Racial epithets, including the N-word, spoken recently by a student senator during a meeting and written in chalk on a sidewalk prompted University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman to express indignation in a message sent Thursday to all students, faculty and staff.
“We have experienced recent incidents of racial and ethnic intolerance and insensitivity — incidents that have brought pain to all of us who care about the university and the people who make it special, and particularly to those of us against whom they were addressed,” he wrote.
“The use of the N-word and insensitive racial impersonations are the recent incidents that demand our immediate attention.”
Cameron Murphy, a masters student in biochemistry and a graduate student in nutrition and a member of the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, will soon have a chance to defend himself at a hearing before the student senate executive committee regarding statements he made at a Nov. 13 meeting while discussing a proposed resolution. The full student senate would then decide whether to remove him from office.
Student Sen. Annie Himes, who proposed the hearing, said she tried to stop Murphy's racial slur-laden speech at the Nov. 13 student senate meeting but was told she could not interrupt because of senate debate rules.
She said Murphy used the N-word while quoting comedian Chris Rock and that he also criticized the university’s Mexican American Student Association for complaining about students’ use of sombreros during homecoming skits at the university.
“He was allowed to go on until he felt he was done,” Himes said. “This was definitely very offensive and racist.”
She said she feels it is important for senators to speak up.
“By not doing anything, we would have been not doing our job,” she said. “It’s a testament to our university that there’s been such a reaction in favor of cultural literacy, tolerance. I think it speaks volumes with where the university’s at with this kind of speech.”
The Journal Star was unable to reach Murphy on Thursday.
UNL spokesman Steve Smith said Perlman's message also was motivated by other racially charged incidents, including the discovery this week of the N-word written in chalk on a sidewalk near the Nebraska Union.
“This doesn’t happen often here, but one is too many,” Smith said.
University efforts to address underlying attitudes that have led to the incidents include a town hall at the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center last month to discuss the campus climate, Smith said.
The university also hired a diversity consultant who spoke to students, faculty and staff during forums Nov. 14 and 15.
“This conduct doesn’t represent the values of UNL,” Smith said. “This university is devoted to fostering an environment that respects diversity of all kinds in all forms.”
Andre Fortune, director of the Gaughan Center, said he’s heard from several minority students about racial incidents at the university and attended a follow-up ASUN meeting Wednesday night to show support for them. He said last week’s statements by Murphy reflect a larger societal acceptance of the use of racist terminology.
“I don’t feel there’s something unique happening on our campus,” he said. “I would hope that our campus community reinforces the statements by our chancellor.”
During his speech at last week’s student senate meeting, Murphy expressed his opposition to a resolution pledging — not requiring — student senators’ support to stop using derogatory language in their everyday speech. He criticized the resolution as an attack on free speech.
“The resolution was never about a restriction of speech,” said Claire Eckstrom, the student senator who introduced the resolution, which the group passed. “It was about choosing to exercise our first amendment rights in a respectful, responsible way that reflects the positive environment that the university strives for.
“It’s ironic that the resolution was written specifically to raise awareness for the exact situation that has occurred as a result of it.”
In his letter, Perlman concluded: "I am deeply hurt that ... this language has been used here, for purposes I can't imagine and in venues where civil discourse and its values are honored. We don't need to debate any nuance of free speech to conclude such language is harmful, despicable, and intolerable.
"To those few of us who seem indifferent to the boundaries of basic common decency, I refer you to the fate of those who march on the wrong side of history. To the rest of us, I urge us not to remain silent or indifferent, but to confront and speak out against such outrages and embrace those against whom they are directed. I know we are not the only place where these actions have occurred. But I ask all of you to rise up and say, 'Not here, not now.'"