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Sunday June 4th

Months after controversy fueled its formation, UNC's safety commission faces questions

<p>A pro-Confederate protester shakes hands with UNC Police officer Timothy Tickle after Tickle explained to protesters the boundaries of UNC's campus on March, 16, 2019.The pro-Confederate group then left campus. Photo courtesy of Daniel Hosterman.</p>
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A pro-Confederate protester shakes hands with UNC Police officer Timothy Tickle after Tickle explained to protesters the boundaries of UNC's campus on March, 16, 2019.The pro-Confederate group then left campus. Photo courtesy of Daniel Hosterman.

UNC's Campus Safety Commission has faced criticism from community members for what they see as poor scheduling and a lack of promotion.

The group, which was convened in April by interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, was meant to address a “crisis of trust.” The commission held 13 listening sessions over the last two months to give the community and UNC Police a chance to speak. 

Guskiewicz announced plans to convene the commission in an email last March, six days after the Heirs to the Confederacy, a group of individuals from out-of-town, came to campus carrying weapons. In the email, he said the intention of the commission is to “engage in dialogue, foster trust, enhance our collective good and advise me of their recommendations.”

Despite criticism, commission members and attendees have said they think some good communication has occurred. 

In response to accusations that the safety commission may not be truly intended to help campus safety, Frank Baumgartner, the commission’s faculty co-chairperson, told The Daily Tar Heel he wouldn’t be a member if he believed that were the case.

“I have a personal stake in this,” Baumgartner said. “As co-chair of this commission, if I had the feeling for a minute that the University was using this to kick the can down the road, I would resign immediately, and I would put my reputation on the line for that.”

'You already should know all of this’

The safety commission’s listening sessions took place from Sept. 25 to Oct. 16 with the intention of gathering information for a campuswide Town Hall meeting, though Baumgartner said the date of that meeting is still undecided.

Baumgartner said he’s aware some in the community are looking for action rather than listening, but that the sessions have helped commission members learn a lot of information they hadn’t previously known.

“I think the very first comment in the very first listening session was interesting,” he said. “It was, 'You already should know all of this. Why are you still listening rather than doing?' We know a lot of it, but we did learn a lot from the listening sessions, so I think it has been helpful.”

Of the 13 sessions, two were intended for a general audience. Other sessions, which were listed on the commission’s website, were intended for specific ethnic and racial groups, different religious communities, UNC Police and the LGBTQ+ community, among others.

For community members who wanted to provide feedback but couldn’t attend the scheduled meetings, the commission linked a feedback form on its website, as well as in a campuswide email on Sept. 24 and a post on UNC’s Diversity and Inclusion website, both of which were sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor. 

Both of those notices publicized three of the listening sessions. Baumgartner told the DTH each session helped commission members learn more about the serious emotional harm the community was feeling.

“The existing system was not working, and that's really our job: to shake up the system and make it work for all of the community members,” he said.

At a meeting of commission members set for Nov. 6, he said, they will distill and summarize information from each listening session. That information will then be made public and used in the planned Town Hall meeting.

Baumgartner believes the Town Hall meeting, which will include the interim chancellor and University administrators, will be a turning point for the best.

He said the commission has received feedback that the sessions were not well-publicized and that attendance was not where members had anticipated it. 

‘Persistent public relations’

Graduate student Calvin Deutschbein wrote a blog post last month arguing that the listening sessions are “a persistent public relations strategy by University officials.” 

According to the post, Deutschbein and other graduate students showed up at Oct. 3 to a graduate student-focused session, which was set to last from 6 - 8 p.m., according to the commission’s website.

With more than half an hour left in the scheduled meeting time, Deutschbein posted a video to Twitter showing the lounge was empty.

Manuel Hernandez, a graduate student and member of the commission, responded to Deutschbein’s post stating that attendance varies and members volunteer their time, so the commission made a decision to end early that night.

