Gonzaga University President Bernard Coughlin on Wednesday declared a zero-tolerance policy on bigotry in the wake of racial harassment on campus.
In a memo to students and faculty, Coughlin restated the university’s commitment to racial diversity after black law students received harassing letters for the third time in a year.
“Diversity is an enriching part of our lives, not a threat,” Coughlin said in his memo. “This ugliness reminds us anew that we have the responsibility of doing more than caring in our hearts.”
Coughlin is being criticized by students for doing too little to stop the racism that surfaced last month. His memo Wednesday was attached to a list of steps the university has taken to combat the problem in the last 12 months.
On Tuesday, Coughlin and university staff met behind closed doors with the U.S. attorney in Spokane and an entourage of investigators trying to catch the letter writer.
So far, no suspects have been identified, but the FBI and Spokane police say the investigation is a priority.
On Monday, Coughlin met with several black students on campus to hear their concerns.
One black undergraduate said she is pleased the administration is taking the problem seriously.
“It’s very encouraging,” said Zaria Banks, a member of the black student union on campus. “I’m still disappointed things had to reach such measures before Father Coughlin had this meeting.
“We are going to stand firm until we see actual progress on this campus,” she said.
Two black law students received threatening letters on March 22, presumably from the same person or persons who delivered similar racist letters to them and two other black law students twice in April 1995.
On the same day the letters were delivered, an undergraduate black student had his name scratched into his car, received a harassing telephone call and had someone pound on his door and run away.
Also, a non-student was removed from campus by police for shouting racial slurs following the letter incident.
The law school letters were filled with racial slurs and threats, and provided enough personal details of the victims to lead authorities to believe the writer is another law student.
The writer wants to run blacks off the campus.
Coughlin and university administrators said their goal is the exact opposite. They want blacks and other minorities to feel welcome.
They admit they are frustrated and embarrassed that the incidents make Gonzaga and Spokane as a whole appear inhospitable to minorities.
Coughlin was not available for comment Wednesday.
“The frustration among cabinet-level administrators is high,” said Michael Carey, Coughlin’s executive assistant.
He said student criticism is easy to take compared with the anonymous racism.
“I’m glad to see the students so outraged and involved in saying something should be done,” Carey said.
University spokesman Dale Goodwin said Gonzaga plans to increase its anti-racism efforts on campus in coming weeks. Gonzaga is moving to become a leader in Spokane in fighting racism, he said.
“The incidents here have revealed to us an even larger sphere of racial tension in the community,” Goodwin said.
Last fall, Coughlin appointed a Task Force on Racial Equality and Cultural Understanding to recommend ways the university can improve campus tolerance. A report from the task force is expected in mid-April.
The university has increased training on race relations, dedicated a house for minority students on campus and sponsored speakers and discussion groups, among other efforts.
All university employees attended a half-day conference and viewed the video, “The Color of Fear.” The producer is expected on campus April 16 for a diversity workshop.
This summer, Gonzaga will host the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities Conference on Multicultural Affairs.