Last semester, The Colby Echo published an article about bigoted Yik Yaks that were posted in the vicinity of campus. The last time students were updated, the College Administration was pursuing a subpoena against Yik Yak to get them to release the names of those responsible for the offensive Yaks. However, students have received neither an update regarding the investigation nor any communication about the College’s plan to combat racism. This Yik Yak incident was not the first of its kind, and given the lack of allocation of resources to address the roots of this issue, it will not be the last.
When the Echo first spoke with President David A. Greene, he explained that he was angry upon seeing the Yaks.
“It was the morning of the 18th, and I was traveling, and I was furious to see the posts,” Greene said. “I stopped the car I was in, I wrote that email on my phone, and asked Regina [Ouimette] to send it to the community because it’s such an affront to who we are and what we care about and how important it is for people to be valuing this community, and it was outrageous in my view.”
The email he was referencing was short and direct.
“We are taking all steps possible to identify the perpetrators of these written assaults and will enact the strongest possible sanctions, up to and including permanent removal from the College. Let me also be clear that if you are the author of these posts, you should take leave of this campus now and not return. There is no place for you here, and your bigotry and targeted hate are an assault on this entire community,” he said.
Looking through the history of bigotry at the College from the first Yik Yak scandal in 2015 to now, it’s clear that individual responses to individual infractions have done little to prevent the proliferation of hate speech.
In 2018, a similarly heinous anonymous comment was made on a website that acted as a platform for people to report what they knew about the underground fraternities. The College administration was able to trace this message back to the student responsible, and Greene subsequently sent an email out to campus informing everyone that the student was suspended indefinitely.
While it’s great to see the administration take action in removing people that are harmful to the College community, Greene could not comment on what was done to address the culture of bigotry on campus as a whole.
Additionally, in the spring of 2018, the infamous final “Akon Day” party occurred. For seven years prior, members of the lacrosse team threw a party commemorating famous rap artist, Akon. In 2018, some partygoers dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, painted their faces black, and wrote “Africa” across their chests. There was also an investigation into the involvement of underground fraternities in this event. When asked about the administrative action taken against the people involved, Greene was not able to comment.
“I can’t remember, actually, all the different parts of it,” Greene said. “I probably couldn’t tell you anyways what’s done with individuals, because people have their FERPA rights for students, so we couldn’t tell you exactly what they were, but there were sanctions for students who were involved in it.”
FERPA protects the anonymity of students when it comes to the release of their academic records, including disciplinary action. However, Greene was able to disclose when a student who wrote hate speech on a public website was suspended indefinitely because he did not disclose the identity of the student.
This presumably did not constitute a violation of any student’s FERPA rights. Therefore, would Greene disclosing the sanctions placed on students involved in Akon day violate FERPA if he did not mention the names of the students? And if not, why did he refuse to comment?
When asked, many students who were first-years on campus when “Akon Day” occurred were not aware of any sanctions on the students involved. The opacity between the College Administration and the rest of the student body surrounding the fallout of the party implies that this instance of bigotry is isolated and, therefore, “dealing with it” does not involve the rest of the student body.
Many underclassmen at the College now are unaware that “Akon Day” even occurred. These past instances of bigotry and hate speech are erased with time because, as a community, we respond individually to each incident. In response to “Akon Day”, Greene said he again held conversations focused on community healing. However, aside from the alleged sanctions on the students, there has not been affirmative action toward addressing the patterns of bigotry.
“We brought in an outside investigator to look at this issue of underground fraternities … that helped a lot, to be honest with you, in terms of pulling out some of these deep cultural problems that have been embedded in this place for decades,” Greene said.
But the revelation of such “deep cultural problems” has not resulted in any change of atmosphere on campus. There are still some students that think they are above students of color and students on financial aid.
“It’s not that issues of racism, bias, [and] other things don’t exist, because they do, but the way that they’re all so tied up in privilege and a whole set of other things… is in there structurally,” Greene said.
The College Administration acknowledges the issue of privilege and elitism in institutions like the College, and yet they hesitate to take any real action against the social hierarchy that leads to such behaviors. Since the College does a better job than most at meeting people’s needs for financial aid for tuition, the community has a huge wealth disparity. In addition, amongst the privileged, there is the conflation of race and class; it is often assumed that people of color make up the College’s population of students on financial aid. This belief is reflected in one of the more recent Yaks that read, “Pugh kids speak to the student body about being grateful for a chance to be here on our dime & make something of themselves.”
It is clear that there is a lack of education amongst students in this department, and that many students believe that coming from financially privileged families makes them more deserving of an education than those who do not. This mimics the reality of the world outside institutions of education that also attaches people’s value to their wealth.
“I think we also have a broader issue that’s not on this campus, that’s in this world. The permission for people to be anti–semitic, racist, homophobic, transphobic, you can go through a whole list of things, Islamophobic, right now is extraordinary,” Greene said.
In addition, what people fail to acknowledge in situations like this is the classism that runs deep in institutions that nurture privilege. Greene is correct that, left unattended, the college environment will merely be a microcosm of the greater environment. The institution of academia prepares students in both intellect and character to interact with the greater world and is often the last stop before they spew uninformed beliefs out into the world. This also means that institutions of academia contribute to the culture of greater society through their students, meaning these institutions have the power to influence their communities.
In order for students to overcome past beliefs and elitist perspectives, the social hierarchy at the College has to come under scrutiny. In the fall of 2021, a group of students under the name OneColby organized a protest on the football field during the homecoming game, when the bleachers were full of parents. They occupied the field and demanded, using a megaphone, that administration make changes to make the campus a better and safer place for the students, emphasizing the plight of marginalized students. Although the crowd managed to drown them out by shouting back at them, OneColby succeeded in delaying the football game for over an hour.
“I would think of it in the same context as civil disobedience,” Greene said. “In that case, you had a visiting team and a Colby team that had practiced for a long time for that moment, and they came up, they had a right to be able to actually participate in their activity at that time.”
Because OneColby chose to protest at the football field to make a statement about the social hierarchy at the College, their actions fell under civil disobedience and, therefore, were not protected by the College.
Students who participated in the protest recounted parents yelling racial slurs at the protestors from the stands, and football players threatening to charge at them if they did not get off the field. Despite several deans, including former Dean Karlene Burrell–McRae `94, being present on the field while attempting to speak with the protestors, Greene said that he was not aware of such threats.
Students that were involved in the protest commented that the deans focused more on getting them off the field and getting authorities involved than on the reactions of the parents and athletes.
Across most higher education institutions in America, Greek life constitutes the upper strata of the social hierarchy. Since Greek life was banned at the College, athletic teams occupy a similar social niche. Varsity sports teams are amongst the most selective groups on campus. Many teams also hold exclusive parties and social events. While the underground fraternities at the College were not solely comprised of athletes, an investigation into the covert organizations uncovered that many athletes were involved.
Colby alum Kabir Singh `20 gave a comment to the Echo in the spring of 2019, speaking to the character of the people in the fraternities.
“This group of toxic men thought they were the saviors of this campus. They have the privilege to remove themselves from the issues of campus into a literal frat in which they believe they can forge healthy masculinity safe from those who challenge them,” Singh said.
The history of bigotry and elitism on this campus does not consist of isolated incidents. Addressing each one as such and assigning individualized blame will not change the bigoted mob mentality on campus. The College Administration needs to sanction the groups on campus that constitute the upper strata of the social hierarchy in order to begin to dismantle an institution of elitism that has existed since its founding.
~ Mahika Gupta `23