Ruling from Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals could affect OU Bias Response Committee

By Matt Welsh

A decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Michigan Bias Response Team would produce an “objective chill” and quell on-campus speech, violating the First Amendment. The ruling could have implications for the OU Bias Response Committee, which has similarities to Michigan’s now-defunct Bias Response Team.

The September 2019 decision came from a lawsuit brought by Speech First, a free speech advocacy organization, against Mark Schlissel, in his capacity as the University of Michigan president, challenging the University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team. According to the suit, Michigan’s response team acted as an “informal resource to support students who feel they have experienced bias in the University community, to refer them to other campus resources as appropriate, and to educate the University community with respect to issues related to bias.”

The Michigan Response Team did not have formal power to punish bias incidents. However, the suit claimed, the response team could refer potential bias incidents to police. Additionally, the response team invited those involved in bias incidents to speak with the team. The Sixth Circuit’s opinion said the power of referral and the implicit consequences of refusing a voluntary appearance when invited produced an “objective chill” over speech.

The case was settled after it was remanded to the district court, according to MLive. The appeal to the Sixth Circuit came after District Court Judge Linda V. Parker initially denied Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction, which would have stopped the University of Michigan’s use of the Bias Response Team. In the denial of the preliminary injunction, Judge Parker wrote the chilling of speech was subjective and agreed with the University of Michigan that the response team was not a disciplinary body.

“The trial judge didn’t think that Speech First had any standing in this. It’s a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit and two of them disagreed with the trial judge,” said Joey Senat, associate professor at Oklahoma State University’s School of Media and Strategic Communications.

“In other words, they agreed with Speech First and said, ‘We think it does have standing’… It had to do with whether (Speech First’s) members could face punishment with this.”

The eventual settlement between Speech First and the University of Michigan ended the Bias Response Team but allowed for a Campus Climate Support body. According to the Campus Climate Support website, the “CCS is not a disciplinary body, cannot impose discipline, and does not require participation in any aspect of CCS’s work.”

The decision could have implications for the OU Bias Response Committee.

Michigan’s response team shared similarities with OU’s response committee, a part of the OU Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The purpose of the committee, according to its website, is to “evaluate and deliberate on bias and discrimination reports.”

The University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team did not have formal punishment abilities. However, the Sixth Circuit found the response team’s ability to make referrals to the police about reported conduct was a consequence that objectively chilled speech.

OU’s Bias Response Committee website lists its members. Members include Dianne Brittingham, director of residence life, Sherri Irvin, associate dean of the graduate college, and Elizabeth Woollen, chief of OU police.

Adam Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said the police chief’s presence on the committee may portray a purpose of punishment of speech.

“I don’t think it’s going to help the way a university presents a bias response team in a non-punitive manner if they have police sitting on the team itself,” Steinbaugh said. “I think that if you are a student and you see a bias response team and there’s a police officer on it, that’s going to sound a lot more like the team has a law enforcement or punitive purpose and not an educational or resource purpose.”

When asked about the implications of the Michigan case, the University of Oklahoma released a statement on the Bias Response Committee:

“OU’s Bias Response Committee plays a critical, but advisory, role in developing strategies to improve campus climate and support diversity and inclusion efforts on campus. OU requests feedback on all matters affecting campus climate to accurately monitor the climate to make appropriate changes – the Bias Response Committee helps in achieving this goal. The Office of Institutional Equity evaluates reports of discrimination and harassment – nonconfidential reports that are not actionable are referred to the Bias Response Committee for follow-up. The Student Code of Rights and Responsibilities acknowledges that the University cannot punish or censor student speech based on its content. However, speech that would potentially harm members of our community, including fighting words, incitement, true threats and proscribable harassment or other speech acts unprotected by the First Amendment, are prohibited.”

Senat said Woollen’s presence on OU’s Bias Response Committee clashes with the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

“If the police chief is on it, and these other vague terms (on the committee website), seem to fall closely to what the Sixth Circuit disagreed with,” Senat said.  “In other words, that can have a chilling effect on speech when it seems to have a threatened punishment. If the response team submits a report to an office or somebody that can expel a student or arrest a student for some perceived violation of speech, then I think that would be what the Sixth Circuit was frowning on.”

The decision from the Sixth Circuit is in a separate jurisdiction than the Tenth Circuit where the University of Oklahoma is located. However, Senat believes the decision could affect the Tenth Circuit.

“Of course, it’s not binding on the Tenth Circuit, which we’re in, but it can certainly be persuasive to judges and certainly a free-speech group would use it in an argument,” Senat said. “The reasoning that the majority of that three-judge panel used would be in their favor.”

Steinbaugh said the Michigan decision will influence universities throughout the country and inspire inspection of bias response teams.

