American University in Washington, D.C. (Jeff Watts, courtesy AU)

An American University leader responded to protests over racist messages posted online Thursday, deploring the language and sharply criticizing Yik Yak, the social media site where the comments appeared.

A group of students has been protesting after racist comments were seen on social media, concerned that they were being ignored by the administration.

To draw attention to the issue, the students shared screenshots of conversations on Yik Yak, an app that allows people within a community to trade messages anonymously online with the hashtag #TheRealAU, and demanded mandatory classes to teach students how damaging their comments can be.

[Students blast social media with screenshots of racist messages]

Early Thursday morning, Fanta Aw, assistant vice president of campus life, responded to their concerns:

The University takes issues of race relations seriously. We stand for an American University where people of all identities and experiences are understood, appreciated and fully included in the community and where equitable treatment and outcomes prevail.

We don’t believe a mandatory course will effect change as some students have suggested. We believe a multipronged approach is the answer and as an institution we are committed to creating an inclusive community. Here are steps taken to date:

First and most importantly, we encourage dialogue. We want all students to work with us and with one another to effect the climate on campus. Orientation for all incoming first year students includes diversity and micro aggression discussions to set the tone for interactions as students proceed through their years at AU. Residence hall assistants are provided training and encouraged to create inclusive communities. This semester, we stepped up our work with the faculty to develop their ability to discuss issues in the classroom in an inclusive and respectful way. Our goal is to further enhance these curricular efforts over the next few semesters. In 2012, we opened our Center for Diversity and Inclusion which serves as a liaison for students, faculty and staff and provides resources to enhance education, outreach and advocacy.

Yik Yak is problematic because it’s anonymous and it allows people to hide behind offensive and hurtful comments. These posts are acts of cowardice and we hope people recognize them as such. Although the university doesn’t have the ability to take posts down, any student who feels a threat to their safety is strongly encouraged to report it to Public Safety and/or the Dean of Students Office. We have the resources and procedures to work with students. Students and the community have the power to “down vote” any post and get it permanently deleted with just 5 down votes. As an institution, we are a microcosm of the larger society and we recognize there is important work to be done on race relations.

Many universities have struggled with Yik Yak after offensive or frightening comments are posted there. A student was arrested at Emory recently for a shooting threat made on the app, and federal officials have launched an investigation into the way threats were handled at the University of Mary Washington.

Sasha Gilthorpe, president of AU’s student government, said she thought issues that had always existed on campus became far more salient as the Black Lives Matter movement spread nationwide last year after a black teenager was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. “When students were protesting about Ferguson you could feel tension a lot more. It was really jarring for a lot of people, but it spurred people into action.”

Then the racist comments began appearing. “For students of color, it confirmed what they already believed,” she said, that the campus was not nearly as welcoming as they had hoped. “For white students it was a real wake-up call.”

She was shocked when she first saw the screenshots from Yik Yak, she said; she hadn’t realized how serious a problem the campus had.

Students are now writing what will be mandatory training in diversity issues for student-government leaders, she said, something they hope might ultimately be expanded to the entire student body.

Gilthorpe said she received an e-mail from Provost Scott Bass on Wednesday, but as it went to student leaders and not the whole campus, she said many people are unaware of efforts school officials are making to address the problem.

He wrote: “Over the past year, like many cities and campuses across the nation, our campus has faced tensions and insensitivities related to racial diversity. These experiences have led us to affirm our commitments to diversity, inclusion, and freedom of expression.  Meaningful learning opportunities have arisen from these experiences. Many students, faculty, and staff have participated in various town hall meetings, panel discussions, peaceful protests, teach-ins, and class discussions. These events have been enlightening, cathartic, filled with spirited discourse, and also have demonstrated our need for greater understanding of issues related to race, equity, bias, civil discourse, and other pertinent topics.

“This year, ongoing attention is being given to advancing campus diversity and inclusion on many fronts …” He outlined some efforts on the academic side, including “unconscious bias training” for administrators, faculty and staff; an online resource for faculty on creating an inclusive classroom; diversity committees being created; ongoing dialogues about diversity; and efforts to recruit and keep students and staff from underrepresented minority groups.

Bass wrote: “In 2006, 7% of the entering first-year class were underrepresented minorities, 2% were first-generation-in- college, and 10% were Pell Grant eligible. In fall 2014, 23.2% were underrepresented minorities, 11.4% were first-generation in college, and 20.2% were Pell Grant eligible. This progress continues to inspire us to cultivate a campus that is welcoming to all students …”

Gilthorpe feels university leaders need to ensure that everyone knows about the efforts they’re  making – and that they need to do more. “I think they recognize how hurtful this is for a lot of students, but it’s difficult to put the onus on an administrator: ‘This is now your responsibility – what can we do to fix this?’ ”

Her sense is that the administration is very concerned about the messages, but is quick to say it happens on many campuses and isn’t unique to AU.

“You see this everywhere – which is heartbreaking in a lot of ways,” she said.

“It isn’t just a problem that AU has, but that doesn’t make it any less AU’s responsibility to do something about it.”

Read more:

How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?

Emory student arrested for shooting threat posted on Yik Yak

Feminists say they were threatened on Yik Yak