Upwards of 50 students spent approximately four hours outside of University of Utah President David Pershing’s office Tuesday demanding he cancel a speaking engagement for Ben Shapiro, a right-wing political figure, that is currently slated for Sept. 27.
The protest was organized by the U’s chapter of Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán (MEChA), a leftist student group that seeks to make higher education more accessible to marginalized populations and, according to the national movement’s website, “strive for a society free of imperialism, racism, sexism and homophobia.” Other student groups, including the U’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Student-Union, joined MEChA.
Holding signs that read things like, “Y’all can’t do anything, or y’all won’t do anything?” protesters demanded Pershing come out of his office to address their concerns — which he did for just under 10 minutes.
“You’ve heard what I have written about our commitment to diversity,” Pershing said. “We believe that. We are strongly supportive of that.”
U spokesperson Chris Nelson said he wants students to realize that the U didn’t invite Shapiro, he is being brought in by a student group. To the U, it’s a matter of free speech.
“The policy of the university is that a fully-registered student group has the right, just like you do, to invite speakers … The jurisdiction we have is safety,” Pershing explained, as he was met with jeers.
One student, who asked not to be identified, responded sarcastically, “Normalizing hate speech makes me feel so safe.”
Another student told Pershing they were scared to go to class. He replied, “That’s bad.”
Erin Mariah Hight, one of the students protesting the event, challenged the U’s policy.
“If every student in this room threatened to pull their records from the university right now and you lost all of that tuition money, we know you would find a way to make it work,” Hight said. “Institutions find loopholes, and when they don’t find them, they make them. So make one.”
The student group holding the event is the U’s chapter of Young America’s Foundation, a conservative organization that describes themselves as “inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise and traditional values.”
The Facebook page of the public event says Shapiro will “take on leftist myths of white privilege, trigger warnings, microaggressions and diversity.” As of Wednesday morning, 738 people had RSVPed as going, while 711 were interested. Meanwhile, two pages organizing a counter-protest show that 432 plan on rallying and 1,644 are interested.
The former editor-at-large of Breitbart News and founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire has been met with backlash when he has spoken at other universities in the past.
California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), President William Covino attempted to cancel an event at the school, but backpedaled after being threatened with multiple lawsuits. Student protesters surrounded the building where Shapiro was speaking, not allowing attendees inside. Some students snuck in through the back doors and Shapiro spoke anyway. Afterward, protesters barricaded event-goers in until Shapiro left through a secret exit. Young America’s Foundation and Shapiro later filed a lawsuit against CSULA, saying the school violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Shapiro was banned from holding an event at DePaul University, a private institution, after violence erupted at a speaking engagement for Milo Yiannopoulos, a political commentator commonly associated with the alt-right.
He is scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, on Thursday. Officials expect a mass protest in response to the event and have arranged for an increased police presence. U officials and police officers plan to attend in an effort to develop their own security plan.
“We’re going to California to assess that situation and how they handle it, and the movement of the crowd, and bring back some of that here,” said U Police Deputy Chief Rick McLenon. “We will have every officer in our department on duty that day, and we have also been in contact with Salt Lake City and some outside resources to possibly assist with security for participants in the event. When I say participants, that’s both sides — so unbiased.”
As students remained outside of Pershing’s office asking for more time to speak with him, the president left the building with three police escorts. Protesters then focused their attention on talking to Vice President of Student Affairs Barb Snyder. According to U officials, Snyder was not in her office that day.
“University of Utah administration, it is a very interesting strategy to just walk away,” said one protester, who asked not to be identified, into a megaphone. “Please, give me advice on how to walk away from my identity.”
At one point during the sit-in, Associated Students of the University of Utah President Zach Berger and Vice President of University Relations Zoe Kozlowski sat down with protesters to listen to their concerns.
When the group realized they were not going to get face time with Snyder, they migrated to a Presidential Search Committee public hearing to receive input on Pershing’s replacement. The president announced earlier this year that he planned to retire after a highly publicized scandal between the school, University of Utah Health and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
As they were followed by police, the protesters filed into the law building’s Moot Courtroom carrying posters decrying Pershing’s lack of action in regard to the Shapiro event. Four of the students stood, each touching on how they would like to see a president that spends more time listening to minority populations at the U.
“Something I would like to see from administration, as well as the president’s office, is the initiative to address issues that affect marginalized students without the marginalized students having to come to the office and having to come and confront administration to make them address these issues,” said one student.
After the hearing, Patricia Jones, a member of the search committee and Utah Board of Regents, spoke personally with the protesters asking for further suggestions. Protesters pointed out the lack of diversity on the Presidential Search Committee. Of 20 members, only four are people of color. Geoffrey Landward, an assistant commissioner with the Utah System of Higher Education who is helping organize the hiring process, promised students that there would be a more diverse group included when interviewing candidates. Protesters said one of their main concerns, however, is what they view as the current administration’s lack of accountability.
In 2016, the U released a list of 13 initiatives the school was pursuing to improve the racial climate on campus. One student protester said they want to see further protection of marginalized populations at the U, holding a poster that read, “Don’t talk about the 13 initiatives.”
MEChA member Juan Salazar said, “The safety of the students should be considered before legal policies, because we pay tuition and that goes to the university.”