“I think (the decision) requires universities to look at how they are framing and how they are presenting their bias response teams,” Steinbaugh said. “Are they presenting it as a solution that is going to entail initiating investigations or imposing discipline on students? If so, that is going to run that into questionable First Amendment territory. Are they instead, creating systems so that universities can respond with resources to the impacted students? That might be a better way to address it.”

“There is a long tradition on American campuses of speaking out against bias or some back and forth in regard to what can or can’t you say about these various marginalized groups,” said Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor in the literacy, culture and international education division at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is by no means new. I think what is newer is, first of all, we have more diverse campuses.”

As a part of this new diverse atmosphere, Ben-Porath said the response to bias on campus has changed.

“There is more attention being paid to it and some of this attention has to do with the greater diversity and the greater visibility of diversity on college campuses,” Ben-Porath said.

“Whereas historically student and some others were mostly focusing on the permissibility of speech… This was more like the focus during the Vietnam War or some prior eras when there was more intense attention given to this matter,” Ben-Porath said. “Now more of the attention is given to what are we allowed to say, what is permissible on a college campus and what is the impact. This is one change that the students are just thinking more about the impact of words.”

Ben-Porath said colleges in the past, and sometimes currently, say they do not have much leverage to counteract racist or heinous speech. Ben-Porath said this reasoning has not met today’s expectations.

“This is insufficient for many students, and I think for good reason. They come back and they say, ‘Wait, fine it’s protected but see what it’s doing, see the impact.’” Ben-Porath said. “Campuses are grappling to figure out more ways to maintain the protection for legally protected speech but still do something more, because they recognize as a result of protests by students, that it is not enough to say, ‘Stop complaining, it’s legally protected speech. There’s nothing we can do.’ It’s not enough if you want to maintain an inclusive learning environment.”

Ben-Porath said these higher expectations on campuses are the result of changing norms on campus.

“The norms are evolving, as we are seeing. There is a generational change in the attention that the students are giving to the need to attend the concerns or the marginalization or the opportunities afforded to various student groups on campus,” Ben-Porath said. “I think the changing norms are reflecting a growing commitment to realizing democratic values such as inclusion and equality in the younger generation of students.”

Steinbaugh said that universities have a responsibility to students to facilitate an inclusive atmosphere.

“I think that universities have an obligation, not just legally, to address situations that are going to make it difficult for students to live and learn in a positive campus environment. A university should not be faulted for listening to students who say, ‘Hey, these are the situations that I am encountering, what are you going to do about that or how can you help me?’” Steinbaugh said. “The question then becomes is the university able to respond to those complaints in a manner consistent with their First Amendment obligations.”

However, Senat said the First Amendment was geared to protect the very speech that bias response committees face.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has even said public university campuses are a marketplace of ideas. And in that marketplace are going to be ideas expressed that make people uncomfortable or they outright hate, that they disagree vehemently with an idea expressed by someone else,” Senat said. “That’s what happens in a marketplace of ideas. That’s what the First Amendment is intended to protect. We don’t need it for speech that’s popular that everybody agrees with. We need it for speech that’s often radical and makes people angry.”

Behind “The Call”

By Matt Welsh

When winter weather looms over the forecast, the most influential members of the OU community gather to listen to Kevin Kloesel.

Kloesel is never off the grid. He has backup power and internet at his home. He is always within reach of a phone and computer.  He refuses to board a plane without wi-fi. His annual vacation starts the Thursday before OU-Texas and ends that Sunday.

Kloesel, born and raised in Austin, has a deeply personal reason for the timing of his annual vacation.

“That week, that particular week in October, is very painful. I love this place. I love the job. I love the people. I love working with athletics,” Kloesel said with a deep sigh. “But I also worked in athletics at UT. I love the people. I still have friends there… My two lives are in these two places, and I love them both. It absolutely makes me sick to see the hatred and the venom.”

Kloesel dislikes the venom so much he plans his vacation destinations away from the rivalry.

“I will leave this place and get as far away as I can Thursday through Sunday of Texas – OU weekend,” Kloesel said.

The call to cancel classes, made by OU’s vice president of operations and president, is based on information provided by the Emergency Response Team, a group of senior campus leaders including Kloesel.

The decision to cancel classes is a part of the emergency operations plan, which features “annexes.”

“Every annex is the playbook for the specific situation,” said Kloesel, who moved to his current role in 2014 after serving as an associate dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. “We have one for tornadoes, we have one for winter weather, etc. So that annex describes the playbook as soon as I see a threat, and in this particular case a threat of winter weather, weather that’s 24 hours out, a week out, whatever it is.”

As Kloesel follows the playbook, he updates the Emergency Response Team and other members of the OU community. In the three to five days before the weather event is projected to occur, he sends out a daily briefing with forecast updates.

