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When Perceptions Clash

What happens when racial incidents are viewed differently by students who experience them in real time and administrators who try to address the incidents after the fact? At American University, the answer is complicated.

January 7, 2020
 
DAN PAPSCUN / THE EAGLE
AU students protest against the racial climate on campus.

Zach Mills was preparing to head out to a meeting with fellow doctoral students at American University when two officers from the Washington, D.C., police department showed up at his front door.

The officers told Mills they had been contacted by the university's police department and asked to check in on him. He invited them into his apartment, which is located about a mile and a half away from the campus.

Officer Adam Sotelo entered the apartment while the other officer waited in the hall, as is customary practice for such "wellness check" visits. Mills and Sotelo sat in Mills’s living room and talked. Things were going fine -- both Mills and Sotelo said they had a normal, friendly conversation -- until two officers from AU's police department arrived and entered Mills's unlocked apartment. According to Mills, the AUPD officers were "aggressive" and "threatening." They barged in without his consent, yelled at him and repeatedly demanded to see his university-issued identification card. He said he felt confused and fearful but sat calmly with his hands in his lap and asked the AU officers to leave his apartment several times.

Mills said the AU officers ignored his requests until Officer Sotelo, a certified crisis intervention officer, explained that things were under control and that they could go. The university officers complied, but Mills was left deeply unsettled. To him, the encounter was a continuation of a pattern of discriminatory acts he’d experienced as an African American doctoral student at AU’s School of International Service. The Aug. 28 incident also reinforced his belief that he was being targeted by faculty members and university administrators for lodging various complaints about discrimination in his department at the school, commonly referred to as SIS.

Mills's interaction with campus police was far different from a highly publicized wellness check on another black AU student that resulted in her being forcibly removed from her university-managed apartment. That incident occurred in late September, just a month after the episode with Mills, and was captured in a disturbing video that showed Gianna Wheeler being carried out of the apartment and surrounded by multiple university officials and D.C. fire department personnel. Wheeler had been suspended from American after being accused of assaulting another student, a charge for which she was found not guilty after a disciplinary hearing by the university. The video, which went viral on social media, prompted outrage on and off the campus and led to student protests and allegations that university administrators had shown racial bias in their handling of the wellness check.

Mills, a doctoral candidate in his fourth year in the SIS program, said he saw similarities between how he and Wheeler were treated and felt both cases were rooted in racial bias.

American administrators have forcefully defended the university against these allegations of racism and pushed back on the criticisms leveled after the video of Wheeler's removal surfaced. They said the outrage was misplaced and the circumstances misunderstood. But coming after several years of repeated racial controversies on campus, AU students of various racial backgrounds believe their university has a serious race problem. ​

As other colleges and universities around the country grapple with racial tensions on their campuses and growing public perceptions that higher ed institutions are cauldrons of racial strife, AU administrators are clearly aware that perceptions can sometimes become reality. They appear to be redoubling their efforts to address the problems and protect the university's reputation. ​But like other higher ed institutions, AU is operating in a racial climate on campus and in the larger society in which an accumulation of racial controversies leads to more and more events being viewed through the prism of race. Whether or not each incident is actually about race is a matter of perspective and lived experience.

“I did actually develop medically diagnosed PTSD after this and was having blackouts over the last eight weeks,” Mills said of the wellness check. “I’ve been having a really horrible time since all that happened. I just remember people yelling at me and standing over me, and being very fearful.”

Mills believes the wellness check was the result of an orchestrated campaign to discredit his complaints about racial discrimination in the program and undermine his academic standing.

American University representatives said they could not comment on any specific wellness checks because of privacy laws. They said wellness checks, in general, are guided by university policy and are prompted "when the Office of the Dean of Students receives information or reports of concern about the general well-being of a student, from a fellow student, faculty or staff," according to a written statement. The checks are part of AU's Care Reporting system, the statement said, and the first step is to try and contact the student directly.

