The chancellor of the University of Illinois says she is concerned, not hurt, by the social media firestorm sparked by her decision to continue classes during Chicago’s second round of bitter cold temperatures this week.
Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who weathered "vulgar, crude and in some instances racist and sexist" personal attacks on social media from students angry about the decision, wrote in an op-ed posted Thursday that she was most troubled by the culture of “digital hate.”
"What was most disturbing was witnessing social media drive a discussion quickly into the abyss of hateful comments and even threats of violence,” she wrote. "I shudder to think what might happen if that type of vitriol were directed at a vulnerable member of our student body or university community.”
Wise said though the tweets were within students' rights to free speech, she was surprised and concerned, by the hateful turn the remarks took and the potential affects the "cyberbullying" could have on the school's campus and elsewhere.
“Making an unpopular decision and accepting the ensuing criticism is part of the job of a university leader. Whether the topic is research priorities, academic freedom, athletics, or, as it turns out, snow days, there is always a range of opinion on a college campus,” she wrote. “And there should be, provided the campus nurtures an environment where everyone feels safe entering into the debate. When those opinions move from civil and respectful discourse into vitriolic attacks on an individual it can be discouraging and damaging – personally and institutionally.”
Wise said she does not believe the attacks are reflective of the university, citing an outpouring of support from students, staff and others, including apologies from several of those who posted comments.
“I have greatly appreciated the outpouring of public and private support from students, faculty, staff and alumni this week,” Wise posted on the Chancellor’s Blog. “But, at this point, I don’t want to talk any more about a small number of ill-thought postings or bad behavior of a handful of individuals. What is really most important to me is that we, as a community, move beyond the personal aspects here of a single incident and focus our conversations and efforts on addressing the larger issues that have been raised.”
Those issues, she noted, include fostering a safe environment for diverse ideas and perspectives and welcoming “robust—and even intense—debate and disagreement.”
“On Monday, Jan. 27, we held classes, as usual, at the University of Illinois,” she wrote. “And, I hope, we all learned something.”