Deutschbein told the DTH he wanted to point out ways that greater community awareness could have been brought around the listening session.

“It seemed really intentionally engineered for there to be a listening session so the University could say there was a listening session, but so no one could actually go to it, and so there wouldn't be any actual listening at the session,” Deutschbein said.

One point Deutschbein’s post referenced was the commission’s Sept. 24 email, the only campuswide email sent about the listening sessions. That email only publicized three of 13 total sessions the commission has hosted and was sent less than a day before the first session it publicized.

Deutschbein also took issue with the Graduate and Professional Student Federation’s promotion of the sessions, including a GPSF tweet advertising the Oct. 3 session with an incorrect time.

GPSF President Chastan Swain said in an email that the organization couldn’t publicize the Oct. 3 session in its newsletter because it learned of the session too late, though it did advertise on social media.

Swain said members of the GPSF executive board were not able to attend the graduate student-focused session due to scheduling conflicts.

Deutschbein said he thought it was clear that community members wanted a police oversight force, which would have subpoena power and the ability to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

“I'd be more willing to believe that the Campus Safety Commission is about campus safety, or something, when I see that there are civilians with subpoena power over police officers, when there's a concrete commitment to force reduction or demilitarization of campus police officers and when there's investment in non-police campus safety,” he said.

Publicizing obstacles

Another community member left unsatisfied by the listening sessions was Michelle Horowitz, NC Hillel’s campus director for UNC. She said Hillel only found out about a session intended for the Jewish community through Maya Weinstein, Hillel’s graduate student programming coordinator and a commission member.

In an email, Weinstein told the DTH that while planning the listening sessions, some commission members, including herself, had advocated for reaching out to all of the groups to schedule the sessions based on their preferred times.

“As far as I know, none of the sessions were scheduled in coordination with any of the target groups,” Weinstein wrote. “They were simply put on the calendar, and then we did outreach to the main points of contact for the groups to ask them to help advertise their allotted time slot to their members.”

Horowitz said the commission never coordinated with Hillel on the listening session’s time and place. The session ended up being held on Oct. 15, during a Jewish holiday and two days before UNC’s fall break began. 

For that reason, Horowitz said, three Hillel members, including herself, were the session’s only attendants outside of a few commission members.

Despite the difficult timing, Horowitz thought the listening session was useful.

“I thought (the facilitators) asked good questions, and I thought that they really cared to hear,” Horowitz said. “There was only one student there, unfortunately, but they really wanted to know what he thought and what were the issues that were impacting him.”

Horowitz felt the commission members had more of a focus on the needs of other communities, such as those of color. She believes that before the session she attended, the members hadn’t realized how much these safety issues were also impacting the Jewish community.

Baumgartner said in an email that the commission has done its best with outreach and coordination with a range of groups, including by sending email announcements to the 800-plus student organizations on campus.

Sophomore De’Ivyion Drew, an undergraduate member of the commission, said she understood criticisms that the sessions weren’t well-publicized but believes the sessions themselves have gone well.

Drew said the sessions she facilitated had varying attendance. Around nine people were present at a session for UNC Police, she said, while around 50 attended a Black women-focused session.

Advertising has been an obstacle for the commission, Drew said, but it is open to the concept of listening sessions all year before it releases an annual report in May.

"I think that (the sessions are) accomplishing the goal, and the goal is to provide an open space for perspectives about campus safety to be heard and to be platformed and to be processed into solutions,” she said. 

Baumgartner said if the commission hasn’t made significant progress at the end of its first year in existence, he would think progress with the group was impossible, resign and ask the chancellor to disorganize the commission.

UNC spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny said in an email that the University and the commission take campus safety seriously, and are “committed to actionable outcomes based on the useful and important feedback from the listening sessions and conversations on campus.”

Peters Denny declined to provide further information about Guskiewicz’s view on the listening sessions’ effectiveness and said he is preparing to make an update on the commission’s work soon.


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