"Should there be an immediate threat to the individual’s safety, or if the student does not respond to attempted communications, AUPD is then asked to do a wellness check at the student’s residence," the statement said. "AUPD only has authority to conduct welfare checks on American University housing owned or leased. If a student lives off-campus in private housing, AUPD will contact the DC Metropolitan Police Department for assistance and will accompany them on the check if that department requests it."

From Mills's perspective, the arrival and confrontational style of campus police, after AUPD had already asked D.C. police to conduct the check, was no coincidence.

"It was extremely traumatic," he said. "After the police left, I was furious."

University administrators say wellness checks involve complex and sensitive issues guided by policies meant to protect the privacy of students who may be experiencing personal problems or mental health crises. The administrators note that every wellness check involves unique circumstances and that generalizations made by outsiders not privy to all the particulars are often inaccurate. They say this was precisely the case with the video of Wheeler being forcibly removed from her apartment.

After several days of sustained criticism for its handling of the incident, two university vice presidents emailed a long statement to the campus defending the university's action.

"We take the concerns about these complicated situations seriously, especially given our national climate and the lived experiences of communities of color and other marginalized communities across this country," the statement said in part.

In written responses to questions about Mills's allegations, the AU representatives said the university "is committed to fostering an inclusive community based on mutual respect where our educational pursuits can thrive. We do not tolerate or condone discrimination in any form. If a student feels he or she has been discriminated against, they are encouraged to file a formal complaint."

That's exactly what Mills did.

Things Come to a Head

After several years of what Mills described as repeated microaggressions and discrimination in the SIS program, he'd had enough. He filed a formal complaint about a professor in the program and later decided to enlist classmates to hold a vote of no confidence in the program director. Mills acknowledged it would be a purely symbolic move; university officials said there is no policy or procedure for students to take such an action. In any case, Mills made no secret of his plan to call for the vote.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and Mills was getting ready to meet with students to discuss the vote. That's when Officer Sotelo and his colleague came calling.

In Sotelo’s account of the events that day, nothing about the wellness check stood out to him. He said once he determined Mills was not in crisis, he felt there was no need for the AU officers to go through the process with Mills again. He said Mills was calm when they first spoke but seemed "aghast" that the AU police showed up at his apartment. Sotelo also said that while he did not observe the AUPD officers closely, he didn't feel they were overly aggressive. He said there seemed to be points of contention between the university and Mills.​

AUPD did not respond to a request for comment.

It's not clear that the campus officers were legally allowed to visit Mills's apartment, which is neither owned nor managed by the university.

D.C. law stipulates that "no person appointed as a campus or university special police officer … shall display a badge, weapon, or other evidence of authority in any place other than the property owned by, or under the control of the academic institution of higher education upon whose account he or she was appointed and by whom he or she is paid."

A university spokesperson said in a written response to questions about the incident that Mills invited the AU officers into his apartment. Mills categorically denies this, and Officer Sotelo's account also does not support this.

A Show of Concern or a Show of Force

On Aug. 27, three professors in the doctoral program in which Mills is studying all separately filed what the university calls care reports about him. Mills said this was after he'd made known his plan for the no confidence vote.

One of the care reports was submitted by Boaz Atzili, the program director Mills was planning to name in the vote. Another report was submitted by Susanna Campbell, an assistant professor at the school. Both reports said Mills had told the professors of feelings of depression he'd had in the past. Mills said that these dark feelings stemmed from the end of a long-term relationship and that he later regretted telling the professors about his feelings because he was being "dramatic." The relationship ended in May 2019, and Mills said the emotional fallout made it difficult for him to update professors over the summer about the project on which he was working. He said he also told three other AU professors, two of whom were not white, about these feelings, and none of them submitted care reports.

The third care report outlined an email Mills had sent to Sharon Weiner, an associate professor, which she described in the report as “uncharacteristic of past communications” and filled with “rage” and “anger.”