Kloesel’s forecasting resources include public forecasts by the National Weather Service and private forecasting services purchased by the university. He can analyze this data at the National Weather Center, where he has an office, or at a workstation in a conference room in the Nuclear Engineering Laboratory on Asp Avenue. However, in case of inclement weather events during off-hours, he has similar resources at his home with backup power and internet for good measure.

Kloesel uses these tools to forecast the event’s effects across the Norman area.

“Winter weather especially is very difficult. Winter weather doesn’t touch everyone equally. No two people are directly impacted the exact same way in winter weather,” Kloesel said. “We may have an area of Norman that gets snow, and an area of Norman that gets sleet, and an area of Norman that gets freezing rain. It can be that different across small distances.”

“Make the call!”

Students post, tweet and snap the annual rallying cry to cancel classes every time the possibility of winter precipitation enters the forecast.

Bradon Christian, a senior at OU, said the call to cancel class is always a welcome decision.

“A lot of the times, I’m hoping that they do,” Christian said. “Any time I can get an extension on a paper or an assignment, that’s good.”

Kloesel said the most desired action in response to winter weather events is clear.

“I’ve never ever in all of my years here, have ever seen a text, a tweet, an email or a phone call that says, ‘Kevin, please, please, please, let’s have school tomorrow. Please let’s have school tomorrow.’ Not a one,” Kloesel said.

The pleas crescendo as the Emergency Response Team members use Kloesel’s forecast to discuss how the event will affect different aspects of campus.

“(The team) includes every aspect of this campus from executive leadership, marketing and communications, facilities maintenance, parking and transportation, student life, emergency preparedness, police and housing,” Kloesel said. “Almost every element that could be touched by weather is involved… in providing information to the vice president of operations and the president of the university to inform any decision on this campus relative to weather.”

In the day before the event, Kloesel increases communication with the Emergency Response Team, with roughly three updates during the day.

“Winter weather doesn’t typically manifest exactly what is going to happen until hours before it occurs, and the decision is something that we like to make ahead of time,” Kloesel said. “So, when we’re making the decision, there typically is a huge amount of uncertainty associated with the forecast and that makes it all the more difficult, especially when people are begging and wanting school to be closed.”

The night before the event, the Emergency Response Team convenes in person or electronically to determine if any action should be taken.

“We get together the night before… to try to decide are we making the decision now, is there is enough information to do that? Or are we going to wait until say 4, 5, 6 in the morning to see what happens?” Kloesel said. “If we’re still at 8 o’clock at the night before, and we’re not quite sure this is going to happen, then we’ll reconvene at 4 o’clock in the morning if we have to, to try and get the word out before.”

The meeting to discuss canceling class tends to come after Norman Public Schools and Moore Public Schools release their decision, ratcheting up the pressure for OU to cancel classes.

Kloesel said Norman and Moore Public Schools make their decision with different factors in mind than the OU administration.

“What may impact the city of Norman from a Norman Public Schools standpoint may not directly impact us because the decisions are different,” Kloesel said.

Kloesel said public school districts often have buses running at 4 a.m. which is too early to make a decision the morning of the event. Students may have to stand at cold bus stops for prolonged periods, he added.

Though OU does not assess the same factors as public schools, Kloesel said the university does take into account their decision.

“We know that if Norman and Moore are closed, and on and on and on, well now we have families who have students that are going to be home,” Kloesel said. “Can we make the decision early enough so that they can arrange for daycare or not? Is it something where we think it’s dangerous enough whether we want our parents to stay home with their kids? Those kinds of things all go into that agonizing discussion.”

If the Emergency Response Team does feel there is enough information for a decision to cancel classes, the goal is to make the decision before 10 p.m., if possible.

“We try to (release the cancellation decision) before the 10 o’clock newscast. If we can get a closure decision into the 10 o’clock news cycle, that’s optimal,” Kloesel said. “Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t based upon how uncertain we are about the forecast.”

But if there is not enough information, the team will reconvene in the morning.

“We have the luxury of waiting because we have a different set of needs and different set of circumstances (than other institutions),” Kloesel said.

Once the vice president of operations and president agree to cancel classes, Kloesel follows the annex to alert the OU community in tiers through email.

“There’s a group of people that are on this email tree. That group of people is, of course, OU leadership emergency team,” Kloesel said. “Then there are folks that are somewhat in the need to know.”

Those in the “need to know” are the university contacts for any university or campus event. These contacts are contained in a binder Kloesel carries with him, which holds the details of every event on campus for the next several days.

After alerting the top two levels of the email tree, Kloesel utilizes RAVE, the emergency notification system for the university. The new system, launched Aug. 9, sends texts, emails, and phone calls to the 48,221 individuals in the system, according to Kesha Keith, director of media relations.

