Students around the country have witnessed white nationalists of the Alt-Right as they increasingly target college campuses with hate-filled flyers, speaking engagements, and recruitment. Chip Brownlee writes about Auburn University’s response in The Plainsman.
College campuses across the United States have become the focal points of a growing trend of alt-right and white nationalist propaganda, hate speech and recruitment efforts — and Auburn is no different.
In a series of interviews, University leaders — including President Steven Leath, Student Government President Jacqueline Keck and Associate Provost Taffye Clayton, the University’s diversity and inclusion officer — spoke out against what they labeled as “hate and bigotry.”
“I think we’ve made a commitment and made it clear that these are not beliefs of ours, and it’s not a reflection of who we are,” Keck said. “I always think we should just take a stand against it.”
Since last fall, Auburn has become a target for alt-right action. Former Breitbart News tech editor Milo Yiannopolous, known for his blatantly sexist and Islamaphobic rhetoric, spoke on campus in October 2016. In the spring, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer fought the University in court over a speech in Foy Hall — a speech that ended up being filled with themes and thoughts that were overtly racist.
While most of the events on Auburn’s campus have lacked any serious violence, they haven’t been isolated or infrequent.
In the month before Spencer’s speech, a new “Auburn White Student Union” popped up online and distributed dozens of anti-Semitic fliers on campus. One of the “resources” listed on their website is a 4-hour YouTube video highlighting the “Case for White Nationalism.”
A similar trend has spread across other campuses. Controversial white nationalist speakers come to speak, and instances of leafleting and other attempts at recruitment precede or follow, attempting to take advantage of the controversy.
Clayton and Keck said hate and violence do not belong at Auburn and are being propagated by outside actors.
“I think that there are important and challenging and, unfortunately, violent things happening around the nation that are not specific to Auburn in particular,” Clayton told The Plainsman. “Auburn University is a family, a University that is guided by a set of core values. Among those values is diversity. We will continue to be wedded to our enduring values, and that’s what we represent.”
Leath agreed that Auburn is just one of many places experiencing these incidents.
“Auburn is a wonderful place with wonderful people, but we’re not immune from what’s happening throughout society,” Leath said. “Our goal is to deal with it responsibly and in a way that contributes to better understanding and intellectual growth.”
The University issued several statements affirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion during the Spencer events, as well, and went as far as to attempt to block the event because of administrator and police concerns over students’ safety.
The University also forced the White Student Union to remove University trademarks, and the group still hasn’t obtained official student organization status.
The conversation has continued over how to respond to these instances of racism, particularly after the Unite The Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in violence and the death of one 32-year-old anti-racism demonstrator who was run over by a car allegedly driven by a neo-Nazi sympathizer.
And over the weekend, a rising leader in youth alt-right circles, 19-year-old Nicholas Fuentes, who attended that rally, said he would be transferring to Auburn in the spring to “rally the troops.”
Fuentes has repeatedly said Islamaphobic and violent statements and espoused his desire for a white ethnostate on his Right Side Broadcasting Network show, “America First.”
The network is based in Auburn.
While Fuentes was accepted for the fall semester, he will have to re-apply for the spring because he didn’t accept that offer. The University hasn’t directly responded to Fuentes’ plans to transfer, which is commonplace.
Leath — now just three months into his new job as the University’s 19th president — will undoubtedly be faced with more issues like these in his time at Auburn.
On Tuesday, Leath told The Plainsman that the University will stand for “free speech and robust exploration of ideas,” but condemned racism and hate.
“The best thing we can do is make clear that we stand for respect, civility, integrity and equality and to do so in a thoughtful, peaceful manner,” Leath said. “The Auburn Creed is clear. Hate, racism and bigotry are not a part of Auburn.”
More generally, none of the three campus leaders directly named white nationalism or white supremacy as the culprit of the increased activity at Auburn or nationwide, which could be a mistake, said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is a Montgomery-based civil rights nonprofit that tracks hate groups.
“Stand strongly against it and talk about everything that has happened, acknowledge everything that has happened,” Brooks told The Plainsman. “The students already know what has happened.”
Leaving the movement simmering underground won’t work, Brooks said.
“It just runs the chance of letting the bad guys think they can get away with it,” Brooks said.
In addition to issuing the statements on diversity, the University has chosen to support student-organized attempts to counter the white nationalist speeches and incidents on campus with events featuring messages of inclusivity.
The NFL’s first openly gay player, Michael Sam, spoke on campus about his experience being a gay professional athlete only two days before Yiannopoulos came. Students organized a music festival on the Green Space, Auburn Unites, to counter Spencer’s event. Black student organizations led a peaceful march in protest.
“It is not a place that is unwelcoming,” Clayton said, “It is a place that gives purpose to getting better. There are indicators that we are serious about the mission.”
Clayton is also overseeing a new speaker series called “Critical Conversations” that seeks to highlight different viewpoints with frank, open and respectful debates.
As part of the “Critical Conversation” series, prominent figures from across the political spectrum will deliver lectures on free speech and intellectual diversity in public education. The first lectures will be with Cornel West, a liberal scholar, and conservative Princeton professor Robert George.
“It is vitally important, in the spirit of free speech, that our students come and expect that they may encounter individuals with views that are different from their own,” Clayton said. “Those that are more hate-riddled and violent are certainly things we are not talking about, and I think that it is important to make that distinction.”