Amid Calls For Resignation, University of Northern Colorado President Tries To Calm Tensions

Dec 6, 2016

Editor’s Note: This story contains language some may find offensive.

University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton has issued a response to reports of harassment on campus. In an email sent Dec. 5 to students, faculty and staff, Norton cited “serious concerns” over reports of racially charged incidents from the student body.

“I am deeply concerned that a number of incidents which were clearly directed at individuals and intended to be aggressive have taken place on our campus in recent weeks,” Norton wrote.

Her message also contained a show of support for a petition being circulated among students and faculty, which demanded she take a stand against promises made by President-Elect Donald Trump. The petition came after several weeks of harsh criticism of Norton by a group of students - and a few professors - demanding she step down or be fired.

The petition, which began circulating on Nov. 29, calls for Norton to declare UNC a “sanctuary.” Such a declaration would - according to the demands in the petition - involve resistance to federal policies that would deport undocumented students or require Muslim students to register with the federal government.

The petition specifically asks Norton to fall in line with several other university presidents across the nation that have promised such resistance. At the time of writing, the petition had 979 signatures, including that of many faculty members.

Norton’s response came nearly a week after the petition began making rounds, illustrating what some see as a pattern of “too little, too late.”

“I feel like no matter what side of politics you’re on, you should be able to say ‘no, racism is not acceptable,’” says Spencer Bagley, a professor of mathematics at UNC.

Bagley penned an open letter to Norton on Nov. 11, expressing concern that Norton had yet to speak about harassment that so many other university leaders were addressing. The letter cited other schools - including Colorado State University - as examples. Bagley’s letter implored Norton to follow the example of other university leaders:

“Over the last few days, we have witnessed, with growing horror, a spike in the number of both bias-related incidents and outright hate crimes on college campuses across the United States, including several incidents of violence against hijabi women,” Bagley wrote “Indeed, we have heard reports of bias-related incidents on UNC’s own campus.”

[...]

We believe that as the leader of this campus, you have both a duty and an obligation to speak out against acts of violence against any member of the campus community. We believe that silence from higher administration on this issue is unacceptable.”

Later that day, Norton responded to the letter with a video address. Her remarks called for the university to come together as a family:

“I have heard that on our campus there have been incidents in which members of the university community have attacked other members of the university community based upon their identity, their perceived affiliation and I want you to know that this is unacceptable in our university community,” Norton said.

“Elections are necessarily about a winner and a loser. But our university community is not about winners and losers. It is, in fact, a family. And like all families, we may disagree – even vehemently – with each other but in the end we come together because we are members of the family and all members of the family are welcome and necessary.

“And I want you to know the University of Northern Colorado cares about and cares for every member of our campus community—faculty, staff and students—and we reject the idea that behavior that isolates and stigmatizes any member of this community is acceptable to the rest of us. We are family.”

But for Bagley, Norton did not go far enough.

“I thought that it was anodyne,” Bagley said. “I thought that it was deliberately calculated not to offend anybody. I wish that she had gone further.”

How UNC got here

Criticism from students intensified around Oct. 30 when Donald Trump held a rally on campus. The day after the event, a group of students confronted Norton in her office unannounced, complaining that Trump’s presence created a climate that made them feel unsafe.

More than a week later, Norton responded with an email to the university defending the choice to allow Trump to speak on campus. However, she also condemned some Trump supporters.

“The behavior of some who attended the rally was indeed appalling,” she wrote. “The First Amendment protects offensive speech but it certainly doesn’t require us to condone it — and we do not.”

The email encouraged students upset by such behavior to visit the UNC counseling center.

“President Norton’s response to a lot of these events has been late and weak,” Bagley says.

Others seemed to agree. On Nov. 16, a group of about 50 students gathered on campus to protest. They chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Kay Norton has got to go,” and held signs that said, “death to diversity” and “never been called a nigger B4 UNC.”

UNC spokesman Nate Haas told The Greeley Tribune that administrators and campus police were aware of the protest, and that the university encouraged them to peacefully demonstrate.

But it didn’t stop there.

At least 20 students showed up to the Nov. 18 Board of Trustees meeting to make their demands known. The group - calling themselves the “UNC Family Bears,” a nod to Norton’s “We are family” statement - demanded a meeting with several high-ranking university officials by Dec. 5, lest they take up their cause with Gov. John Hickenlooper.

First on their list of demands is Norton’s firing. The group demanded that the hiring committee tasked with finding her replacement include representatives from several campus groups serving minorities, veterans, women and LGBT populations. The UNC Family Bears also demanded budget hikes and raises for the directors of those groups.

Another demand was a permanent home for the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, which is currently run out of a converted closet. The irony was not lost on the students speaking before the trustees.

“I can’t find my community because we were put in a closet,” said a student, according to The Greeley Tribune.

When their time was up, the students passed out printed lists of their demands, making sure Norton had several copies. At the time of writing, UNC confirms the administration has been in touch with the UNC Family Bears, and has been trying to organize a meeting time.

“I have been speaking with many of these students for the past year, and there were no surprises in the observations that they were making,” she told The Tribune after the meeting. “It’s unfortunate that it had to become so personalized, but that kind of goes with the territory.”