By Cara Lombardo
MADISON, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor’s response to a student trying to set up a pro-white group on campus further alienates minorities as they struggle for a better campus experience, student leaders said Friday.
The student’s effort to set up a campus chapter of the American Freedom Party — whose platform includes “prioritizing white supremacy values,” according to its Facebook page — has raised questions about how the university should respond and comes as the white nationalist movement as a whole has been emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidency.
Student government representatives urged Chancellor Rebecca Blank in a letter to denounce the AFP as racist. They said her statement Thursday saying that expressing objectionable viewpoints isn’t illegal was weak.
“Chancellor Blank’s statement is a testament to how administrators outwardly show a lack of verbal and systemic support for students of color or minority identities,” the letter from Associated Students of Madison Chair Carmen Goséy, ASM Representative Brooke Evans and Student Activity Center Governing Board Chair Katrina Morrison said.
Blank did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Adding to the students’ concerns is that the man who’s recruiting for the AFP chapter, Daniel Dropik, served almost five years in federal prison for setting fires at two predominantly black churches, 33, says frustration over the university’s efforts to improve the experiences of minority students led him to start a local AFP chapter.
Blank said in her statement that the university is monitoring the group for threats but that expressing hateful viewpoints is legal and within campus policies. She added that she would ask regents to revisit the University of Wisconsin System’s policy of not considering criminal records in the admission process.
Goséy, Evans and Morrison wrote that Blank is focusing on admissions policy rather than acknowledging the threat Dropik poses.
Doctoral student Walter Parrish III, who’s studying higher education leadership and policy, said Blank’s response failed to address minorities’ discomfort given Dropik’s criminal history. Parrish said Blank’s response suggests the university doesn’t have a plan in place to protect minority students.
“As a black student on campus, I’m wondering what does this mean? Who is to say something extreme won’t happen?” Parrish said.
AFP national chair William Johnson said in a phone interview that Dropik told him Friday morning that the backlash against his recruiting efforts has been overwhelming and that he fears for his safety.
“On college campuses, there is a great deal of pushback whenever someone wants to a start a pro-white group,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he knows of at least one college AFP chapter that operates “under the radar,” but he wouldn’t say where and wouldn’t say whether there were more colleges with chapters. He said Trump’s presidency makes recruiting efforts easier.
“When people hear you’re a nationalist, they used to say, ‘Oh, you’re like Mussolini?’ Now they say, ‘Oh, you’re like Donald Trump,'” he said.
Trump’s disavowal in late November of white supremacists who have cheered his election hasn’t quieted concerns about the movement’s impact on the White House. His strongest denunciation has not come voluntarily, only when asked, and he occasionally trafficked in retweets of racist social media posts during his campaign.
In their letter, the student government leaders also took Blank to task for not strongly denouncing a man who wore a costume of former President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck to a football game in November. University officials made the man remove the noose but allowed him to stay at the game.
Blank said the noose was unacceptable but that the university must resist the urge to censor political dissent.
The students want Blank to participate in a cultural competency program so she can create policies that directly address racism on campus. A group of students are planning a march to protest Dropik’s group Tuesday.