How Our AAUP Chapter Responded to Postelection Violence

When a student is attacked, how do we respond?
By Amy Hagopian and Eva Cherniavsky

Eighteen-year-old Nasro Hassan, a new first-year student at the University of Washington, walked out of her class at Mary Gates Hall at about 5:45 p.m. on November 15, 2016. It was dark and, this being Seattle in the fall, raining. It was also a week after the startling US presidential election. Like lots of people on American campuses, Hassan was looking down at her phone as she walked to the light-rail station. Unlike many others, however, she was wearing a hijab. As she walked, a man in a black hooded sweatshirt and dark jeans ran up to her with what might have been a glass bottle and slammed the object into the right side of her face, near her eye. He laughed as he ran off.

Police were called. Medics arrived, but Hassan preferred to go home with her brother, who had come to help. Later, she realized she was experiencing head trauma; her brother took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a concussion.

This article is about what happened (and didn’t happen) next.

Holding the University Accountable

Typically, in the wake of a crime on campus, the university would issue a “Notification of a Criminal Incident,” as required by the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act. But in Hassan’s case, that didn’t happen.

Within a couple of days of the incident, Hassan went to the Seattle office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for support. She was especially concerned about the UW’s lack of engagement with her case. CAIR sent a letter to the FBI asking for an investigation and, on November 28, held a press conference to announce a reward for information about the crime. CAIR officials also contacted the UW chief of police, who claimed Hassan had not provided enough information to make worthwhile a timely notification to the campus community.

The Seattle Times covered the November 28 press conference, and only then—more than a week after the attack—did the campus community learn of the incident. Following the Times article, discussion of the incident surfaced on the UW AAUP’s listserv, and members of the chapter’s executive board agreed that Hassan’s case raised some important and unanswered questions. The explicit intent of the Clery Act’s reporting requirement is to aid in the prevention of similar crimes, in part by alerting potential victims to protect themselves. Cases of aggravated assault must be reported, defined in the Clery Act by the nature of the weapon, the severity of the injury, and the assailant’s intent to cause serious harm. Why, then, after an incident that required the victim to seek medical treatment, had the campus community not been notified? Our AAUP chapter wrote a letter to the university president, Ana Mari Cauce, noting, “The possibility that the victim was targeted for wearing a hijab would seem to constitute a clear and present risk to other Muslim women on campus of which they should have been apprised. Had there been a timely notification that a victim wearing a hijab was assaulted with a bottle, that would have conveyed the essential message necessary to put potential victims on guard.”

Jasmin Samy, Washington CAIR’s civil rights manager, was particularly concerned about how the failure to announce the crime could have led to a loss of information. As she noted in a recent conversation with us, “The community was not notified. Evidence was lost, people who could have come up and remembered things. The announcement should have come out the same day, including the description of what the person was wearing. But the response was too late to be helpful.”

President Cauce agreed to meet with our AAUP team on February 24. We took careful notes at the meeting (and offered the vice president for media relations, who was present, an opportunity to edit our minutes for accuracy). During the meeting, we discussed the growing faculty unease in the current political climate and our dismay that the November 15 assault had come to our attention through a Seattle Times report of a CAIR press conference more than a week later rather than from our own administration. In the wake of this meeting, we wrote a letter to our campus faculty email list describing our conversation with the president. We reported that Cauce had acknowledged the presidential election had damaged the campus climate and that she had said, in the future, a similar incident would be handled differently: it would receive a timely report and likely be named as a hate crime. We posted the minutes of the meeting and our letter to the campus community on our AAUP chapter’s website.

Between the time of the Hassan incident and our meeting with Cauce, the UW College Republicans hosted a speech by then Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos in our main campus auditorium. During the event, held (astonishingly) on the evening of inauguration day, a Yiannopoulos supporter shot a thirty-four-year-old antifascist organizer and Seattle computer scientist in the stomach, resulting in nearfatal injuries. This incident, too, was discussed during our meeting with the president, since the UW police had failed to arrest the suspect over the last month, despite the shooter’s having attempted to turn herself in. These events raised additional concerns about the bases for consequential decisions by campus police, especially in the fraught postelection climate, as well as questions about whether and to whom the campus police are accountable.