Mills said he'd made Weiner aware of some of the discrimination he experienced at AU and she "waved them off."

Weiner wrote, “I am worried about him and that he might harm himself or create disturbances on campus. He accuses a couple of people of being white supremacists and states that he will publicly accuse them because everyone needs to know ‘the truth.’”

The three professors who filed care reports were all contacted for comment but did not respond. Representatives from AU's office of communications instead answered all questions about Mills's case.

Mills considers the incident a "politically motivated wellness check” and akin to being swatted, or having police called on you under false pretenses. He said after the wellness check took place, he told a dean he wanted to file formal complaints against the professors who'd filed the care reports, the AUPD and two students who confronted him about his views. He wanted it all investigated.

However, he was warned against taking such action because of the possibility of retaliatory accusations or claims of slander by the professors.

A friend who saw and spoke to Mills in the days following the wellness check described him as “in shock.”

A note dated Sept. 18 from a doctor at AU's student health center stated that Mills “is currently being treated for symptoms of acute stress, related to a recent traumatic experience.” The note referenced the wellness check. The doctor also noted that the symptoms “appear to be significantly interfering with his academic functioning.”

Recent studies have shown that various types of discrimination experienced by college students exact an emotional and physical toll and lead to heightened feelings of anxiety, loneliness and discrimination. A report published last year by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Fund for Leadership, Equity, Access and Diversity showed that hate incidents against minority students have increased in recent years.

Officer Sotelo said he cautioned Mills against using such strong language and hyperbole to express his feelings to administrators, because once someone speaks of being suicidal, “hands are tied.”

The university said in a statement that there were 289 wellness checks in 2019 as of December. That number is comparable to recent years; there were 260 checks in 2018 and 277 in 2017.

Mills said his problematic interactions with faculty and department heads go far beyond the wellness check.

He said one of his earliest racial encounters occurred on the first day of a course he took during his second year in the program. The course was Politics and Policy-Making in International Relations, and Mills said the professor, Daniel Esser, used Mills, the only black student in the class, as an example when Esser referred to the potential consequences for students doing poorly and not submitting assignments. Then, during a class break, Esser approached Mills and commented on his not thinking all black people were lazy, Mills said. The professor also said in class that he had an antiblack bias, Mills and other students who took the class said.

A classmate who did not want to be identified said Esser was problematic. The student, who is white, said Mills was treated differently than other students and held to a “double standard.” While the student was “absolutely appalled,” she said she wasn’t surprised because there's no accountability by the administration for such overt displays of racism beyond empty references to the university’s official diversity statement. She said there also is no mechanism for students to report racism without retaliation.

Calling Out Racism by Name

Mills said he resisted complaining about Esser at first.

“I didn’t want to make waves,” Mills said. “If you develop a reputation in the department, you could have issues down the line -- people don’t want to work with you, or people don’t like you. I didn’t really push anything. I knew it was definitely wrong but I was trying to ignore it back then.”

Mills said he didn't file an official complaint immediately because he was worried about retaliation, but he eventually filed a complaint about Esser.

Lisa Leff, acting dean of academic affairs and senior vice provost at AU, summarized the investigation of Mills's complaint about Esser in a letter about the conclusion and findings of the investigation. The letter was dated Sept. 4, 2018, a year after the alleged incidents took place. The findings were sent to Esser and Mills, who separately shared copies of their letters with Inside Higher Ed.

"Based on my review and analysis of the information gathered in this process, I have determined that your actions do not constitute racial discrimination, nor do they constitute discriminatory harassment as defined in American University’s Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Policy," Leff wrote in a section directed at Esser.

"On the first day of class, you singled Zach out and used him as a hypothetical example of a student not completing his work, and then later in class, acknowledged that you did that because of 'biases' that you 'tr[y] to keep in check.' On another class day, October 19, you again spoke of having 'biases.' These events did occur, and I have no doubt they caused serious discomfort to Zach."

