Updated: Online posts aimed at Wise get personal, racist

Updated: Online posts aimed at Wise get personal, racist

URBANA — The messages of support for Chancellor Phyllis Wise came in all day. Emails. Phone calls. Even a bouquet of flowers from an anonymous alum with a card saying, "I support you."

They were responding to angry tweets posted by students upset with Wise's decision to hold classes Monday in the face of frigid wind chills — including some messages that were overtly racist and sexist.

Wise avoided reading them for a good chunk of the day but took a quick look before a meeting with campus senate leaders Monday afternoon.

Bundled in her parka, getting ready to walk back to her office, Wise's face dropped when she was asked if she'd seen them.

"Yes," she said, quietly. "It's sad. I'm hoping this still represents a very, very small minority.

"We have to talk about civil discourse, and how to agree to disagree and still remain ... respectful."

Let columnist Tom Kacich know what you think about this here

Wise sent out a message to the UI community Sunday evening, saying that classes and operations would proceed as scheduled Monday and urging students and employees to use caution during the extreme cold.

The Twitter-sphere erupted almost immediately, creating a hashtag, or comment group, with a profanity and Wise's first name.

The initial comments mostly complained about the decision — "I'll go to class if Phyllis walks with me," etc.

But the comments degenerated into personal attacks — "Yo Phyllis, if people die, that's on you" — and took on racist and sexist tones. One compared her to Hitler.

"Asians and women aren't responsible for their actions," one wrote.

Other Twitter users disturbed by the nature of the attacks jumped in to chastise the commenters, and at least one account was deleted. Several discussion threads on Reddit also took up the issue, some bringing in the Chief Illiniwek debate.

"It was truly disappointing to wake up (Monday) morning to see such negativity shrouding my alma mater in racism and sexism by the student body," tweeted former student trustee David Pileski, one of many alumni who weighed in.

Students on campus Monday said the discussion went too far.

"I thought it was disgusting and embarrassing," said Hannah Ellis, who added, "It's honestly not that bad outside."

Some students did say they felt it was too cold to hold classes, though most appeared to be showing up for classes, and bus stops were crowded as usual. One student was spotted wearing flip-flops.

"I thought last week was worse than this week," said Mojtaba Fallahpour, a postdoc in engineering, waiting for a bus outside the Illini Union.

Bus rider Lenny Smoliak disagreed: "It's really cold. I'm kind of uncomfortable. If there was no bus I don't know how I'd get there."

A petition on change.org urging Wise to cancel classes gathered 8,000 signatures overnight. A half-dozen angry parents also called to complain, according to UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

On Facebook, UI senior Brett Wallace posted an email he sent to Wise arguing it was dangerous for students to walk 15 minutes to class in wind chills of 20 to 30 degrees below zero. He asked Wise to walk to class with him on Monday morning if she didn't change her mind.

Wallace said the email was "a little tongue-in-cheek," and he didn't expect a response.

"It was worth a shot," he said, adding that he attended his classes Monday. "I pay all this money to attend the university. I'm going to attend."

But Wallace distanced himself from the "racist bigotry" of the social media comments.

A counter-petition was started Monday apologizing to Wise and urging students to "let your peers know that this behavior is unrepresentative of our university and that it cannot be tolerated."

The fact that several other colleges and universities around the state closed — including Illinois State University, Western Illinois University, Northern Illinois University and Heartland College — added fuel to the fire.

Kaler was alerted by IT early Monday that several fake Phyllis Wise accounts had also popped up overnight on Twitter. They had been removed by the time Kaler responded. One fake post said Wise would be giving away snow cones on the Quad Tuesday.

The UI has canceled classes just a handful of times over the years.

Wise said the final decision is her's, but she consults with a 27-member campus emergency operations committee with representatives from the president's office, public safety, student affairs, the provost's office, McKinley Health Center and UI Facilities and Services.

Among other factors, they monitor the weather forecast, road conditions, bus service, and whether other jurisdictions are closing. The committee held a conference call around 9 p.m. Sunday.

"We don't take this lightly," Wise said. "It is not just the chancellor deciding this, although I am the final decision-maker."

Wise and Kaler noted that winds were expected to die down by 6 a.m.

"We continued to monitor conditions all night. Had they deteriorated to a point where we felt it was not safe, the chancellor very likely would have canceled classes," Kaler said.

"It's usually blowing and drifting snow that's more of a problem for us," she said.

Two weeks ago, when the UI campus closed Jan. 6 before classes started, county officials warned the UI that it could not keep roads clear, and they didn't want several thousand UI employees commuting to work, she said.