Confronting Hate

The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported hundreds of incidents of hateful intimidation, harassment, and violence in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. Richard Collins III was stabbed to death on the eve of his graduation from Bowie State University by an admitted white supremacist while visiting the University of Maryland campus in May. The campus of Washington’s Evergreen State College was closed and evacuated during the last week of classes in response to a threat from a man who called 911 to say, “Yes, I’m on my way to Evergreen University now with a .44 Magnum. . . . I’m going to murder as many people on that campus as I can.” A recent graduate of Oregon’s Reed College, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, was stabbed to death in downtown Portland on May 26—along with another man—for standing up to Jeremy Joseph Christian, who was yelling hate speech at two young Muslim women on the light-rail train.

As white supremacists and other far-right agitators have become emboldened to act out in public spaces, campuses have become a particular target. Colleges and universities are perceived as incubators for progressive ideas, places where young activists are nurtured by sympathetic faculty. Indeed, such organizations as Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and the Professor Watchlist have been encouraging students and others to “expose and document” professors. While SPME seeks to expose faculty who support Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, the Professor Watchlist seeks more broadly to name faculty who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” But the effect of these familiar McCarthyite tactics is amplified in this historical moment, when “alt-right” discourse emanates from the highest office in the nation.

When our AAUP chapter asked for the meeting with President Cauce, we noted that academic freedom is imperiled if and when any university employees or students feel unable to move freely and safely on campus. Indeed, our friends at CAIR reported they are still hearing that women Muslim students at the university no longer move about freely—they plan their routes more carefully, and they travel in pairs or groups. “We hope the president will acknowledge the incident was serious,” Samy said, “and that the UW could have provided much more support for students. Nasro says she appreciates the support of the AAUP, but she wishes the UW police and administration had done more.”

CAIR has filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education for its failure to issue a timely warning to the campus community. Universities found to be in violation of the Clery Act face warnings, fines, suspension of federal aid, loss of eligibility for financial aid programs, and, possibly, declines in enrollment because of a diminished reputation.

The AAUP’s 2012 statement Campus Sexual Assault: Suggested Policies and Procedures recognizes that “the freedom to teach and to learn is inseparable from the maintenance of a safe and hospitable learning environment” and notes that most campuses fail to comply with the Clery Act. If a crime occurs that poses a serious or ongoing threat to the rest of the campus, colleges must “provide timely warnings” in a way likely to reach every member of the campus community. Such a warning should be triggered when the perpetrator is a stranger and at large, according to the Clery Center, a nonprofit organization that works to help colleges and universities understand and comply with the requirements of the Clery Act. Unfortunately, the UW is not a member of this organization.

What can AAUP chapters do? We can watch for, notice, track, and respond to incidents of harassment or violence as they occur on our campuses. While individual students and their associations have some power to get the attention of administrators and outside authorities, their voices are amplified if we join them. At the UW, Hassan worked with the Muslim Student Association, the Somali Student Association, and the Arabic Culture Student Association to get the attention of the UW administration. While UW administrators held a single meeting with representatives of these organizations, they made no commitments. When AAUP chapter members met with the president, we documented the meeting (which included some acknowledgment that the event could have been handled better) and distributed the minutes along with our comments.

In the wake of the shooting of the Milo Yiannopoulos protester, we staged a campus forum to hear from event participants on all sides and created a record of what happened. While concerns about the inaction of UW police persist, the efforts of our AAUP chapter and other campus organizations to document incidents of intimidation and violence linked to this political moment, as well as to reach out to victims in a public way, can help to make the campus police more accountable to the community they serve. The Trump administration’s Department of Education may or may not show any interest in CAIR’s complaint, but our AAUP chapter has demonstrated its commitment to promote an open campus where efforts by antiprogressive forces to foment fear and curtail academic freedom are reported, opposed, and, as far as possible, preempted. 

Amy Hagopian is associate professor of public health at the University of Washington, where she serves as secretary of the UW’s AAUP chapter. She directs an MPH degree program, Community Oriented Public Health Practice; her current research focuses on how the distribution of power undermines health, specifically through war, homelessness, poverty, inequality, and incarceration. Eva Cherniavsky is professor of English at the UW. She also serves as president of the Faculty Forward union on campus.