” The frustrating irony is that Dr. Kirksey was making those comments while facing six student representatives (speaking on behalf of 30 additional peers), who were telling him that their safety was at stake. These students had received gun threats and multiple lynching threats at OSU.

Not only did you, President Hargis, characterize these pressing demands as irrelevant, but you also implied that they were inappropriate. When we asked you to schedule an additional group meeting since institutional racism could not be solved in one hour, you began to harshly (and loudly) berate me: “Protesting and issuing demands is not how you start a partnership, Ayah!” Once again, you chose to ignore the reality at hand. Perhaps you did not hear that we had taken our homework (our moral obligation to stand up for justice) to the streets to disrupt traffic on the 59th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. Just as Rosa Parks was condemning segregation, we were condemning modern segregation. Perhaps you did not recognize that our protest was the reason behind our meeting; it is why the administration had finally reached out to marginalized students for an emergency gathering within days—rather than responding as you initially did when we asked for a second meeting: “I don’t think you even want to try getting on my schedule.”

Perhaps you forgot that the reaction to our protest underscored the very real and present-day injustices our demands highlighted. An unarmed black human being is killed by the police every 28 hours in 2014. Lynching threats on campus mirror the omnipresent modern lynching threat on America’s streets that marginalizes black people into a constant state of insecurity in public spaces, including our university. Perhaps you forgot that your administration had repeatedly swept these lethal realities under the rug by ignoring the disciplinary action death threats require (despite alleged, yet entirely undisclosed, investigations). President Hargis, I hope you can understand why we felt that our (un)safety could not wait to get on your busy schedule and why it required immediate transparent attention.

Dr. Kirksey, however, told us that attention was unwarranted because “when you pay attention to the haters, you let them win. . . you let them distract you from your studies . . . and we all know that graduation numbers are what really matter.” Dr. Kirksey was telling us that our safety is secondary to obedient schooling. When you, President Hargis, prioritized discussing my tweets over the gun and lynching threats, you told us that our lives matter less than your offended feelings.

Once your one-hour availability was over, you got up to individually shake every attendee’s hand except for my own, before storming out of the room. Again, you underscored that you would unprofessionally and unacceptably marginalize students who criticize the status quo. At the end of the meeting, Dr. Kirksey, reiterated your stance by recommending that I retract my tweets. He also suggested that I send you an apology note for my “disrespectful tone” on Twitter.

President Hargis, though asking for my right to safety does not warrant an apology, please consider this open letter the follow-up note Dr. Kirksey advised me to send. As university presidents and chancellors across the country respond to their respective students’ activism—their Socratic courage to make their campuses more just—with open ears, I hope you are able to follow their lead and make your office a space where creative tension is welcomed—not expelled.

Ultimately, I hope you and other university leaders will go a step farther and join the #BlackLivesMatter movement, not only with a strong condemnation of racism, but with strong actions to dismantle it—for declaration without action is hypocrisy. Silence is violence and neutrality is a fallacy. There is no moderate middle between anti-racism and racism. Integrated segregation is still segregation.

So I write to ask you, President Hargis: Which side are you on?

Sincerely,

Ayah Abo-Basha

Marginalized Student, Fall of 2014

One of the unaddressed lynching threats mentioned above.
One of the unaddressed lynching threats mentioned above.
A slide from the PowerPoint that the Vice President of Institutional Diversity passed out to students at the beginning of the meeting
A slide from the PowerPoint that the Vice President for Institutional Diversity passed out to students at the beginning of the meeting.
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5 thoughts on “Dear President Hargis

  1. When an institution defines its level of diversity by numbers and a smile there is a need to confront the proponents of that idealism as to whether or not they can present significant example of tangible benefit of that idealism. The table presented to the students shows, in the numbers, insignificant benefit when compared to the total numbers for the school and numbers of the other socio-economic groups. The numbers presented are shameful and are very much the same as they were 16 years ago when I was in attendance.

    There is much work to be done.

    Like

  2. As a student of color at OSU, I couldn’t help reading this in tears. Ayah, your letter is well written. I applaud your courage in standing for justice.

    Like

  3. Based on this account, clearly he didn’t care at all about anything other than the appearance of diversity- a sad reality in many organizations now. Numbers are meaningless if the the groups are battling with one another, or in fear of violence by others. Also- since when did diversity get defined as the number of African Americans in an organization? What about other minorities?

    Like

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