February 7, 2006

Housing reacts to Hitchcock incident

Responding to the anti-Semitic and racist remarks written on a Hitchcock House whiteboard two weeks ago, the Housing Office decided Friday to take strong disciplinary action by expelling one student from housing and the other from Hitchcock, according to the two students directly involved in the incident.

A first-year resident of Hitchcock, who refused to divulge his or her name, wrote: “Juan Pablo Velez hates niggers and kikes” on the whiteboard of a friend, first-year in the College Velez, on the night of Wednesday, January 25.

The first-year writer, who said he is Latino and “ethnically Semitic,” said the remarks were intended jokingly.

“I didn’t even think about the possibility of the consequences,” the student said. “It was not maliciously written.”

According to the student, Housing Office officials said Friday is the deadline for finding residence outside of University housing.

Velez, who did not immediately erase the remarks, must move into Rickert House this Friday unless the decision is appealed. He is also not allowed to visit Hitchcock after he moves. According to Velez, another incident that he was involved in factored into the Housing Office’s decision, but he would not elaborate.

The Housing Office is not able to directly comment on disciplinary action taken on students.

Velez left his room briefly on the night of Wednesday, January 25, and noticed the message when he returned. He said that he assumed it was written “in complete jest” and did not erase it for “circumstantial” reasons.

“I shut myself off because I had to get work done, and I was really stressed out,” Velez said.

Velez’s Assistant Resident Head, fourth-year in the College Danny Wasserman, saw the message and reported it to the Hitchcock Resident Heads (RHs) that night, according to Velez. The Hitchcock RHs, Jeremy and Robin Veenstra-Vanderweele, held a meeting for the house’s residents the next evening to discuss the incident. On Friday, the first-year admitted to writing the message.

The administration responded to the writings quickly, releasing a statement from Vice-President and Dean of Students in the University Steve Klass to the Maroon the day after the incident.

“Our decision to place the statement in the Maroon was related to the broader conversations that we’ve been having on campus recently,” said Bill Michel, assistant vice-president for student life and dean of students in the University.

The incident has elicited a range of opinions as to what constitutes racism and what is appropriate in the University community.

Ana Vázquez, director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs (OMSA), said that she was upset to hear about the writings.

“My immediate reaction was obviously disappointment and concern over the work that still needs to be done in the area of diversity,” Vázquez said.

She highlighted more education programming, including talks during Orientation Week and professional training for staff, as steps that could be taken to improve communication about diversity.

Third-year in the College Jon Hirsch, president of Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI), said that the incident “underscores the need for education and positive dialogue.” CFI posters have been targeted with anti-Semitic writings and drawings for the past several years.

Velez, whose parents are Colombian, said he was not offended by the writings.

“Really, it was a very, very small thing that got blown up,” he said. Velez added that he thought the “straight-thuggin’” party in May House last October prompted the University to react more harshly in this case, in terms of the statement in the Maroon and the disciplinary action.

“Even before the May House incident, I always felt that one of the important aspects that we undertake at the University is providing an opportunity for discussion and understanding about the importance of diversity on campus,” Michel said.

Velez’s roommate, first-year in the College Jonathan Azrielant, said he thought the Housing Office’s disciplinary response was “absolutely disproportional.”

“I think it’s reached that point where we need to take a step back and think about how we’re treating race,” said Azrielant, who is Israeli.

Azrielant, Velez, and the first-year who wrote the message all said that the residents of his section of Hitchcock tend to make jokes and communicate about race.

“It’s our way of getting rid of racism,” the unnamed first-year writer said.

Azrielant said that he was not offended by the remark: “That’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “Why would I feel threatened?”

Azrielant did add that the writing was “definitely not tasteful.”

Vázquez said that even though the students may not have been offended by the remarks or written them seriously, the administration must still react.

“It’s not acceptable, particularly because it was in a visible place,” Vázquez said. “While they may have not felt directly and their understanding may have been that it was just a joke, it was in a visible place that would affect other community members.”

She added that the incident is not indicative of a campus climate.

“I think there are individual errors and poor judgment, and I don’t think it’s a reflection of every community member,” Vázquez said.