As the system sends out notification, Kloesel also tweets additional information from the OU Emergency Preparedness Twitter account.

The phrase “the call” originates from this notification style of a pre-recorded phone call from the president of the university, most recently President Boren. However, those days of a pre-recorded message may be over.

In recent years, former President Gallogly did not record a message, and interim President Harroz has yet to do so.

“From a practical emergency standpoint, in terms of streamlining what we do, we want the information to go out as quickly as possible, and that is not a quick solution,” Kloesel said.

However, some students still miss the recorded voice message, despite the time it adds to the notification process.

“That’d be nice to have,” Christian said. “It seems a little bit more personal. Like you took the time to do it for us to record that.”

As the scrutiny of school cancellations builds, Kloesel maintains the focus of the Emergency Response Team never waivers.

“There will always be those instances where we’ll be wrong, too. We know that. We are not going to be right every single time. But we are never going to make a decision that we know would compromise life safety. Ever.”

Of course, the agonizing decision to some is perceived differently by others.

Christian’s reaction to hearing “the call”?

“Hell yeah… Hell yeah.”

A Conversation with Eric Benson

By Matt Welsh

Eric Benson, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, wrote a feature story on Buc-ee’s and founder Beaver Aplin.

MW: What is your background? How did you get to the Texas Monthly? I saw that you were originally from New York.

Eric Benson: Yeah, I was born and raised in New York City. I moved to Austin six years ago and started writing for the Monthly five years ago. My path in journalism was I graduated from college and moved to Argentina for a year. I worked for a little English-language newspaper down there, writing a variety of things that not a lot of people read. I then moved back to New York and was an intern at Harper’s Magazine, which was a great kind of journalism boot camp. From there, I became the fact-checker at New York Magazine. I was in New York for four years as a fact-checker and then as a baby editor, doing research for a writer and doing some editing of shorter stuff for the front-of-the-book section.

Basically, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write what I guess we call now long-form features. That wasn’t really going to happen in the kind of time I wanted it to happen at New York Magazine. It was an entry-level job that I had and then next-stop-after-entry-level job. It was going to be tough for me to be a feature writer there. So, I quit. I thought I could make it as a freelance writer. When I was doing that, I also wanted to move to a place where it was a little cheaper to live and to a place that was sort of exciting. I had been thinking about Austin for a while. Through the years, I had become friends with some of the writers at Texas Monthly. So, I thought that could be a home for me as a writer. I moved down here. I did not have a job at Texas Monthly. I did not get anything into the magazine for the first year I lived here. I was writing and got features in a bunch of different places. I got my first assignments for the Monthly and was writing pretty consistently for them from the summer of 2014 through the end of 2017 as a freelancer. First as a just straight-up freelancer, getting paid story to story and then having a year-long contract in 2016 and part of 2017. I got on staff at the beginning of 2018, and that’s where I’ve been since.

MW: That’s a pretty eclectic background. How did you balance all of that? How did you approach that style of career not necessarily working in one spot?

EB: When you’re a freelancer, you write for wherever you can get a story. I had done some freelancing while I was at New York. The first few features I wrote, I made nothing on. It was all for places that didn’t pay but they would publish… The first real glossy feature I had was for Men’s Journal, which was a feature about the astronaut corps after the end of the shuttle program. That was still when I was working in New York. When I left, it was really just finding an idea and then finding a place that could take it. In the case of a place like Texas Monthly, finding a place where I could continue to write for, where I could forge good relationships with editors, and where not only was I taking them pitches but they would bring me ideas, too. That’s how it went.

I’ve never really geared my writing toward a specific publication. Certain places and certain pieces, I would write differently. I wrote quite a bit for Men’s Fitness. So, you can imagine a feature on why older athletes are more successful today is going to be written in a slightly different way than a ride-around profile of Terrence Malick. But generally, where I’ve written for has been me having an idea and finding a publication that will take it.

MW: About this Buc-ee’s story, how did you pick the angle you wanted to go at with this story? It’s a big story, it also has a lot of different aspects to it. How did you decide you wanted to approach this story from the owner’s point of view through a historical lens?

EB: That was a story Texas Monthly asked me to do. We had an editor here, who was the editor on the piece, who had been looking for stories. I think (the editor) actually just called up Buc-ee’s headquarters and asked to speak to Beaver, who is the CEO. Since Buc-ee’s had become a pretty big thing over the last 15 years, Beaver had not done a lot of press. There had been quite a few stories in local and industry press about Buc-ee’s, but it was pretty rare that you saw a quote from Beaver. The big exception was a story for Forbes that Beaver had participated in. Beaver really liked Texas Monthly, and that was one he wanted to do. I came into the article at that point. Beaver was on board, and we wanted to a story on Buc-ee’s. We had this guy who hadn’t been really press friendly who was going to give us access. The fact that it was going to be a profile of him, or that it was going to have elements of a profile, was sort of baked into the cake from the start.