"In the first allegation above, you expressed unconscious bias, and then once you realized what you had done, you took steps to remediate its effects by taking responsibility for it and apologizing for it. In other words, once you became conscious of your unconscious bias, you worked actively to counter its effects. While such conduct does not erase harm done -- and in these instances, may have in fact exacerbated the pain or discomfort caused by calling attention to it -- it does not in itself rise to the level required by the Policy for a determination that discrimination occurred."

Mills had alleged in his complaint that Esser had tried to “sabotage” him academically by, among other things, altering assignment guidelines applied only to Mills. Leff's investigation found that the mistakes made by Esser were the “kind of mistakes faculty make routinely in the course of their work.”

Mills said he'd noted in his original complaint the difference between how Esser treated him in person and how the professor communicated with him by email, which has a “paper trail.” But Leff only reviewed emails between Esser and Mills as part of the investigation. Mills said Leff’s investigation waved off too many of Esser’s “mistakes,” calling it “statistically improbable” that a professor could make this many mistakes regarding one student.

Esser said he was "incredulous" when he learned that Mills filed the complaint against him.

"At no time have I ever intentionally discriminated against Mr. Mills or any student based on race or any other factor," he wrote in an email response to questions about Mills's allegations and the university's investigation. "Racism is one of the central challenges facing humanity and I was stunned that I was being accused of racism. I also note that Mr. Mills had not approached me in this matter prior to requesting a formal investigation."

Esser said he felt "exonerated" by the investigation. As for the determination that he had exhibited microaggressions and unconscious bias toward Mills, he cited research by Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning Austrian American neuroscientist, which "shows that almost every person holds unconscious biases."

"Countering such biases requires responsive and responsible action," Esser wrote, noting that he took responsibility for his actions and apologized.

He said he has taken antibias and inclusive excellence training and noted that he and the three professors who submitted care reports about Mills had all signed an open letter to students following the 2016 U.S. presidential election expressing support for minority students and diversity at AU. The original writers of the letter were all professors from the SIS department.

Mills said faculty members' concerns about his implied emotional fragility and supposed preoccupation with racial issues are examples of how racial hostility that students of color regularly encounter on predominantly white college campuses is invalidated and minimized.

Mills described conversations with Atzili, the program director, regarding the investigation of Esser. Atzili told Mills that Esser could retaliate and laughed about the prospect of that happening. Mills said Atzili also blamed Mills’s problems on the absence of his "black father" and denied that racism existed at American. Mills believes Atzili should have done more.

“He’s been well aware of lots of stuff that’s happened, and he doesn’t interpret any of it as racism, so he would never go report it in the first place,” Mills said. “I don’t even know if he understands what he’s doing when he tries to insinuate that me growing up without a black father has something to do with any of this stuff … I think it’s so deep in the culture of SIS that some people don’t even know they’re fully participating in discrimination.”

Atzili, like the other professors who filed care reports about Mills, did not respond to a request for comment.

A week after the investigation's findings were released to Mills, he got an email from AU president Sylvia Burwell in which she apologized for the “frustration and anxiety” he experienced while the complaint was being investigated.

Burwell wrote that she confirmed that AU followed “its normal process in investigating and resolving” the complaint and that it was “fully investigated.” Mills disputes these points, noting that the witnesses he provided as having knowledge of the racist events were not contacted by the university.

President Burwell also said in the email that her chief of staff and the vice president for campus life would meet with Mills about his concerns. Mills said he skipped the meeting because there were preset conditions for discussion points.

"They refused to discuss anything about me and just wanted to talk with me about racism in general and how diversity can be improved generally on campus," he said in an email. "I have no interest in helping the school fix its toxic racial climate while it is ignoring what happened to me."

There are 41 students in the SIS Ph.D. program, but far fewer in Mills’s program, in which only two are black, including Mills. Every student in the program interviewed noted how few black students had been in the program over the years.