As far as the cold, Kaler said the campus has 450 buildings that students can cut through on a long walk to class if needed.

"Of course we do assume that people come to campus with proper gear for Illinois winters," she added.

The UI planned to hold classes Tuesday as well unless conditions changed overnight, Kaler said.

"Our goal is always going to be to try to continue business," Kaler said. "People come down here for a reason, and we want to let them stay focused on their education."

Professor Roy Campbell, chairman of the senate executive committee, read a statement deploring the comments and supporting the chancellor.

Though he disagreed with Wise's decision, Illinois Student Senate President Damani Bolden said the "vicious attacks" represented a "small group of a subgroup of a subgroup" that didn't reflect the student body.

Parkland College held classes as usual Monday, with students expressing only minor disappointment on the college's Facebook page.

"The parking lots still seem pretty full. I think most people have made it here," spokeswoman Patty Lehn said around midday.

The National Weather Service predicted wind chills of 20 to 30 below overnight and Tuesday morning. Actual temperatures were expected to fall to 10 to 15 degrees below zero.

Class action

The UI has canceled classes only a handful of times in recent decades:

Feb, 13-14, 2007: UI students get their first snow days since 1979 as a blizzard drops 10 to 15 inches of snow on the area. Local schools are closed for three days.

Feb. 2, 2011: A winter storm with freezing rain, high winds and almost 7 inches of snow cancels classes, though the campus remains open. Other area colleges, universities, schools, banks, businesses and health clinics are also closed.

March 25, 2013: One of the heaviest late-season snowfalls on record (almost 12 inches) cancels classees at the university and Parkland College.

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kiel wrote on January 27, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Disgusting tweets from several students. Apparently they don't know that Twitter is public, and now a quick Google search will link them to these vile, racist comments. Good luck with future job searches.

wayward wrote on January 27, 2014 at 5:01 pm

With around 40000 students, there are going to be a few jerks and idiots out there, and social media makes their voices louder. I doubt that this is the first time that Wise has encountered people saying dumb and offensive things, and unfortunately, it probably won't be the last.  At least they're a pretty small minority.

Commonsenseman wrote on January 27, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Who cares what the comments were, this is America you have freedom of speech, if the comments were racist or sexist, thats life on the internet, get over it. I havent heard her complain, other people have no right to be "offended for her" There is no right to not be offended by life.  People in this country need to spend time in foreign countries whre racism is the rule not the exception to the rule.  

lga wrote on January 27, 2014 at 7:01 pm

So.. because it happens elsewhere, we should accept it here? That's illogical and silly.

Yep, freedom of speech. Not freedom from consequences. I sincerely hope that there are consequences for students who perpetuate racism and sexism, regardles of how Dr. Wise feels about the attacks. That's kind of missing the point.

cgirl wrote on January 27, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Hear Hear!

student wrote on January 28, 2014 at 4:01 pm

No it shouldn't be accepted here but it also shouldn't be accepted in America but it is. yes they have the freedom of speech and because they said cruel things they will probably live in guilt when they notice it was very immature of them. Should they receive consequences.. I believe no because thats not going to do anything, if they get consequences than all the people in america who make racial and sexist comments should also. 

green wrote on January 27, 2014 at 7:01 pm

On the one hand, it's good that students know they can challenge those in the authority, if necessary.

On the other hand, some of these sentiments would not have aired, had the Chancellor been a white man. Why not?

It's easy to spot these sexist and racist stereotypes, especially in the media. Women are often seen as sexual objects (how often does it happen to men?), and when women deviate from what they are supposed to do, they are called with nasty names, as happened in the case of the Chancellor.

The stereotype of "Asians" as foreign/non-Americans, closely linked to China, North Korea, and so on without any distinctions among those countries, has been historically prevalent. Even if you are born and grew up in the US, Asian Americans are often asked: "Where are you from, really?"

These students are just learning and practicing some of the mainstream American ideas. I hope there is going to be campus-wide discussions in the coming days.


itazurakko wrote on January 28, 2014 at 9:01 am

For what it's worth, this latest abuse of the Chancellor is hardly the first time that tweets stereotyping "Asians" or complaining about "too many Asians" and whatever else have appeared on twitter in relation to UIUC.


Obviously people are free to say what they like on twitter, but yes, it's rather depressing.

student wrote on January 28, 2014 at 4:01 pm

I believe if the chancellor was a white man the racial comments will still be made. I also believe that everyone is making this a huge deal when this stuff happens all the time in America.

alabaster jones 71 wrote on February 05, 2014 at 9:02 pm
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I'm fairly certain that no male U of I student views Phyllis Wise as a sexual object.

cgirl wrote on January 27, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Hear Hear!

