This semester, there have been two notable arrests at UW-Madison for graffiti.
On April 14, Denzel J. McDonald, 21, a UW-Madison student, was arrested on 11 criminal counts for graffiti and one count of disorderly conduct for threatening a bystander. After a lengthy investigation and collection of evidence, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department concluded that McDonald was responsible for the rash of graffiti on campus structures and buildings signed by “God.”
On April 27, Timothy A. Arnold of Madison was arrested on for eight counts of Criminal Damage to Property. Arnold, who is not affiliated with the university, was a person of interest in the graffiti cases of the Wolfsangel and Valknut symbols, which are tied to white supremacy and Nazism, painted throughout the UW-Madison campus and the downtown area, on or near buildings affiliated with Jewish organizations. Two days later, a hate crime enhancer was added to the charges against Arnold.
While the crimes in these two cases overlap to a degree, they also represent the two poles of what many have called a toxic environment for people of color on the UW-Madison campus. “By some accounts, 44 hate/bias incidents have been reported since January, with 23 reported in the Fall semester.” Those statistics come from an op-ed piece written by Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Jerlando F. L. Jackson, and published on May 2, in Education Dive. He continued, “At a time when current events happening on college campuses provide a demarcation in time for the history of higher education, this has put an increased strain on members of those targeted minority groups.”
Prior to the arrest of Arnold, frustrations on campus were building, as campus activists questioned why UW police were unable to arrest the people responsible for the Wolfsangel and Valknut graffiti, but potentially violated procedure by interrupting a class to arrest McDonald.
Reacting to McDonald’s arrest, more than 500 UW-Madison faculty, academic staff, and graduate students have signed a letter titled “UWPD: No More Anti-Black Racism on Campus,” calling for an end to racist practices on campus. The letter questioned whether the content of the graffiti served as rationale for the officers to use a “public display of force.”
In response to the cultural climate on campus, Sean T. Frazier, former Deputy Director of Athletics at UW-Madison said, “I am extremely proud of my past UW experience and graduate education, but very concerned about recent reports of having an unhealthy climate for minority students on campus!”
Frazier, who is now Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics at Northern Illinois University, established and led the Diversity Integration Group (DIG) at UW-Madison, which guided diversity progress in the athletic department. He continued, “In the spirit of the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ which speaks to a belief in people and faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society, UW must dig deep to create a shared agenda for all who attend this great University!”
“I am extremely proud of my past UW experience and graduate education, but very concerned about recent reports of having an unhealthy climate for minority students on campus!”
The other item the McDonald and Arnold arrests have in common is that they are forcing UW-Madison administrators to reevaluate race relations on campus.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Chancellor Rebecca Blank and other top UW-Madison administrators will take part in cultural competency training this summer. Additionally, on May 2, the Faculty Senate voted on a resolution that states, in part,
we resolve [t]o support comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion professional development for all faculty; [t]o commit to participate in such professional development on an ongoing basis; [t]o support initiatives proposed by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement to change the culture on our campus; and [t]o work closely with the leadership within our school or college, each other as colleagues, our students, and our staff to ensure that our teaching and our work, to the greatest extent possible, engages cultural competency and humility, diversity, and inclusion.
The Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement at UW-Madison, referenced in the Faculty Senate resolution above, states that it is committed to influencing and improving people’s lives beyond the university by championing and safeguarding diversity as an essential focus of a great public university.
Damon A. Williams, Senior Vice President, Chief Educational and Youth Development Officer at The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, was Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer at UW-Madison from 2008 to 2013 and led the creation of that Division.
When asked to comment on the current cultural climate at UW-Madison, Dr. Williams said, “The recent rash of negative campus climate issues will hopefully not dissuade students from attending a great university that has made powerful strides over the last decade and truly had much to be proud of as they work towards an environment that is inclusive for all.”
He continued, “The work that we did building the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Educational Achievement at UW-Madison was a national best practice that allowed us to consolidate resources, increase impact, and align efforts across campus to drive even greater diversity and inclusion outcomes both on campus and in the broader Madison community.”
Reflecting on the campus climate, Dr. Jackson said in his op-ed, “These times will be recorded alongside other historical periods of student unrest that forced institutions to hear their voices and subsequently change. College students are demanding change across this country, and UW-Madison has not been exempt from this process.”
Graffiti is not the only example of racial tension on campus. Other incidents have been reported on social media through the hashtag #TheRealUW. Frustrated that campus leadership defaults to having hate and bias acts termed “incidents,” transgressions are being disseminated by #TheRealUW, to the point where The Chazen Museum of Art hosted Unhood Yourself: The Real UW One-Day Exhibition, a multimedia art response to recent bias incidents and a climate of intolerance on the UW–Madison campus. Per the artist, “#TheRealUW is a movement and campaign that has recently gained momentum following a string of bias incidents that occurred on UW–Madison’s campus this year. [W]e the students of #TheRealUW put together this event to bring awareness of the experiences of people of color on this campus, to educate this campus on its own history and legacy, and to give students of color a platform to share their experiences in and around this campus in an open, receptive, and artistic space.”
One specific incidents reported on #TheRealUW prompted Patrick Sims, Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate, to create a video that was unusually blunt in describing what had happened and showing how frustrated he was.
“To whoever slipped the message under the student’s door,” Sims said, “I can’t believe the person has such a lack of respect for human dignity.” He also pulled no punches in describing the atmosphere created by such actions. He said the university was experiencing with an incident like the note “the kind of hatred we haven’t seen since Jim Crow. Enough is enough,” he said. “This has got to stop.”
“As many of us have known for some time, and others are coming to see, there remains much more work to be done.”
Perhaps it was Sims’ honest and unvarnished reaction to the situation that prompted LaVar J. Charleston, Assistant Director and Senior Research Associate, Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB), to offer the following: “UW’s institutional commitment to increasing equity and inclusion, and supporting research on these essential matters, continues to be one of the hallmarks of this great university. It is this commitment that has shaped many of my most invigorating intellectual and academic experiences, created a unique space for research related to equity and inclusion, and fueled my personal commitment to research that services those whom broader society has tended to leave out of important social, educational and policy conversations.
Charleston, who co-founded the Wei LAB as Assistant Director, is a nationally recognized scholar on broadening participating in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for underrepresented minorities.
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “the seriousness of the issues facing the institution in recent days demands an even greater institutional response and an enhanced commitment to ensuring all campus constituents feel equally safe and have the same unfettered opportunities to achieve success. As many of us have known for some time, and others are coming to see, there remains much more work to be done. However, my experiences with committed faculty, staff, and students heartens my confidence in our ability, as a community, to continue to work together and forge an even better, more inclusive UW-Madison for everyone.”
Charleston echoes the hope that Sims offers later in the video, “Give me the opportunity to try and figure out what the next step is. The plan. The action step. The righteous indignation that doesn’t just sit with me, but that sits with every other member of this campus who thinks this, this, is garbage. This isn’t us.”