Michigan Tech condemned racism. Then it got ugly at Upper Peninsula university
Wesley McGowan doesn’t have to think hard to recall examples of racism he’s experienced at Michigan Technological University, where he is a Black student at one of the whitest universities in the state.
As a freshman, McGowan was the only African American in a world culture class where the professor played “derogatory” videos depicting Black people with cartoonishly large lips and noses and by white actors in “blackface," he said.
Then there was the janitor who confronted him in Fischer Hall, where he was trying to do school work, and “acted like I broke into the building.” And the guy in downtown Houghton, the predominately white Upper Peninsula city where the university is located, who yelled the N-world from a truck that was waving a “big old Confederate flag,” McGowan recalled.
More than seven months after the police killing of George Floyd sparked a national reckoning over race relations in the United States, McGowan told Bridge Michigan he was buoyed by local progress in January, when the MTU Senate representing faculty and staff adopted a resolution forcefully condemning hate speech, white supremacy and ethnically or racially motivated intolerance.
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Faculty and staff on the university Senate spent more than a year drafting the resolution, a process that began after a local synagogue was vandalized in what federal authorities called a coordinated attack organized by a white supremacist hate group.
But the resolution itself has prompted an uproar, largely sparked by an angry response letter from engineering professor Jeffrey Burl, who last month denied seeing any discrimination against people of color — or women — in his 28 years at the university.
It’s the resolution that is “racist,” Burl argued.
"I find this resolution particularly offensive because I, as a white male, have been systematically discriminated against for 40 years” during the hiring process, Burl wrote.
And then another letter from materials professor Jaroslaw Drelich, who called the resolution "the most hateful and divisive document that was ever produced by the Senate" and accused its authors of "pushing a leftist media narrative that America's Blacks are presently the victim of massive and systemic white racism based on non-equitable outcomes."
The letters sparked outrage from students and staff of color who said they’d long complained about systemic racism at and around Michigan Tech.
"This is depressing, that in the year of our lord 2021, we have people in positions of power at MTU without a basic understanding of the words sexism, racism and prejudice,” said Alexa Thompson, who described herself as queer Black female and electrical engineering alumni who had Burl as a professor.
But McGowan said the letters validated his own claims of discrimination by professors and university officials.
“I'm grateful that they finally decided to write these letters and put it out in the world, because now Michigan Tech cannot deny it,” McGowan told Bridge Michigan.
McGowan and other students are demanding President Richard Koubek and the university administration forcefully and publicly condemn Burl and Drelich, tenured professors who are protected from immediate firing or professional retaliation.
“I’m waking up every morning to find motivation to continue to be at Michigan Tech, because I feel like once again, I’m not valued at this university,” said McGowan, who received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from MTU. He’s now a doctoral student and intern at the university’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
“I feel unsafe at this university.”
Koubek, the university president, has addressed the accusations and controversy, but in limited fashion.
In a December statement to the Board of Trustees that followed claims of racist insults at a campus rally for then-President Donald Trump, Koubek touted the university's commitment to free speech but said the school does not condone or welcome hate speech, racism or white supremacy.
He reiterated that statement in two late January emails separately sent to students and employees, acknowledging many were "concerned and disappointed” by Burl's letter.
"As president of Michigan Tech, I apologize to those of you who have been hurt and I want you to know that it’s important to me that you feel safe, valued, and heard here at Michigan Tech," he wrote in the email to students.
Burl, an electrical and computer engineering professor, said he is neither a racist nor a white supremacist at a recent MTU Senate.
But he’s stood by his condemnation of the anti-racist Senate resolution, arguing that it is a form of “hate speech.”
"What the resolution really said was that white people are bad," Burl said in a phone interview, telling Bridge Michigan he has filed his own complaint with the university because of what he called discriminatory hiring practices that deny opportunities to white men.
"That offended people," Burl acknowledged. "But you telling me that I got my job because of white privilege offends me."
Drelich, a materials science and engineering professor from Poland, declined an interview with Bridge, saying he does not trust the media. In an email describing himself as a political independent, he said his letter to the university Senate was not intended for distribution beyond campus but was circulated by “a left faction” that “leaked it to a hateful blog on Facebook.”
The university declined to say whether the administration has or will take any action against either professor.
"While Michigan Tech doesn’t comment on personnel matters, it understands that open discourse and rigorous inquiry is the backbone of both the educational and research process," the university said in a statement emailed by Stefanie Sidortsova, executive director of communications.
The university has "responded individually to students who reached out with concerns" and "continues to advance several student-centric diversity and inclusion initiatives," the statement added.