I’ve written a lot of profiles. That’s also how I approach a story anyway. There were certain things that I know that a profile needs. A profile needs themes. If I am profiling someone, I want to see them in a bunch of different environments. I knew that I was going to need to go to a store with Beaver. That was the first thing that was clear. I wanted him to show me around one of his stores. I really wanted to go to the headquarters to see what was going on there and to see what Buc-ee’s headquarters was like. There were only three times I saw him. One time, which was the first time, he just happened to be in Austin. We got some coffee. We just talked about what the piece would be and a little about his life. A lot of that came in when I went to a Buc-ee’s with him and spent the day at his office in Lake Jackson.

MW: What were those talks like with him? It seems like he was hesitant to talk with you in the sense he didn’t want to be the focal point of the story.

EB: He wanted the story to be about Buc-ee’s, not about him. He didn’t have conditions, and I wouldn’t do a story where a subject had conditions. But that seems sort of appropriate anyway. The interesting thing was Buc-ee’s, but you also wanted to know who was behind Buc-ee’s. In a more typical profile, I would have done more biographical digging. I would have talked to childhood friends and things like that. In this piece that wasn’t really needed. I just wanted to focus on him and the store.

MW: So, you didn’t do as much biography in this. But there’s still a ton of history in this, in the sense, it’s almost a biography of the store itself.  

EB: Right, exactly. The piece starts a little unusually, which was something I pushed for. When he told me that his grandfather had owned a general store in Louisiana, I knew immediately that was something I really wanted to raw out in the piece. It’s sort of an unusual thing to do for an ambitious guy to start a gas station convenience store. He had these fond memories of his grandfather’s gas station convenience store in this little town in Louisiana. That had been kind of a touchstone for him, especially when he was younger. I thought that was a real key to him and a real key to Buc-ee’s.

I knew I wanted to talk to his dad… I really wanted to talk to him about the store, his own father and what that place was like. The more I learned about it, there was a real resonance with Buc-ee’s.

MW: There’s a lot of information in this story. How did you organize all the information?

That first section was purely biographical of the grandfather, the father and him. I knew from there, I wanted to go from this little store and him starting his little store to what it is like today. That was going to be a hard cut.

That first section with him touring me around the store was going to be a way to slip in a bunch of information about what a Buc-ee’s is like. For readers who haven’t been to Buc-ee’s, you need to establish pretty early in the story what this place is like, so you’ll understand what the fuss is about. From there, I needed to give more background information about how other people view this store and why this brand was special. There was a natural progression about weaving in facts about the store and commentary about the store with the history of the store. From 1982, when the first one was founded, we weave that in with the beginning of the travel centers and the travel centers getting bigger to today.

MW: How did you organize your information while reporting it? That flow is intuitive but at the time it may not have been as intuitive.

EB: I’m not thinking about that when I report. I organize everything in a program called Scrivener. I’m taking lots of notes. There’s the portion of my work that is interview based. It’s me talking to the main subject of the story, talking to secondary sources and then scenes I’m witnessing… There’s a whole portion of the work that is just research. It’s me on internet databases looking through old clips and reading through a lot of different stuff. I’m seeing what jumps out and what’s new and posting that into a big file.

One thing in this piece that was a little unusual in terms of a primary source, I saw the federal lawsuits they had been involved in. I saw that they had a federal lawsuit that went all the way to a jury trial, which is pretty rare for a lawsuit between businesses. I thought it would be really interesting to get the transcript of that jury trial because I knew that there would be information that would come out during a jury trial in testimony. Beaver testified in court where he would say things that he might not be willing to say in an interview. A lot of the information about how much money the store made comes from the trial and transcript.

MW: I’ve read your series on the Branch Davidian Incident in Waco. This story is a wide departure from talking about those things. You’ve written about a lot of other things. How do you move from one intensity or one area to another like that so frequently? 

EB: I think it’s all really the same thing, what I do at least. I’m not a subject matter expert. I’ve never been a beat reporter. Most of my pieces have some element of profile in them. It’s finding someone who has a really compelling story to tell, talking with them and asking really specific questions. It’s finding scenes either by doing things with them, watching them doing things or getting them to tell you really vivid stories you can reconstruct into actions.

There’s often a research component with what else has been written and what else they’ve said. The balance is different depending on what the story is. It’s really being curious about people, wanting to learn from people about what they do and asking a lot of questions.

