Western Washington University campus in Bellingham, Wash., on April 24, 2014. (Greg Gilbert/Seattle Times)

Classes were canceled Tuesday at Western Washington University after an alleged incident of hate speech on social media that threatened students of color, according to a message the school’s president sent to the campus community.

The threats came in the midst of a debate at the public university over an initiative to change the school’s mascot, Victor E. Viking, an angry-looking helmeted guy whose image has symbolized the school for nearly a century.

Some on campus said it could be offensive to non-white students, others were incredulous or angry about that idea, and back-and-forth continued on social media.

At some point in the past 48 hours, there were posts on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak that included hate speech and threats directed at people of color, said university spokesperson Paul Cocke. They’re not certain the two are connected, he said, “but we’re definitely looking into it.”

Both campus police and the Bellingham, Washington police department were investigating, Cocke said.

Bruce Shepard, the president, wrote to the campus community, “We need time to press the criminal investigation and to plan how, as a campus, we will come together to demonstrate our outrage, to listen to each other, and to support each other.  So, I have decided to cancel classes today in order to provide that time.

“Have no doubt: this is not a capitulation to those I described as trolls and lowlifes.  We are going after them.”

He said there was no threat to the campus generally, but “a threat to any one of us is an attack on all of us.”

Several colleges have shut down or issued alerts this fall over anonymous threats. Eastern Kentucky University closed for several days over graffiti threatening to “KILL ALL,” which came not long after a student at an Oregon community college walked into his classroom and fatally shot nine people. Two men were arrested after anonymous threats were made in the wake of protests over racist issues at the University of Missouri.

[Eastern Kentucky University shuts down over threat]

[Harvard evacuates four buildings after bomb threat; all are now cleared by police]

[Death threats at Howard, with references to Mizzou, under investigation]

The threats indicate the saturation of anonymous social media on campus, the ugliness of some of the conversations there, and the intensity of racial issues on campus as protests spread nationally.

For some students, finding offense in a Viking mascot was an indication that concerns about stereotyping had gone too far.

According to a story in the Western Front, the campus newspaper, student leaders had proposed changing the mascot after getting a letter from a communications studies professor,Michael Karlberg, that questioned whether the mascot reflected the school’s “commitment to diversity, our commitment to create a more safe and attractive and inclusive environment on campus.

“… I think this mascot also reflects a sort of hyper masculine, hyper violent sort of image which is doubly problematic. I think we really ought to reconsider,” Karlberg wrote.

A student leader told the Western Front she had concerns that the mascot didn’t “portray students of color” and could seem to exclude them.

Another student advocated for Western ferns as a mascot since they’re “plants and also non-violent.”

Reaction was intense.

One student leader tweeted that there had been a popular reaction among students saying the Viking was a positive representation of their students, and urged people to contribute to the debate.

Someone else posted, “Western students voted to use the Viking as the mascot in 1923, the same year the KKK was established in [Bellingham]. Coincidence?”

Another wrote, “Today in the news: Western considers changing mascot from viking to multiracial transgender stoner. More at 11.”

Several student leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Post. Two referred questions to a university spokesperson.

Members of the Black Student Union at Western did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post. They had a warning posted online:

“Hi Ya’ll

Classes have been canceled today due to hate speech on social media. It is currently being investigated, and campus is still operating, but PLEASE STAY OFF CAMPUS!! As threats have been made directly towards certain Black folks and the larger students of color population at Western.

STAY SAFE.”

In a blog post Sunday, Western’s president wrote that he didn’t think it was likely the university would change its mascot. Shepard mulled the arguments. In response to what he said was a common concern — that the Viking looks sinister and evil — he broke down the difference between university mascots and sports mascots.

“Decades ago, I was at Oregon State University and was part of the discussion of the mascot: a warm, cuddly beaver. The Athletic Program wanted a mean, vicious looking varmint to put on the side of football helmets. Hard to imagine how to make a beaver look evil but graphic artists are talented.” The athletics department got a mean beaver, the university kept the cute one.

He considered the arguments that “Viking history and culture is long and distinguished by great literature, art, poetry, and inventiveness,” and also that the culture had, like many others (“ours prominently included”) gone through some dark times of “violent conquest, enslaving, and the like.”

He said the most serious question, at the brink of of a turning point in both higher education and society at large, is “does a Eurocentric and male mascot point to the future we wish to embrace? Or to the past we would move beyond?”

Students, alumni and others have such powerful attachments to university traditions such as mascots that they shouldn’t make the decision lightly, he wrote.

And: “I must confess that I have some sympathy with several who have asked me: compelling or not, when it comes to addressing the persistent and daunting issues of injustice and oppression, is this where Western is going to focus its energies?”

 

Here is the full statement from the president Tuesday morning:

A message from President Bruce Shepard:

Yesterday, we observed social media being used for hate speech targeted at Western students of color.  I need to be VERY clear here: we are not talking the merely insulting, rude, offensive commentary that trolls and various other lowlifes seem free to spew, willy nilly, although there has been plenty of that, too.  No, this was hate speech.

These are likely crimes in my view (and in the view of those in the criminal justice system we immediately involved).   I cannot go into the details of an ongoing law enforcement investigation.  Other than to assure you that this investigation is the highest priority of our campus law enforcement colleagues.

We do not know if the perpetrators are Western students.  If not, they face the criminal justice system.  If so, they also face the criminal justice system.  And, when it comes to being associated with Western, I promise you it will not be for long.

Law enforcement has advised me of their assessment that, as the situation is currently understood, there is no threat to general campus safety.  However, and I trust you stand with me on this: a threat to any one of us is an attack on all of us.

We have welcomed the guidance of our students of color as to how else we might be supportive.  We have mobilized to offer support and to provide protection to those specifically targeted by the hate speech.  With disturbing social media content continuing through early this morning, students of color have advised me of their very genuine, entirely understandable, and heightened fear of being on campus.

We need time to press the criminal investigation and to plan how, as a campus, we will come together to demonstrate our outrage, to listen to each other, and to support each other.  So, I have decided to cancel classes today in order to provide that time.

Have no doubt: this is not a capitulation to those I described as trolls and lowlifes.  We are going after them.  Rather, the pause is necessary so that we may learn more as we advance the law enforcement investigation and, together, plan responses that will make us stronger.  In a phrase I often hear you use, it is because “Western Cares.”

While classes are cancelled, the university will continue to be open and operating.

Thank you for being there for all who are Western,

Bruce

Read more:

[Can colleges protect free speech while also curbing voices of hate?]