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U Of I Forum Held Following Personal Attacks Against Chancellor

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University of Illinois students Kimberly Arquines and Jennifer Sun attend a forum on digital hate and civil discourse on Feb. 6, 2014 on the U of I’s Urbana campus. Arquines was one of the students who posted personal attacks on Twitter last mo

University of Illinois students Kimberly Arquines and Jennifer Sun attend a forum on digital hate and civil discourse on Feb. 6, 2014 on the U of I’s Urbana campus. Arquines was one of the students who posted personal attacks on Twitter last month against Chancellor Phyllis Wise. (Sean Powers/WILL)

The University of Illinois hosted a forum on digital hate and civil discourse on Thursday night, following a recent barrage of racist and sexist tweets targeting the chancellor on the Urbana campus. 

The question now is whether the campus can turn constructive dialogue into meaningful action. 

On Jan. 26, personal attacks against Chancellor Phyllis Wise started popping up on Twitter right after she refused to cancel classes due to the cold and heavy snowfall.

“So, yeah I partook in the Twitter fiasco,” said U of I student Kimberly Arquines. “ I just got caught up in it, and my intentions were never to hurt anyone.”

Arquines spoke at Thursday night’s night’s forum. Her tweet, along with a handful of others re-posted on the website BuzzFeed, sparked national outrage. After spending a couple of days in hiding, Arquines said she met with Chancellor Wise to apologize.

“She actually told me that I’m the only one who actually tried to physically meet up with her and apologize, and I was stunned and horrified at the same time,” Arquines recalled.

Chancellor Wise could not make it to the forum, but she pre-recorded a message. She said the attacks against her woke up the University.

“I believe we saw both some of worst and the best of this university come out in the past seven or eight days,” Wise said.

Wise said she is encouraged by the conversations she’s hearing about race, but she says there’s still a lot of work to do.

Student Devin Berchtold said the best way to deal with these tweets is to ignore them.

“There was just a very small percentage of the people that actually made the racist comments,” Berchtold said. “Actually, most of them condemned it and didn’t like it. I think that shows that we actually do understand what’s wrong here, and I know you think I’m a white man, so I don’t understand. But I’ve actually tried to take this and look at it from other points of views and I think if we just ignore these kind of comments on the internet, that they should eventually one day go away.”

“My reaction to that is for individuals like myself or people from marginalized groups, we don’t get to just ignore it every day,” replied student Marjan Fathi. “We don’t just get to walk away, and we don’t get to have the option to not deal with it. So, the only way it’s going to get better is if we collectively come together to deal with it.”

Another student, Deanna Brooks, said she feels the campus is fairly segregated, and added that there is a stigma that needs to be fixed.

“This really does hurt,” Brooks said. “This is something that we really do face, and something that frustrates me sometimes to the point where I want to cry sometimes because I really don’t want to feel like I can’t be friends with everyone or feel like there’s a stigma towards me. So, I’m happy that this is occurring and that this conversation is going on.”

But student Derek Houston said this is NOT a new conversation.

“I’ve been on this campus since ’98,” Houston explained. “We’ve had talks like this since 1998. It probably goes back even further. Actions speak louder than words. My concern is what will the University under its own policies do to the individuals who personally attacked Chancellor Wise?”

The University determined that the sexist and racist tweets against the chancellor didn’t violate the student code. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renée Romano spoke during the forum. She said the University is committed to addressing issues of inequality on campus.

“We do look at every incident, and look carefully at whether or not it’s a violation and a true threat, or whether its free speech,” Romano said. “And if it’s free speech, we have to attack it with more speech and education.”

But Romano didn’t elaborate what that might look like at the U of I.

Aside from what the administration can do, student Jessica Outland-Thornton posed a challenge to her fellow classmates: “What next?”

“Will you change how you act now and choose to be with someone different just because of this conversation started?” she said. “Or will you continue to do the things that you do now and just let this go through one ear, out the other, and let it pass over time?”

That was a major theme of the night. Can the University of Illinois transform words into action?