Commonsenseman wrote on January 27, 2014 at 7:01 pm

freedom of speech is freedom of speecy, amazing how these college students support Bill Ayers and his hate speech, yet feel people venting their frustration should receive "consequences"

lga wrote on January 27, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Yes. Freedom of speech is freedom of speech. (How profound.) Nobody - in particular, the government - is shutting down their right or ability to say stupid things. So, they continue to have freedom of speech. Nobody's threatening their freedoms. But, sometimes, there are consequences for the things that are said. You know, personal responsibilty and all that jazz.

And Bill Ayers? That's so Fox News 2008. Way to bring back the talking points! Excellent job. But do you have any evidence that these particular students support him (or even know who he is)? 

Nice Davis wrote on January 27, 2014 at 11:01 pm

How about you take a break and rejoin the group when you have something to add that's a little more relevant and a little less delusional?

Bulldogmojo wrote on January 27, 2014 at 7:01 pm

These racist/sexist comments were out of line but don't think for one second Phyllis Wise is running to the bathroom for a good cry over this. She is here to get paid and to feather her nest for whatever corporate gig she has her eye on down the road. She is an old wolf and these students do not suffer her time one bit

LocalTownie wrote on January 28, 2014 at 8:01 am

If a person is punished or has to "suffer consequences" for something they said, then they really don't have freedom of speech now do they. Everyone has the right to say stupid things and sound like an idiot. I guarantee everyone here has done it.

Don't most of the students traipse around campus in North Face coats and Ugg boots any way? Bunch of whiners. Go to class!

asparagus wrote on January 28, 2014 at 9:01 am

The Chancellor said ""We have to talk about civil discourse, and how to agree to disagree and still remain ... respectful."

This is highly ironic. The kind of demonizing that goes on if a right of center figure of note even gets close to campus is nearly identical to what happened here. Do you have a few left leaning friends on Facebook? Then you know what I'm talking about. 

Just saying, if you are going to stand by while haters hate people you don't agree with and say nothing about "civil discourse" then don't be surprised when the haters find a reason to hate on you.


lga wrote on January 28, 2014 at 11:01 am

Making fun of someone's eyes, comparing him/her to Hitler, referring to her vagina.

That's civil discourse? Are you willing to condemn the statements? I won't stand by while anybody spews racist or sexist statements - regardless of what "side" he or she is on. 

Orbiter wrote on January 28, 2014 at 10:01 am

"I pay all this money to attend the university. I'm going to attend."

Bravo on this attitude!  If the University cancels courses, there should be either a pro-rated refund of tuition for those who lost the opportunity to learn, or a make-up day added to the calendar.

University education is a privilege and a commodity. Not a forced indoctrination.  Any student may option to not attend his or her classes for a day.  Perhaps a disabled person might find it untenable to be exposed to extreme elements, and I'm sure no punishment would be meted out if they chose to stay safe and warm.  And ANY college student may withdraw from school for any reason.

Nice Davis wrote on January 29, 2014 at 12:01 am

No, the University should not be obligated to give anyone a pro-rated refund if class is canceled. Students sign up to take a class for a semester, not for a precise number of hours and minutes.

Eric wrote on January 30, 2014 at 4:01 am

It is very simple., The Chancellor put several thousand student at risk. The campus is almost 4 square miles and on of the coldest winters ever recorded.  She is way out of line this type of disregard for human saftey is uncalled for .She should be hauld to court for  abuse.  get off your lazy but stick your finger out the window. Then visualize walking half a mile in that weather. Shame on you


 This inability to handle the international student that live in my neighbor hood. yes My neighbor hood is mostly asian they are smart enough to know when it is dangerous to go out in the weather. They are the brightest students and customeras I have ever had and I tell you what  Chancellor  you open the door to this stupidity put get you head  up and understand you created this. Not the student you created this by puting them at risk.

I was out there helping the cold students where you. ?

justthefacts wrote on January 30, 2014 at 9:01 am

A few comments and observations:

1. Freedom of speech means no prior restraint. It does not mean no consequences.

2. This is Illinois in the winter. We have cold weather most every year. I imagine every UofI student scored at least a 20 on their ACT, so it seems that knowing how to dress in cold weather should not be an unreasonable expectation.

3. The fact that coarse/rude discourse has become the norm on the internet/social media does not make it acceptable. It is just another example of the lowering of cultural standards.

4. The human brain is not fully develolped until a person's mid-20's. Juvenile behavior from college students should not be surprising.