It’s like cooking different styles of cuisine. You can cook Thai food. You can cook soul food. You can cook Italian food. What you’re going to taste is all pretty different, but a lot of the techniques you use to get all of those things are the same techniques in the kitchen. A good cook should really be able to do all of those things. If they’re curious, want to learn and aren’t worried about having to do it one or two times to get it right, I think it’s sort of similar. The skill that I do is magazine journalism. It doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is.

MW: You’ve been all over the place. What advice do you have for younger journalists trying to make it? What advice would have for somebody who is trying to make it in the magazine world?

EB: I don’t think I have on piece of advice or one prescription. I think one important thing to know about certainly magazine journalism at this point is that it’s a very uncertain, constantly changing environment. It’s one where there isn’t a clear path. This isn’t like becoming a lawyer or doctor where the profession has real steps to take. There really aren’t clear steps. I think if you looked at the top of the profession, whether editors or writers, a lot of them would have different paths to get there.

I’ve known people who have tried to freelance out of college. I think that is going to be extremely difficult. I would definitely not recommend that for anyone. It is really, really hard when you’re starting to freelance. Most editors won’t give you the time of day. If you haven’t really gotten anywhere in the industry, I imagine that would be very frustrating and could drive you out of it pretty quickly.

I usually tell people getting an internship in New York or D.C. is generally a pretty good way to go for a short period of time. That’s kind of where the profession is based, particularly New York for magazines. You’ll meet a lot of people who also want to be in magazines. You can figure out if that’s the place you want to be long term, or if you can do it somewhere else. It is certainly easier to do it somewhere else if you’re a writer than if you’re an editor. There aren’t that many magazines that are based outside of New York. You can be a writer and write for anyone from anywhere. In many ways, it’s an advantage not to be in New York because you’re closer to stories that are in the rest of the country that are fascinating to magazines. You can have a head start on them.

Destinee Dickson: A Voice Across Campus for Change

By Matt Welsh

Walking around the South Oval on a school day, you can find a tour guide talking with a group of high school students, a student group protesting racial inequity on campus and in the world and students returning to their dorms. Depending on the day and time, Destinee Dickson could fit any one of those categories.

Dickson, a senior studying political science and women’s and gender studies, is a resident adviser, campus tour guide and member of the Black Emergency Response Team. Dickson holds different titles in organizations across campus, but she has a singular goal: using her perspective and voice to create change at the University of Oklahoma.

“There needs to be a welcoming place for people to come here,” Dickson said.  “I think I see myself as somebody that needs to take the responsibility that students of color feel welcomed here.”

Dickson was not originally committed to attending the University of Oklahoma. After an admitted students’ day at another institution, Dickson decided the tour that caught her attention was worth more than just a thought and moved to Norman as a part of the 2016 freshman class.

Dickson came to OU feeling ill equipped to handle the racism present on campus.

“I went to a predominantly white high school in Oklahoma. I knew racism was a thing. I knew it occurred on a daily basis. I received racial slurs. But I guess it really didn’t occur to me to make a change at that time,” she said. “I didn’t really know how activism worked or how to be a person of change or challenge the system or status quo until I came to college.”

As Dickson grew in college, she explored her identity and cultural belonging.

“I’ve looked at my identity as ‘I am black. I am white. I am Native American, and I am Hispanic,’” Dickson said. “Most of my life I’ve just identified as black and white because it’s easier that way to explain to people. I’ve never had a way to be culturally a part of those other two groups.”

As she explored her identity in college, Dickson joined the Black Student Association her sophomore year, a student organization that represents African American students on campus.

In January 2019, a video filmed by a Tri Delta sorority member posted on Twitter showed a student using a racial epithet with black paint on her hands and face. BSA responded with a press release stating, “We are not surprised by the actions of the two students in the video, in which one portrayed herself in ‘black-face’, nor are we surprised by the use of an abominable racial slur against black people.” The following week, a man was seen on Campus Corner and the North Oval wearing blackface.

The blackface incidents were a part of a series of events that garnered headlines at OU. In 2015, a video on social media showed Sigma Alpha Epsilon members chanting racist epithets. David Boren, then president of OU, evicted the fraternity from its house on campus and threatened to expel two members who lead the chant, who ultimately withdrew from the university.

The recent blackface incidents, compounding challenges after the SAE incident, spurred Dickson to elevate her involvement in BSA.

“I didn’t see myself as a person ready to make change when I got here at OU. I saw myself as a student in a transition year,” Dickson said. “But specifically, when the spring situation occurred, I realized something needed to be done.”

Dickson drew upon her identity and newfound skills from her time in school to become a proponent of change.

“I’ve never been a person that can just sit there. So, I knew something needed to be done,” she said. “My voice needed to be used through a platform because we need to challenge the narrative here at OU.”

