University of Utah launches anti-racism task force

Recent incidents of racially targeted graffiti and flyers on campus prompted the move, according to a U. spokesman.

(Tribune file photo) University of Utah administrators announced on Thursday the creation of an anti-racism task force. University of Utah students walk around campus in April.

University of Utah administrators announced the creation of a campus anti-racism task force on Thursday in response to recent acts of racially-motivated graffiti and campus disruptions.

According to a letter by U. President David Pershing and senior vice presidents Ruth Watkins and A. Lorris Betz, the Salt Lake City campus “stands against racism in any form.” Membership of the panel, they said, has not been finalized.

“Our anti-discrimination policies are robust, but we recognize that we need to take stronger actions,” the letter said. “As leaders, we hold ourselves accountable to ensure that the U. is a place where all are welcomed and valued, and where learners from all backgrounds prosper.”

In August, at least two signs were posted on campus with text that said “Stop the Blacks,” listed unverified crime statistics and advertised a white nationalist website. Those responsible for the signs were not identified.

And earlier this month, vandals painted a racial slur targeting African-Americans onto the interior of the construction site for the U.’s new Carolyn and Kem Gardner Building. Three juvenile suspects, described as area high school students, were later arrested on suspicion of committing the vandalism.

Pershing’s letter specifically cited those incidents in announcing the task force, as well as a broader need to increase dialogue between those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“We, as a community, need to do more to address incidents of racism, bias, and hate,” the letter stated.

U. spokesman Chris Nelson also pointed to the recent speech by conservative writer and commentator Ben Shapiro, which drew large crowds of supporters and protesters and led to two arrests after a series of scuffles.

While Shapiro’s remarks did not include any overt acts of racism, Nelson said, the charged rhetoric of the speaker, supporters and opponents raised the issue of balancing free speech and civil dialogue on campus.

“We’re becoming a much more diverse campus. That said, it’s still Utah — it’s still primarily a homogeneous, white community,” Nelson said. “We have kind of an added responsibility to make sure we’re looking very closely at these issues.”

Nelson said the task force would likely include between 10 members and 20 members. And campus administrators are looking at ways to work more closely with student clubs to be better prepare for appearances by controversial speakers such as Shapiro, who was hosted by the U.’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter.

The U. spent roughly $25,000 on security for the Shapiro event, though those costs were offset by noncampus law enforcement agencies that assisted with policing it.

Nelson said currently no plans exist to charge student clubs for the cost of heightened security at events. But the U. is looking at ways to mitigate campus disturbances without discouraging or encouraging controversial speakers.

“We’ll just continue to have to look at each one on a case-by-case basis as it comes forward,” Nelson said.