In their letters and public comments, both Burl and Drelich have denounced racism but suggested they'd seen little of it at Michigan Tech or the surrounding community, contradicting claims by students, faculty and staff of color.
But in an interview with Bridge, Burl acknowledged there are simply fewer people of color in the region than other parts of the country, limiting local exposure to non-white races.
As of 2018, more than 88 percent of undergraduate students at Michigan Tech were white, compared to 3 percent multiracial, 2 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and 1 percent Black, according to the university.
Minority students stay in school and graduate at significantly lower rates than others. And despite efforts to recruit more female students, males accounted for more than 70 percent of undergraduate and master’s students in 2018.
Houghton County, meanwhile, is 94 percent white, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, and the region is no stranger to hate speech and racism in recent years.
The local Jewish community is still reeling from anti-Semitic vandalism at a synagogue in September 2019. The FBI alleges an attack that included swastika graffiti at Temple Jacob in Hancock — along with another synagogue about 350 miles south in Wisconsin — were orchestrated by a New Jersey man associated with The Base, a neo-Nazi extremist group.
Richard Tobin, who is awaiting trial on a 10-year felony charge of conspiring to violate civil rights, operated out of his home but told investigators he coordinated with members of a “Great Lakes Cell” to “tag the shit” out of synagogues. He called the effort “Operation Kristallnacht,” a reference to a Nazi night of terror against Jews that was a prelude to the Holocaust.
The Base is a “racially motivated violent extremist group” that has “declared war against minority communities within the United States and abroad,” according to the FBI complaint, which suggests Tobin coordinated with others but did not name any co-conspirators.
“The national leader was arrested but the local perpetrators were not,” said Jennifer Rachels, a doctoral student at Michigan Tech who also serves as secretary for Temple Jacob.
Rachels told Bridge Michigan that she and other students have seen stickers, flyers and posters around Houghton and Hancock trying to recruit students to join the “Patriot Front,” which the Anti-Defamation League calls a white supremacist, racist and anti-Semitic group.
In Calumet, a 20-minute drive north of Houghton, a local Trump supporter was arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Karl Dresh had previously sold Confederate paraphernalia out of his home, and bashed African Americans, Jews and gay people with slurs on Gab, a conservative social media site.
And last fall, several students complained that members of a "Trump Train" caravan shouted racist and sexist slurs while honking and driving through campus, allegations that have not been independently confirmed by university officials or police. At least one participant carried a Confederate flag on campus, according to photographs of the event.
‘This is depressing’
In a series of tense MTU Senate meetings, a small contingent of local residents have pushed back against characterizations of the Sept. 27 Trump rally and questioned the resolution dencounding hate speech and racism.
Randy McLellan, who lives in nearby Chassell, argued in a MTU Senate meeting that if students and faculty find the Confederate flag offensive, they should also try to ban all "communist China, Iranian and Syrian" flags from campus.
He noted a smaller group of counter protesters at the Trump rally had carried LGBT rainbow flags, which he called offensive to him.
Erik Killunen, a Calumet-area businessman who has led a local revolt against COVID-19 health orders, argued at a MTU forum that some Africans were complicit in slavery and suggested the university has a hard time recruiting female students because “many women simply do not enjoy the STEM subjects.”
Some students and faculty have called the whole matter embarrassing and expressed fear it could hurt the university’s ability to recruit talented students, no matter their race or gender.
Mayra Morgan, a doctoral graduate who now works for the university as an educational programs specialist, told the Senate she’d been the victim of racist barbs on multiple occasions. A native of Mexico, Morgan said Houghton-area residents have yelled at her “go back to where you came from” or “build that wall.”
Carlos Amador, a professor and MTU Senate secretary, told colleagues he’s been subjected to discrimination by university administrators but chose not to say anything about it at the time.
When he first moved to the region seven years ago, he was called an epithet used against Muslim and Arabs, Amador said. People who saw him speaking Spanish with his elderly grandmother suggested he was an “undocumented immigrant,” as if it “was a moment to be ashamed of,” he said.
“Any student of any political stripe is free in my class, but what I’m not able to do as a scholar is deny what I see as both factual and historical reality” of systemic racism, Amador said last week in a Senate meeting, denying accusations by area residents that he is pushing a “devious Marxist agenda.”
“Prospective students are watching us,” said Paige Short, an MTU Senate member who works in university marketing and communications. “We all need to be aware of the effect of our actions. Michigan Tech and the community, we exist commingled. Our jobs and our livelihoods will suffer if students stop coming here.”
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