It all started with letters inviting four presidential candidates to speak at Michigan State University: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. The invitations, sent by The Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) on Oct. 5, met mixed opinions on social media.
Facebook users took to the comments section to express their disapproval of the decision – particularly the invitation of Trump. Controversy grew when ASMSU began removing comments and blocking users, later restored, that criticized the Republican presidential candidate.
Two days later, ASMSU President Lorenzo Santavicca issued an apology and called a special meeting for Wednesday. The General Assembly would discuss bill 53-20, to retract the invitations.
The bill was defeated 12-8, but not without a fight. Both sides argued for nearly an hour, with those in favor saying the safety of Latinx and Hispanic students was at risk. In his opening remarks, Santavicca stressed that the intent of the invitations was to create civic dialogue, not conflict.
“I want to apologize wholeheartedly… to every undergrad that has been affected by any of what’s happened over the past few days,” Santavicca said.
Jason Porter, vice president for internal administration, echoed the sentiment when addressing the protesters lining the walls – members of Culturas de las Razas Unidas (CRU) – but caught himself before saying he fully understood their situation.
“I don’t understand because I’m a straight, white male,” Porter said. “We have failed you. I’m sorry.”
When Santavicca asked for public comment on the proposal:
Silence. All protesters were instructed by CRU leadership not to speak to anyone at the meeting, including members of the press. However, the bright neon signs they held spoke on their behalf. One read (in all capital letters), “FIRE THOSE WHO CENSORED CRU.” Another, “Hold those responsible accountable!”
The meeting soon moved to discussion from the General Assembly. Estephanie Lopez-Diaz, ASMSU representative for CRU, yielded her time to CRU Treasurer Maisie Rodriguez – the only point in the meeting where the protesters’ silence was broken.
Rodriguez read from a piece of paper, claiming that ASMSU’s treatment of Latinx students has been unfair and led to further exclusion and discrimination.
“These acts of oppression, discrimination (and) overt mistreatment confirm the secondary status that Latinx people deal with on a daily basis,” Rodriguez read.
Julia Christensen, representative for the Council of Students with Disabilities, expressed concern for ASMSU’s image.
“I think if we retract the letters now, we damage our credibility and our ability to bring major speakers to the campus in the future,” Christensen said.
However, Christensen said she relates to the frustration surrounding the invitation being sent to Trump as “the member of one of the groups he’s repeatedly marginalized and mocked,” and encouraged protesters to take action.
“If he comes to campus, I will be right there protesting along with everyone else.” Christensen added. “I understand entirely why this has become an issue.”
Other members of the assembly were not as ready to compromise. Olivia Brenner, representative for the Alliance for Queer and Allied Students, was frustrated at the handling of the situation.
“The intent of sending the letters doesn’t really matter,” Brenner said to the floor. “Because the impact was that we have students on our campus who no longer feel safe, they no longer feel represented – if they ever truly did – and they no longer feel like we have their best interests at heart.”
Brenner called for student safety as a top priority for ASMSU. Following the vote, she said defeat of the bill was disappointing.
“While I understand that it may not necessarily impact whether or not the candidates actually show up,” she said. “I think that it was really important that we show the students that we are on their side and that we understand their fears.”
Santavicca believes the results of the meeting show a need for increased transparency from ASMSU. He added that clearer communication is needed not only for the public, but also for members of the General Assembly.
“We’re going to do our best to learn from the situation going forward,” Santavicca said. “This has been an eye-opening experience for all of us in that effort.”