The University Record, April 25, 1994

Forum addresses issues raised by racist electronic message

By Jane R. Elgass

Background: On the evening of April 5, someone used a modem to connect an off-site computer to one at a campus computing site. The individual then used a stolen computer account and password and the Internet network to send a racist electronic message to the international electronic conferencing/bulletin board called Usenet News.

People worldwide subscribe to Usenet Newsgroups and members of 25 groups received the message. Within hours, hundreds of complaints were received by the University, and were continuing in smaller numbers last week.

In response to the outrage felt by many members of the University community, three U-M units hosted a public forum on hate mail and electronic messages.

The University needs to put in place a quick, systematic, effective response to incidents such as the racist message sent to computers worldwide earlier this month. It also must take a look at lingering effects of such messages and offer support and counseling as long as necessary.

That was the message delivered to three administrators at an April 18 public forum on hate messages and electronic mail.

In opening remarks, Vice President for Student Affairs Maureen A. Hartford stated that the racist message that originated at the University “has been abusing our community. It’s time to heal and move forward, and we invite your discussion of the issues.

“The pain this has caused on this campus is very important,” Hartford added, “and shows us how hurtful such messages are. They shouldn’t happen.”

Hartford’s remarks were echoed by Lester P. Monts, vice provost for multicultural and academic affairs. “The world is in turmoil with pressing social issues. We need an effective means as a community to respond to incidents such as this. We’ll tell you what we did and seek your advice on putting something permanent in place. We’re here to listen as much as to respond.”

Acknowledging that most audience members were staff and administrators, Monts asked, “How are we going to respond to students? Messages were aimed at students. They want to see more than forums and an apology. We have to let students know that they are at the top of the priorities as the Univer-sity moves to a truly multicultural environment.”

Cheryl W. Munn-Fremon briefed the audience on follow-up measures being taken by the Information Technology Division (ITD) and the Department of Public Safety.

“DPS is conducting a criminal investigation related to the theft of the password,” she said, “but there is a limit to what we can do.

“There’s not a lot we can do if someone steals a password and then dials in from a remote access point. We can’t trace the call. If it were physically done at one of the computing sites we might have a chance,” added Munn-Fremon, who is director of assistance and support at ITD.

Hartford noted that the University has “had a good response to date, but we need to think about the long term, to keep this from happening in the future.” She added that “the issue is not one of technology but of the environment. We would have the same response to the content if it were written on a blackboard.”

An audience member agreed with Hartford’s assessment, saying that “the incident is clearly abhorrent, but just the tip of the iceberg. This forces us to think more clearly about how friendly, reasonable and open the environment is. The incident indicates a problem. We have to make systemic changes and that has to start at the uppermost levels.”

The University must make a strong statement that it will not tolerate this type of activity, said Jackie R. McClain, executive director of human resource development and affirmative action. “If we do that, it will be easier to identify the person responsible.

“We need a system for immediate response with information offered by a number of units.”

McClain agreed with others that the issue is not technology. “It’s striking a balance between civil rights and freedom of information. We need to have discussion of what free speech is. It may be hateful, but we can’t control that. But I do have a right to react. If we are silent, we enable this type of behavior.”

“Of real concern also,” McClain stated, “is that even if it was not a U-M person, it was the University’s name that went out. We’ve been hearing from colleagues across the nation. We need to take this as an opportunity to turn things around.”

One of the biggest problems with the message was its promulgation. Initially going to the 25 bulletin boards, members of those groups forwarded it to others who did likewise, with a continuing ripple effect.

After reading the message, Royster Harper, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said that she initially thought she might be “over-sensitive, but then I couldn’t imagine that kind of ugliness. It was violent and frightening. It was hard to determine to share or not share.”

Several audience members asked if there is a way to “contain dissemination of such information,” if there is some sort of protocol through which one could refer to the message without passing it on.

Munn-Fremon said that “there is a limit to what we can do, because of the issue of privacy vs. free expression.” She also noted that the technology is in a “leap-frog situation. We fix one thing and a new one comes along.

Another ITD representative noted that “there are significant holes in computer technology, especially in mail,” adding that the situation will become more difficult as the University moves to a distributed computing system.

Referring to the much-touted “information super highway,” Monts said, “We’re there now. Our control is minimized. We can find ways to use technology effectively, but as the Internet broadens our ability to communicate, it also broadens opportunities for abuse. We need to create a community that is strong enough to respond effectively.”

An audience member noted that such an incident “tends to polarize us. We realize ultimately that we’re different and can be victimized. We have to look at things on a daily basis to improve the climate. Something this blatant is not the only time we should respond.”

Richard Carter, associate dean of students-multicultural portfolio, said that we have to continue “as a community to work diligently to remove traditional barriers. This is reflected in how we model ourselves, how we are able to work with people different from us each and every day.”

Several students expressed concern that while there is a policy for student/student activities, there are none for student/faculty or student/staff problems.

Jimmy Myers, associate director of affirmative action, noted that there are standards for faculty and staff, as well as sanctions for violations. Hartford added that “we have not been doing well on delivering policy information.

“The hardest thing we need to do is education related to freedom of speech and when that freedom is abused. This is not something to forget about at the end of the year. We have to continue to look at it,” Hartford added.