On September 17, 2019, students received an email in their inbox from Tufts President Anthony Monaco with the subject line “A message to the Tufts community.” The email reported that two days prior, a Jewish student had returned home to his dorm room and found “a swastika affixed to his door.” Monaco condemned the incident as “a cowardly act of hatred and ignorance.”
Less than three weeks later, on October 4, students received an email with an identical subject line. The email explained that a student had found a homophobic slur scratched onto the door of their dorm room. Monaco “unequivocally” condemned “the act of hatred.” He also noted that this was the second time he had written to the community about “an incident of bias” during the Fall 2019 semester.
On October 10, students received a third email alerting them of yet another incident. This time, the subject line read “Launch of Bias Response Teams at Tufts.” The email reported that a sign in an exhibit on the African American Trail Project, an initiative that “maps African American and African descended public history sites across Greater Boston” and was on display in the Aidekman Arts Center, had been defaced.
The Tufts Daily later reported that the perpetrator had written “Fake!” and an arrow “on a sign commemorating a student march and die-in protest in Davis Square in 2014.” In his email, Monaco condemned the act of vandalism as showing “a crude and insulting disregard for the long history of oppression, racism, and injustice endured by all people of color in the United States.” He also announced that the university would be launching Bias Response Teams (BRTs) in order to ensure that the administration will “remain transparent about incidents that occur on our campuses and that we [the administration] respond appropriately to incidents of bias and discrimination.”
Each hate-fueled incident targeted different groups that have been historically marginalized within higher education and the United States as a whole. These events have prompted the community to question how the incidents are being investigated, the disciplinary action that will be taken, and the role of the university’s administration in dealing with the aftermath.
After the string of disturbing events, students said that they felt unsettled and unsafe. Junior Kathleen Lanzilla, a Tufts Community Union LGBTQ+ Senator, explained. “It’s just despicable and something no one should have to deal with. I’ve literally gone back to my room and inspected my door, and I hate that.” Sophomore Jolie Davidson, who lives in the Jewish Culture House and identifies as bisexual, described the significance of the swastika as “[this person] wants me to die. That’s what the symbol means.”
There was also discontent regarding the language that Monaco used in the emails. He referred to the events as “incidents of bias,” which some students feel minimizes the hatefulness of the acts. “This isn’t bias, this is hate. Bias doesn’t make people feel unsafe and feel threatened; it’s hate and discrimination,” said Davidson. Patrick Collins, Director of Public Relations, stated that Monaco has been “unwavering in his condemnation of these and similar acts,” but also suggested that the “specific criminal definition” of a hate crime is important to keep in mind.
Hope Freeman, Director of the LGBT Center and Interim Director of the Women’s Center, explained, “From what I can surmise, hate crime sounds very political and very dangerous. It sounds like lawsuits, and something we don’t have the capacity to control. Bias is a softer approach because anyone can be biased. I think it’s a way of cushioning.”
Defining the incidents is particularly relevant because the process of the university’s investigations hinges on these very definitions. In all three of his emails, Monaco stated that both the Office of Equal Opportunity and the Tufts University Police Department will be investigating each incident. However, whether or not each case is found to be a “hate crime” will determine which entity completes the investigation.
Jill Zellmer, Executive Director of OEO, Title IX Coordinator, and 504 Officer, explained over email that TUPD initially investigates all “reported bias incidents”, such as the three most recent ones, to determine if they are hate crimes. The OEO works “closely” with TUPD during this process. If the incident is determined to meet the definition of a hate crime, then TUPD could confer with the District Attorney of Massachusetts and charge the offender with a criminal hate crime, according to Kevin Maguire, Executive Director of Public Safety and TUPD Police Chief.
TUPD’s categorization of the incident is based on Massachusetts’ definition of a hate crime. This definition stipulates that hate crimes must contain three elements: first, the offender assaulted the victim or damaged their property. Second, the act was intended to intimidate the victim, and third, the victim was targeted because of their “race, religion, national identity, sexual orientation, gender identity…or other protected characteristic.”
If TUPD determines that the incident is not a hate crime but rather an “incident of bias,” which Zellmer said is more often than not the case, the incident is passed onto the OEO. The OEO then conducts an investigation of its own and “can sometimes triangulate different reports and facts to find a respondent,” according to Zellmer.
Kevin Kraft, Director of Community Standards, explained over email that if the perpetrator is identified, the OEO would be responsible for determining if the individual had violated Tufts’s Non-Discrimination Policy.
If the incident is found to have violated the policy, it would be forwarded onto the Committee on Student Conduct, a group of students, faculty, and staff, who would decide on the appropriate sanction. Kraft noted that a sanction can range anywhere from a warning to disciplinary expulsion.