Dickson was asked to join the Black Emergency Response Team, a team created to confront the racist events that occur on campus and open dialogue with university officials to achieve change.

While the blackface incidents made news, they did not shock some in the community. 

“It’s always upsetting but it’s not surprising,” said Teara Lander, director of Campus and Community Engagement in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. 

A common refrain in the response to the recent blackface incidents from the black community is that they are exhausted and tired of the racist atmosphere at OU.

“A piece of folks being tired or being upset or this recurring emotion is that we keep having to fix our own marginalization. Not only is it our job to deal with what is happening to us, but it also our job to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, when it really shouldn’t be. It especially shouldn’t be the role of our black students,” said Lander, who holds a doctoral degree in educational leadership. 

While Lander does not think it should be the role of black students to ensure racist events do not happen again, she understands the importance of their work. 

“I think student activism is really important. I don’t want to be confused like saying ‘oh, these students shouldn’t be doing this’,” she said. “If it’s their passions, it’s what they want to do, anybody should be able to do whatever they want.”

“I’m really proud of the students. I think that it takes a lot of courage to be a student activist because you didn’t come to school to be an activist, you came to school be student, to get a degree and to further your future,” Lander continued. “So, adding this on top of it is an added stress, it’s an added responsibility, but historically, as someone that’s studied higher education, a lot of social changes that have happened come from colleges and universities and gone mainstream.” 

While Lander is proud of what student activists have done, she says the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been at work on university initiatives that include student perspectives. 

“Student supported what faculty and staff, or the office, had already been trying to do. I just don’t know it was that visible in January. Actually, I know it wasn’t as visible in January because our office had basically started over from scratch.”

As the office has grown, Lander says, student activists’ work, such as Dickson’s, has been included in diversity and inclusion efforts where they can. 

“Knowing that they want to do it, I think, as an administrator, that is where we kind of meet them halfway, and say, ‘Hey, what can we do to support you, how can we help?’ We have those conversations that we can have where its spaces where they don’t have access,” Lander said. 

Dickson has been an active member of BERT, but she has also been a team lead as a tour guide in the OU Recruiting and Admissions office. Despite her different job titles across the different organizations, Dickson still maintains her singular focus.

“I work for the University of Oklahoma, one, financially as a first-generation student, I need the income,” Dickson said. “But two, specifically why I work in the Office of Admissions and Recruitment, is that I want more students of color to find their home and opportunity here.”

“Having Destinee in our office is really great because she connects very well with prospective students and families,” said Swayde Watson, Dickson’s supervisor and graduate assistant for campus experience in the Office of Admissions and Recruitment. “She is also very great at vocalizing her commitments and her ideas and beliefs with the university in a positive light. She has a great way of advocating for students here at the university.”

Dickson views her position as a method of growing the OU community and empowering the student body to fight against racist behavior. But, the paradox of selling a university experience while criticizing the university’s treatment of minorities is apparent in the way Dickson approaches her pitch to students.

“I don’t want to lie to anybody. One of the biggest things that we talk about in the Office of Admissions and Recruitment is don’t sell fantasies. Don’t sell dreams, specifically for students of low-income, first-generation minority students of color,” Dickson said. “Don’t lie to them and say that OU is butterflies and rainbows, when obviously the university is not butterflies and rainbows and unicorns.”

Watson said Dickson is an asset to Admissions and Recruitment through her focus in recruitment and emphasis of her own experience.

“She is a great resource both for the tour guide program and the diversity enrichment program just because she is able to not only recruit some of the best students in Oklahoma, Texas and around the country, but making sure that she is able to recruit students from underrepresented populations as well,” Watson said. 

Watson said her voice on the racist incidents in the past help potential African-American students understand their potential experience at OU.

“With her being an African-American student, there have been times over the last year and a half where students who identify in that way haven’t always felt like they have a place here,” Watson said. “But Destinee has done a really great job of showing that she still has a home here at OU, and she has a support system by OU, and that other students should be able to have that exact same experience that’s she having as well.”

While Dickson is careful not to exaggerate her praise of the university, she also describes how the OU community answers the university’s shortcomings.

“I tell (students) my experiences aren’t perfect, but no experience is going to be perfect at any institution,” she said. “I tell them why the resources that were provided for me, and the people that I know that care about me, are greater than the people that are posting blackface or don’t want me here.”

The dichotomy of her different roles is manifested in her recollection of her time at OU.

“It’s not that I hate the University of Oklahoma. I found home. It’s been the best almost four years of my life. But it’s not perfect, nothing is going to be perfect in our life,” Dickson said.   “Instead of sitting here being upset or leaving, how about I work for change? I have had great moments here and I want those great moments to also help those students of color. But I have not had the best of moments here.”

