Updated: Online posts aimed at Wise get personal, racist

 

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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."

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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.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).