In town hall, Holtschneider faces anger from students, expresses regret

DePaul President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M., hosted a town hall meeting to address ongoing campus issues Friday. (Matthew Paras / The DePaulia)
DePaul President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M., hosted a town hall meeting to address ongoing campus issues Friday. (Matthew Paras / The DePaulia)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he walls of Cortelyou Commons are lined with portraits of DePaul’s past presidents. Eleven men have held this position, each a priest responsible for overseeing the university and its students. And under each portrait, the years of when each president served remains etched on a plaque with their name.

Only two men have served longer as DePaul president than Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M. In his 12th year, Holtschneider found himself at Cortelyou Commons last Friday afternoon.

With so much history represented on the walls, it’s hard to imagine any of the previous presidents dealing with the type of scrutiny to their face  than what Holtschneider dealt with Friday.

In a town hall setting, Holtschneider watched as students expressed anger, disappointment and called for more direct action after the fallout from Milo Yiannopoulos’ visit to campus. Anger not only stemmed from Yiannopoulos — a conservative speaker who can easily offend — being allowed on campus in the first place, but the university’s lack of action taken.

Through the meeting, it was apparent that DePaul had failed its students — Holtschneider admitted as much.

“What a lot of us realize from that shocking moment last week is what we haven’t done a good job at is preparing for the divisions that can appear (from the Yiannopoulos event),” Holtschneider said. “The same dynamics that affect all of humanity can appear in the community too. That be can be transphobia to sexism to racism … all the things that we see in the world, and that we hoped as a university that we could have an all around good quality, is we’ve discovered that’s not what we’ve done.

“The message I most want to say today is one of apology,” he said later. “I’m incredibly sorry that our university wasn’t prepared in advance for the kinds of questions that are now being raised.

“Whether that’s your safety, whether that’s how we actually hold events, how we think of the creation of events, how we create the community that people feel safe long term where people are actually telling us there’s racism among us … how do we do that community better? Clearly, we haven’t done that good enough. I apologize on the behalf of DePaul.”

Holtschneider accurately called Yiannopoulos’ event a tipping point for most students. Earlier in the year, Holtschneider met with members from the Black Student Union that detailed how the experience for black students and other minority groups differ from whites, ranging from microaggressions in classrooms to being treated differently by Public Safety. Yiannopoulos’ tour was the last straw for many students who felt that they had been ignored all year.

After his opening remarks, Holtschneider invited students to share their story and ask questions. The goal of the town hall was to create a dialogue on where DePaul goes from here. The day before, students were invited to the event and the 200 available spots were reserved in just three hours, 150 of whom showed up.

But the type of dialogue students wanted to have was quickly obvious.

“These last couple of months with some of the incidents on campus, I think we’ve been let down by (the administration), by you (Holtschneider) in particular,” DePaul Democrats president Nassir Faulkner said. “I don’t feel like any of you have had my back in the last two weeks … This (town hall) is too late. We should have got together after the first chalking incident that happened.

“We’ve already been let down. How can we trust that you’re the right person to move us forward where everyone feels safe? You’re late to the game.”

Faulkner was the first of 36 students to vent their frustrations over the course of the next two hours, mostly directed to Holtschneider. Of the 36 speakers, seven explicitly called for his resignation while others blasted him for his initial response to the Yiannopoulos’ event.

Take sophomore Daveonne Burks, for instance.  Burks took issue with the fact that Holtschneider was initially in France when Yiannopoulos visited campus, saying “I don’t know about you, but if I’m president I’m hurrying my ass back to campus to see what’s going on,” which drew major applause from the audience.

“This (town hall) is too late. We should have got together after the first chalking incident that happened.” – Nassir Faulkner, president of DePaul Democrats”

Like many, Burks also criticized the email responses sent out. Holtschneider addressed the student body two times, initially apologizing to the College Republicans for Yiannopoulos not being able to speak and then to the entire student body for those who felt unsafe following the event.

“Things have to go further than emails. Like Bernie (Sanders) says, I’m sick of the damn emails,” Burks said. “When it gets to the point where (people are) threatening me or put (their) hands on me, I’m going to fight back. On the behalf of my marginalized students, we will fight back. We won’t stand for this.”

However, others like junior Fabrice Lekina, a disabled student, used time to point out major flaws with DePaul’s Public Safety. On May 24, Lekina said he started to feel unsafe when he saw lines of Yiannopoulos supporters in the Student Center after getting out of class.

“This was the first time I’ve felt unsafe on DePaul’s campus and I’ve been coming here for three years,” Lekina said. “When you’re disabled and an African American at that, you don’t know what’s going to happen.  I remember I went right after the Student Center was closed, I asked Public Safety to walk me to the church so I could get on the bus and go home. A Public Safety officer told me they were short staffed and to walk home. I said to myself, out of all the people on campus, I’m the one person you can’t say that too.