The duality of her experience at OU is explicit in her favorite and worst moments.

“We had the Better Together March last spring. It was probably one of my most happy experiences or my most disheartening experiences. It was disheartening because why did we have to have this march, why did we have to have this movement?” she said. “But at the same time, it was one of the greatest moments of my life because there was so many people there that wanted to support us, that wanted to make change to our institution. It showed OU that we are better here together. It wasn’t just black students there that day.”

Dickson views what many views as opposing roles as complementary perspectives to an evolving issue. Empowering future students as an answer to the current issues is Dickson’s drive in her role at Admissions and Recruiting, while her role in BERT holds those currently in the community accountable.

“The Civil Rights movement did all this radical change that has made this place for a person of color a lot better,” Dickson said. “We hope to, maybe not on the same scale, do something like that at OU.”

Dickson feels a deep sense of belonging to her community at OU. This belonging supercedes what many would perceive to be a division between jobs, perspectives and roles in the OU community at large. For her, holding the university accountable through BERT protests performs the same function as her recruiting job.

“Me standing on those steps… was more my responsibility, my duty and obligation to my community here at the University of Oklahoma to tell people how we feel, what’s going on and what needs to happen going forward.”

Dickson is set to graduate in May as a double major in political science and women’s and gender studies. She aims to spend a gap year working for the Democratic presidential campaign or on Capitol Hill as a fellow for a public policy institute before matriculating to law school. Her goal in her last year as resident adviser, tour guide and BERT member is “to make a lasting impact, not necessarily to be remembered, but making an impact that I did something that changed the climate of this institution and changed the culture of OU so that this place is better for next student of color walking through it.”

Jarrett Standridge, Hazmat Technician

By Matt Welsh

Jarrett Standridge is from Bridgecreek, Oklahoma. He is a junior at the University of Oklahoma studying journalism.

Matt Welsh: Do you work right now?

Jarrett Standridge: Yeah, I work for my grandpa. He runs an environmental remediation company. Basically, I am a hazmat technician. I’m certified to deal with hazardous materials. So, say a semitruck rolls over and spills all of its diesel on the ground. We go out there, dig up all the dirt, send it for testing and backfill it with clean dirt. But whenever we don’t have jobs like that, we pressure wash parking lots and stuff like that to keep us busy.

MW: Interesting. So, you grew up around that?

JS: Yup, my dad does the same thing for a different company. I have been around it for a while.

MW: What was the most dangerous job you’ve had?

JS: This summer we got called out to Amarillo. There was a semitrailer that was hauling 88 fifty-gallon drums of various chemicals. It was in a wreck, so the wrecker hauled it off. Then one day, they walked out there and noticed there was a puddle underneath the trailer. There were some flammables and some poisonous chemicals in there, so they were like “I don’t know what this is.” We had to suit all the way up, respirators, everything, the whole nine yards. We had to get in there, dig around and climb up on the barrels to figure out which one was leaking and figure out what it was. Luckily it wasn’t anything dangerous… After that, we were able to take off our suits, haul the drums off to another trailer and get them shipped to where they were going.

MW: That sounds like something that’s really dangerous. Why do you not want to pursue that full time? It seems pretty fun.

JS: It’s fun in the sense that you get to learn a lot of things, but it is pretty labor intensive. I don’t know if I want to do manual labor my whole life. Like you said, it’s kind of dangerous, depending on what you’re getting into. My dad, he burned his foot with some acid one time. You just never know what you’re going to get into. I don’t know if I want to do that full time.

MW: Was there any pressure to join the family business growing up?

JS: No, my parents said you could do whatever you wanted. But my grandpa had some openings and its good money for a kid in college.

MW: During the summers is that what you do, or do you pursue internships?

JS: So, I’ve had a couple of internships. I had one right out of high school that I did during school. In the summer, I try to work as much as I can so that way, I don’t have to work that much during the semester.

MW: Is that a challenge or something you like then?

JS: I wouldn’t say it’s really a challenge. During the summer, I have nothing else to do. It is kind of a challenge during the semester, though. My grandpa’s company is pretty small. I think there’s five of us, including him, and three of us are in college right now. During the semester he doesn’t have much help, so we have to work either nights or weekends to try to help him keep up.

MW: How do you balance school and work?

JS: It’s nice that I’m related to him so I can work when I have a gap. I don’t necessarily have to work all the time. That’s a part of it. I work with him to figure out when he really needs me versus when he can get by without me.

MW: What do you do to relax?

JS: If I’m not working or at school, usually I’m chilling at home watching football or something.

MW: What’s next for your career?

JS: I’d like to be a sportswriter. I’m not really sure where at… Covering sports is what I really love and what I am interested in. That’ll be fun to finally get to do that.