Policy of Silence Threatens Students

In the wake of anti-Semitic flyers being discovered by Safety and Security on Warner Center and Peters Hall early in the morning Oct. 13, President Ambar announced in an email to the students, faculty, and staff that the College would stop notifying the community of discriminatory postings “unless there is clear evidence of an ongoing pattern or a serious threat to campus safety.” As a group that includes multiple marginalized identities, including Judaism, the Editorial Board is surprised, confused, and frightened about the implications of such a sudden sweeping decision.

First and foremost, we believe that marginalized students have a right to be informed about any all possible statements of hate and threats made against them. The decision to not inform students of such events in absence of “an ongoing pattern or a serious threat to campus safety” not only interferes with that right, but also parallels the fact that atrocities against Jews have historically been ignored and disbelieved — even unreported. The question of who decides what constitutes a threat is consistently laden with oppressive power dynamics. We believe that students with targeted marginalized identities should be empowered to decide when they are under threat — not an opaque administrative decision-making process. Even if Ambar hopes to shield students from the potential anxiety caused by the information she now plans not to distribute, that is not her decision to make. Whether students choose to read emails regarding acts of hate is up to them, but accessing that information is their right.

Furthermore, in the midst of a strongly resurgent and dark ethno-nationalism that the Trump presidency has emboldened, we are deeply skeptical of a decision that in any way trivializes acts of hate — including intentional silence when such acts are committed. That silence is worsened when it is institutionalized in policy. Silence by those in power is a large part of what gave us the Trump presidency. Bigotry must be consistently and constantly identified where it exists. The only way to quash it is to expose it for all to see — not, as Ambar suggests, to simply “turn off [its] sound.” The reason that so many people don’t believe that racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry still exist is precisely because they are so seldom pointed out.

Ambar’s decision also presents a myriad of logistical problems for the administration, which in many ways will undermine the likely intention behind it. If students notice future hateful postings without prompt response from the administration, such news is likely to spread easily on Oberlin’s small and connected campus, and there is no way to know how accurately such information will travel through the Oberlin telephone. Without definitive information from the administration, the likelihood that student knowledge of incidents of hate will generate dangerous rumors only increases, causing more disruption to students than a simple announcement from the president’s office. Further, Ambar’s metric for what merits communication is unclear. If particularly despicable language is posted around campus, but is not a pattern and poses no threat, should that really not merit a response?

When marginalized students do hear about acts of hate perpetrated against them, they want real solidarity from campus officials, including and beyond affirmation of their experiences and perceived danger. Ambar’s decision to limit information regarding acts of hate inherently means that solidarity will not be shown. That is a real disappointment — one of our strongest hopes regarding Ambar was that she would be more connected to the student body, which was a particularly weak aspect of former President Marvin Krislov’s tenure. Additionally, we had hoped that President Ambar would make herself and her administration more easily accountable, but how can students hold the administration accountable for investigating acts they either don’t know about or the administration won’t acknowledge occurred?

More broadly, we are concerned that when future acts of hate are perpetrated against our campus, student publications will be the only marginally official channels through which accurate information about such events will be disseminated. This represents a troubling trend that emerged during the Krislov administration and appears to be continuing under Ambar. Information about numerous recent major campus decisions — including the 2017 fiscal year deficit and long-term structural budgetary issues discovered by the Board of Trustees — has still not yet been disseminated through official channels, and the Review has at times had to rely on leaked information. Student publications cannot be sole reliable source of information — our articles can’t be distributed to the email account of every student. The announcement is also extremely sudden, and to the best of our knowledge, no students — more specifically Jewish and other marginalized students — were consulted about the possibility of such a move being made.

While the reasoning behind Ambar’s announcement is unknown — whether it aims to keep Oberlin out of the frequently unforgiving eyes of the national press, shield students from emotional harm, prevent bigots from receiving the reaction that they desire, or something else entirely — one thing is clear: This is the wrong choice. It is sudden, dangerous, disturbingly thematic of previous abuses of marginalized communities, and ultimately causes more problems than it solves. If Ambar truly wants to support marginalized students, she should stand with them in solidarity and fight against their oppressors, not attempt to blind them from the hate they already know they face.