Early Tuesday morning, August 28, a member of the housekeeping staff discovered that whiteboards in the student study space on the third floor of the Visual Arts Center (VAC) had been defaced with numerous graphic and inappropriate images, including two drawing of male genitalia, a swastika, the letters “FUKKK,” the names of two individuals and homophobic language. Multiple chairs were also knocked over.
The full investigation revealed that until 11 p.m. on Monday night, there was public access into the VAC and that one exterior door was malfunctioning. According to Randy Nichols, director of safety and security, it is unclear whether the perpetrator of this incident was from the student body or from outside the College.
“The longer I thought about what happened in the VAC, the more sure I felt that it was a student. Whether or not that student or group of students realized how malicious what they were doing was, I don’t know,” said Carly Berlin ’18, a board member of Bowdoin Hillel, the Jewish student association.
This particular instance elicited larger reactions than previously similar instances have. In an email sent out to the student body early Thursday morning, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster summarized the events that occurred and reiterated the message that violence and intolerance have no place at Bowdoin.
“It’s a dispiriting way to start the new year,” said Foster.
The same day Dean Foster’s email was sent, Bowdoin Hillel organized a space to process and talk about the incident.
“Our intention was just to have an intentional space to gather and process,” said Sam Kyzivat ’18, who is also a board member of Bowdoin Hillel. “It wasn’t a huge turnout, but I was impressed since it was representative of all campus groups.”
Both Bowdoin Hillel and Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) grappled with how to respond to the situation and turned to Director of Spiritual and Religious Life Eduardo Pazos for guidance.
Pazos encouraged the groups to send an email to campus, but BSG ultimately decided upon a response that would highlight a positive message, without glorifying the incident.
“[The] second day of classes, we get the email from Dean Foster about the bias incident, and our first thought wasn’t immediately to respond but to convene and chat about whether we should respond, what a response would look like, how would we do it, what it would mean to respond,” said President of BSG Irfan Alam ’18.
BSG organized posters and a banner in Smith Union for students to sign. The message of these posters was not targeted, but rather a general reaffirmation of Bowdoin’s values.
“My hope is that seeing people sign this banner, [students] will feel some sort of relief knowing that the students around them aren’t necessarily against them, but there are students who stand up against hate,” said Alam.
The timing of the incident, close to when first years arrived on campus, is what sparked the large student response, according to Alam.
“Being on ResLife, working with first years and their transition into Bowdoin, I know that something like this the second day of classes can be extremely rattling,” said Alam.
While the bias incident constitutes a violation of college policy, it does not necessarily translate to a prosecutable offense.
“Many of the bias incidents, like in this particular case here, do not constitute a criminal offense,” said Nichols.
According to Nichols, the Brunswick Police Department has been briefed on the incident in the case that that the perpetrator is from outside the college.
Recently, Bowdoin has seen an uptick in the number of individual trespass warnings issued. In the 2013-2014 academic year, there were six individual trespass warnings issued, whereas there were 26 in 2016-2017.
In July, the John Brown Russwurm African American Center, and various other locations on campus, were vandalized with unauthorized and inappropriate stickers promoting white nationalism. Similarly, in January this year, an unknown individual defaced the Osher Quad with a swastika and satanic imagery. Due to the bias incidents occurring outside, security has not been able to identify the perpetrator.
Berlin said that the difference between this incident and others similar has to do with the question of permanency.
“There was something about [the Osher Quad incident] being outside that made it feel like it wasn’t someone from the Bowdoin community that did that,” Berlin said.
Both administration and student groups have plans to set the tone and increase security on campus for the rest of the academic year. Nichols said that there are currently plans to increase surveillance in the VAC.
Student groups, such as BSG and Bowdoin Hillel are planning to show their solidarity and commit to values of respect and intolerance of hate by increasing their presence at other groups’ events.
While BSG does not have their elected assembly organized yet, they have already begun planning No Hate November, a month dedicated to programs addressing bias and promoting inclusivity on campus.
“We hope that this year we can have an equally, if not more, powerful and positive No Hate November to spread messages like this that we do not tolerate hate,” said Alam.