“I’m disabled. If anyone needs to get out of the building first, it’s me.”

In his opening remarks, Holtschneider said he was surprised how “ugly and fast” the Yiannopoulos event turned, and that it was the first time DePaul had to deal with something like that. But some students also criticized DePaul for not being prepared.

“I went up to Chicago police and I talked with administration and the head of security to do something, but (I said) there will be something where they will attack each other. They did nothing,” one student said, who was working with the Yiannopoulos event. “I went up to Milo to make sure he wasn’t going to get hurt, but that’s not my job  … I think Public Safety has failed us.”

The issue of what is free speech and hate speech also was brought up multiple times. Before speakers, Holtschneider said that DePaul had a lot to discuss when it came to speech.

But Charia McDonald, a protester who rushed the stage during Yiannopoulos’ visit, ended a thoughtful speech with how DePaul’s speech policy already had a line that, in her opinion, should have prevented Yiannopoulos from coming. McDonald was brought to tears after detailing how she was called the n-word, being threatened to be raped and being threatened physically after taking the stage.  

Protesters took the stage during Milo Yiannopoulos' speech Tuesday, interrupting it. A chaotic scene ensued after protesters and supporters spilled across campus. (Josh Leff / The DePaulia)
Protesters took the stage during Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech Tuesday, interrupting it. A chaotic scene ensued after protesters and supporters spilled across campus. (Josh Leff / The DePaulia)

“We go into these classes and don’t feel safe — why is it that I have to take two religion courses, but not take a required class of women and gender studies?” McDonald asked. “We need to change the curriculum … there’s so much more in this world than this white perspective.

“I’m very proud of what we did on that day,” she added. “We told this university that we understand and that if you want to hold that kind of conversation, that you’re not going to hold it in the building I pay for, sweetheart … Just know that this fight is not over.

“With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from DePaul’s guide of Freedom of Speech and Expression, the bylaws that say ‘we accept that there’s a distinction from being provocative and being hurtful. Speech whose primary purpose is to wound is inconsistent with our Vincentian and Catholic values. The university community must meet these situations by reasserting our fundamental values and by fostering educational opportunities, where appropriate.’ Thank you.”

Mario Morrow, the president of the Black Student Union, was the moderator for the town hall and occasionally directed students to not make personal attacks. Morrow, though, also knew many of the speakers and admitted it was hard for him to be neutral when he’s used to being an activist.

Morrow personally struggled with Holtschneider’s initial letter, saying he was furious and said he needed to realize how Holtschneider needed to hear the full perspective to reach a consensus on what happened. Morrow said the town hall was a great example of him hearing that discussion.

“I thought it was good for Fr. Holtschneider to hear the emotion and the passion behind each student,” Morrow said. “So he fully understands the perspective and experience they’ve had in the last couple of weeks here.”

This has been a difficult time for DePaul. Even outside of the last two weeks, the meeting felt more like an airing of grievances from the last three years, with students referencing other issues like the call for DePaul to divest in companies who support the Israeli occupation of Palestine, accused rapists who are moved from dorm to dorm and a lack of empathy from some faculty to students of color.  

Holtschneider took most stories in and remained composed, jotting down notes. Off to the side, Provost Marten denBoer, Vice President of Student Affairs Gene Zdziarski and Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Elizabeth Ortiz also took notes.

When Holtschneider was abroad, denBoer was at the helm of communicating, dealing with students, faculty and staff. Originally scheduled to join Holtschneider in France on Friday night, denBoer canceled his trip to stay at DePaul because he said it became “obvious” that he should remain put.

Asked about possible solutions, denBoer said some of the changes that were brought up can happen quickly while longer term issues, like changing the curriculum, will need more discussion.

“I think it’s important and that people should be exposed to multiple ideas and points of view,” denBoer said, regarding a curriculum change. “I think that’s part of our responsibility as a university. How we do that consistently and prepare students for the workforce is the question.”

Holtschneider, meanwhile, declined to meet with any of the student press on campus, including The DePaulia. In the town hall, Holtschneider said that the only way to build back trust from the student body is to do it with action.

He said DePaul will further think about how the university handles speakers on campus, campus safety and the curriculum. Holtschneider acknowledged that DePaul has been very decentralized in how speakers are invited and that speakers who target students “is not a good DePaul.”

“What you’re pointing out is that we’ve failed this time, we really failed,” he said. “Not just in the invitation of the speaker, but how this managed everything substantially, the threats that hit people’s emails, the ugliness of the messages that people received. We failed. We didn’t succeed in creating the community that we’ve always talked about.

“You don’t have the perfect president, but I will work my heart out at it,” he added.