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At a Maryland college, concerns that ‘USA’ theme is too divisive after Trump’s election

Loyola University Maryland is a Roman Catholic, Jesuit private university located within the Archdiocese of Baltimore in the city of Baltimore. (Loyola University Maryland)
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On the morning before an annual celebration for the senior class at Loyola University Maryland, student leaders apologized for this year’s theme: “Party in the USA.”

“As an organization, we want to extend our deepest apologies to those that were hurt by this theme and the negative impact it had on them,” an email from the student government association to the Class of 2017 read. “Although it was not our intention to create such a divisive climate, we understand that the impact of this decision is much greater than our initial intention.”

Some students were shocked that a patriotic party could be considered “divisive,” and that an administrator had advised student leaders to reconsider it after the presidential election.

Emily Burke, a senior and president of the Loyola Republicans, said she was disappointed: “I was upset to see that that’s the standpoint the school was going to take — that they felt they needed to apologize in some way for being proud to be an American. The theme was supposed to be unifying, and it should have been.”

It was another sign that in the aftermath of the presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump, colleges are particularly unsettled places. In the days since the election, emotions have been raw at many schools. Anti-Trump protests erupted on some campuses.

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There were ugly incidents targeting minority students at many colleges, with slurs yelled, Muslim students shoved, white-supremacist fliers posted, people told to “go back to Mexico.”

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At a few schools, students destroyed American flags in protest.

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At Loyola University Maryland, several students said, the campus remained calm. The small private Catholic school is close-knit, said Bradley Schober, a junior who is a leader with the Loyola Republicans. He said people in his group are friends with Loyola Maryland Democrats and hang out together all the time.

Members of the senior class had chosen the “Party in the USA” theme, which is the title of a pop song, and planned to dress up in patriotic clothes and celebrate America for the Senior 200s, which marks the number of days left until graduation. In a photo from last year’s party, students wearing American flag shirts and bows in their hair posed smiling in front of a model of the Statue of Liberty, while someone dressed in Colonial attire was talking with friends nearby.

The student body president, and several other members of the student government association, did not respond to requests for comment. One referred questions to the university spokesman.

The Daily Caller reported that a senior administrator emailed student leaders that the theme sounded alienating, divisive and harmful, and another warned it might give students an opportunity to dress or act in an oppressive way.

Nicholas Alexopulos, a university spokesman, said those officials would not be available to comment, and he declined to provide the emails that went to students. He said in a written statement that “The ‘Party in the USA’ theme encouraged students to dress in ways that celebrate America. Loyola University Maryland supports and seeks events like this one where students celebrate their Loyola pride and our nation.

“Prior to the event, Loyola leadership contacted the Loyola Student Government Association (SGA) after learning some students and faculty expressed concern that there would be costumes that would be offensive — especially troubling at a time when so many are feeling anxious and uncertain.
“Loyola’s vice president for student development and the executive vice president contacted the SGA to recommend the SGA reconsider the timing of the theme of Senior 200s, and if they chose to keep the theme, consider a plan to ensure it would be welcoming to all in attendance.
“The SGA made a decision on its own to proactively contact the senior class to acknowledge the concerns of some of their classmates and to ask all members of the class to remain committed to respect for one another, open dialogue, and Loyola’s other core values as a Jesuit university.
“Loyola University Maryland is proud of our students for recognizing that this was an opportunity to strengthen a community where everyone feels welcomed, included, and supported. We continue to work as a university to ensure all student viewpoints are respected and heard, and we hope students continue to find ways to have constructive dialogue around the most important issues of our time.”

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The email from student government to the campus community read, in part: “There are those who see the ‘Party in the USA’ theme as a way for us to come together and celebrate all that the United States has to offer. However, we also recognize there are students who do not agree with this theme, given the current political climate and the rhetoric that still remains even after the election.”

The email emphasized that the party is meant to be inclusive and closed by urging students to “come as you are and come together,” in costume or not, uphold the school’s values and be respectful to all.

The executive board of the Loyola Maryland Democrats said the group wouldn’t comment on the Senior 200s because they had no role in the choice of theme and weren’t in contact with the administration or student government about changing it.

But they noted:

“As a political club on campus, we are acutely aware of the wide mix of emotions following the presidential election both on our campus and in our nation. In this moment of tension, our club stands united with students of all viewpoints and perspectives, races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We value upholding and promoting Loyola’s values, to focus on the common good of all people despite our individual differences. We continue to support increased public and bipartisan dialogue, and we welcome invitations for constructive conversation.”

On social media, the Loyola Republicans asked for equal treatment from the administration and faculty: “It should not be acceptable for professors to attack students and call them unintelligent and hateful because of their political ideology.” They wrote that they understand and support political dissent, especially in this political climate. “Nevertheless, we cannot support, nor ignore, the comments made about our nation. To call a theme of ‘America,’ one voted on by the senior class, as ‘alienating, divisive and harmful’ simply contradicts the founding principles our nation stands for.”

Students weren’t given the benefit of the doubt, they wrote, and “instead, the administration rejected an opportunity for us as a school, as a community and as a nation to come together, and immediately assumed the worst of its students.”

Lindsey Rennie, who graduated from Loyola in 2015, said she and several dozen other alumni had written a letter in support of the administration. She has seen comments on social media from some alumni who felt it was unpatriotic and said they would withhold donations to the school for the time being. But she said she and others feel the administration was staying true to the school’s core values as a Jesuit university, and they were proud of it.

“This is a school that promotes diversity and inclusion,” she said, and “the concerns of the administration were certainly well founded,” given the campus climate and events happening across the country after the election.

In response to a question, Alexopolus said he could not confirm or deny anything specific but said, “We have received a few reports of incidents of bias since the election. Loyola takes every report of bias very seriously.”

The letter to Loyola leaders reads, in part, “Loyola is meant to be a safe space for students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, and political views. But in the past two weeks alone, we have seen a growing trend across the country,” they wrote, referring to instances of slurs yelled and other harassment of minorities. “Much of this has been done in the name of America.”

“… When the administration of Loyola expressed concern to students in SGA about the theme of the senior event, we did not see it as an act against our country, but rather as an act for, and in solidarity with, Loyola’s students. The concern about changing the theme, we believe, was not to prevent people from being offended, but to maintain the safety of all Loyola students—physically and spiritually.”

Burke said she is hopeful that they can move forward and have open debates, with multiple political viewpoints represented. “I think that’s what the school has wanted,” she said.

The party went on, as scheduled. Some students wore red, white and blue. Some wore Donald Trump gear, some wore Hillary Clinton gear. And, Burke said, “Everybody had a good time.”