Some of those students questioned whether a wellness check on a young African American man was the best course of action, given that police wellness checks on black Americans elsewhere have resulted in trauma and even death. The shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson during a police wellness check several months ago is a recent example.

“In general I think sending the police is never an appropriate response,” said ​Cherie Saulter, a classmate of Mills. She said in her six years in the program, she can only remember six black students, three of whom have left.​

Saulter, who is white, described Mills’s treatment as disappointing. She said AU's response to racist incidents on campus is insufficient and often involves little more than issuing statements or creating committees to promote inclusiveness.

Multiple students also noted the lack of diversity in the SIS program as one of the potential contributing factors to the success or struggles of African American students and the incidents of discrimination. They also noted the lack of black faculty and limited access to mentorship for black students.

"The SIS Ph.D. program is small, and admits only about six to 10 students a year," university representatives said in written responses. "Over the past 10 years, of the 93 students enrolled in the program, 7 percent have been Asian, 5 percent Black or African-American, 3 percent Hispanic, 33 percent International, 3 percent Multiracial, 7 percent unknown and 37 percent White. Diversity in Ph.D. programs is a challenge nationwide. Faculty in the Ph.D. program rotate annually, so the makeup is ever-changing. SIS is committed to diversifying its faculty … This is a concern and an issue nationwide."

Some of the students who corroborated Mills’s statements asked not to be identified and cited concerns about upcoming dissertation defenses and about losing funding.​

A white student in the program, who requested anonymity because of fear of retaliation, said the lack of black or Latinx professors at SIS makes it difficult for minority students to find mentors or allies who can help them succeed. The student also said professors seem out of touch on diversity issues and that the program has not done the necessary work of building inclusive classes or championing minority voices.

“There is a general climate of racial hostility at American University,” the student said, adding that administrators seem apathetic, incompetent or only interested in preserving their own jobs.

“We know that any institution faces challenges and we always recognize there is room for improvement in any program,” AU representatives said in their written response. They said that the SIS's Ph.D. committee has met with students and faculty over the past year to develop opportunities for improving diversity and inclusion in the program. “Those include proactive recruitment of minority students, revamping first-year qualifying exams to reduce stress, establishing a mentoring system, and requiring faculty discussions on diversity and inclusion in the classroom at the start of each semester,” they wrote.

“These are fantastic efforts, but what it shows is these are not enough,” said Adrienne Pine, an associate professor of anthropology, who also cited the university's new Antiracist Research and Policy Center. Pine said that past incidents exposed a long-standing problem of structural racism at AU.

AU representatives also point to the university's inclusive excellence program that launched in 2018 as another important effort. The program is focused on increasing and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. More than 500 faculty and staff have participated in optional inclusive excellence training over the past two years. AU is also trying to recruit and hire more diverse employees and is reworking the curriculum to ensure inclusiveness. The university also created a Bias Response Working Group last semester to update and improve its bias reporting system. What's more, freshmen are now required to take a class on power, privilege and inequality.

Alexis Arnold, a senior and co-editor of the online campus publication The Blackprint, believes efforts to improve the campus climate are better under President Burwell.

"However, I think that the gravity of the incidents encouraged the university [to] understand that it has to do more with inclusivity beyond a mandatory class … But there is still a lot of work to do to make sure black students always feel safe in a predominantly white space," she said in an email. "Black students need to remain vocal to get the full changes they hope to see."

In the interim, ​Mills said he now only comes to campus to teach his classes -- he conducts office hours over Skype. He worries about being shadowed by AU police officers, which he alleges happened in the days following the wellness check.

Mills is one class away from completing the coursework required before he can defend his dissertation prospectus. His funding runs out at the end of the year, and he has also reached his lifetime cap on student loans. He says he may not be able to complete his degree.

“I feel like I’ve been given a bunch of really horrible options while the university refuses to acknowledge what happened,” he said.

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