Unfortunately, many students remain either unaware of these processes or skeptical of their outcomes. The 2018-2019 school year saw 13 similar incidents, followed by fewer investigations, and even fewer updates regarding those investigations. These incidents demonstrate a pattern that lacks transparency.
In October 2018, flyers with white supremacist messaging were found pasted over “get out the vote” signs on campus. There were also incidents of a student posting a picture of themself wearing blackface, and anti-Semitic posters found outside of Tufts Hillel, in January and February 2019, respectively.
A series of eggings occurred at the end of March 2019, some of which were committed against LGBTQ+ students. TUPD determined that the eggings were committed by non-Tufts affiliates and “filed a complaint of assault against them in district court,” according to an email sent on April 12, 2019 from the Office of Student Life.
When Tufts Green Dot Ambassadors, a group dedicated to promoting bystander intervention as a method of sexual assault prevention, painted messages in support of survivors of sexual violence on the cannon at the beginning of April 2019, it was defaced later that night and painted over by the phrases “Trump 2020” and “MAGA.” In that same April 12 email, the university referred to the cannon incident as “political slogans” and made no mention of intending to investigate the case.
Students received similar emails from Monaco alerting them of many of these events and, in some cases, were told that investigations would be conducted. However, students were never updated on many of these investigations. Maguire, whose department was investigating the white supremacist messaging incident, stated over email that “the investigation has yielded no suspects to date but remains active.”
When asked for an update on the other incidents, Zellmer explained that the OEO is prohibited from “speaking about investigative matters relate to the MCAD (employment privacy rights), OCR regulations (student privacy rights), FERPA, other student privacy rights and sometimes other laws related to personnel rights in the workplace.”
Because the findings of the investigations are often unknown by students, some students feel that the university is unconcerned about the groups that are targeted by such acts. Freeman explained, “If students report, and they know nothing is going to happen, what does it say to these individuals who are navigating these identities at an institution? It makes the student feel invisible.”
Students have also expressed frustration regarding the university’s lack of transparency, which makes it seem as if there are no consequences for these actions. “It’s hard for me to know if they’re actually holding the person accountable…I want to feel like the university is trying to find these people and hold them accountable, and I don’t know if they are,” said Davidson.
The most recent incident—the defacement of the African American Trail Project—seemed to mark a breaking point. Monaco announced that the first two incidents had occurred as the administration was making plans to launch BRTs that will, according to the email, be chaired by the Associate Provosts/Chief Diversity Officers, Rob Mack and Joyce Sackey, as well as other faculty, staff, and students.
Monaco described the BRTs’ work as distinct from the structures that are already in place for reporting, investigating, and adjugating “incidents of bias and discrimination.” The BRTs are meant to be supplementary and “focus on community understanding, support, and engagement.”
Davidson expressed skepticism at the concept. “I want a team that is trying to connect with community members and find a way to establish large, vocal responses against it. I want to feel like I’m not just getting a message from the president that’s copy-pasted saying, ‘I condemn this.’ I want to see the whole community saying ‘this is awful and we are here for you,’” she said.
Freeman, on the other hand, views the BRTs as a step toward much-needed change. “We need to check in with folks, and not just the Group of Six doing it, but the university too, because we’re a community as a whole. I’m excited by the BRTs and the type of accountability it’s going to hold for us as administrators so that we can show up for our students in a way that they feel is genuine,” she said.
The Group of Six and other community centers have shouldered much of the burden of supporting their communities when they are targeted, which students view as inequitable. “The grunt work shouldn’t be from the centers…you can’t put all the onus on marginalized communities to do it,” said Lanzilla. “The Group of Six already does a lot and only has so much funding and so much support.”
In the aftermath of the first two incidents, both the LGBT and Hillel Centers held open meetings. Monaco attended both. However, his appearance at the LGBT Center sparked criticism. Junior Jesse Ryan, who attended the LGBT Center open meeting, criticized Monaco’s response to students’ comments. “Not only was he fully not listening to what we were saying or taking any of our lived experiences into account, but he was making it about himself,” they said. Ryan paraphrased Monaco’s response to criticisms of the administration’s actions, saying, “[He said,] I’m offended that you think I wake up every morning trying to hurt the most people.”
Monaco’s appearance at the meeting points to a greater, foundational issue. Davidson senses that there are not enough structural means to deal with such incidents. “[The administration] has the power to hold people accountable, but I don’t think that they really have enough connection to the community to help. I think it’s up to the students in a lot of ways, and it sucks that it’s up to the students, but I think that that is necessary.”
Freeman stressed that systematic change is imperative. “We haven’t figured out a way to address this in a proper way yet. That’s frightening. We’re at a predominantly White institution, a historically White college. A lot of these structures were not created to support people who hold marginalized identities.”