On Friday, Oct. 18, your ASUCI student government hosted its annual Shocktoberfest concert and festival in collaboration with Midnight Magic — the kickoff to the men’s and women’s basketball season. While evaluations on the success of the concert elements of the evening have been mixed, last week’s New University Opinion “Give Us Your Money A$AP” mirrors my sentiments as the vice chancellor of Student Affairs regarding the decision to bring this artist (A$AP Rocky) to campus. I was and remain profoundly saddened and disappointed by that decision ASUCI executives made. I do however want to use this opportunity to delve into this issue and highlight the very challenging position the university is placed in when these types of circumstances occur.
First, I am reminded of a piece of wisdom which teaches us that: “wood already torched by fire is not hard to re-ignite.” It speaks to the belief that once people have been negatively impacted by the sting of racial, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religious, or class bias or discrimination, the residuals they carry with them as ontological, psychic and emotional wounds, make them particularly sensitive about and vulnerable to being re-offended. You will understand then, as vice chancellor for Student Affairs, why I am always troubled when I see or hear about incidents that represent the micro-assaults and micro-aggressions that continue to plague the lives of the offended.
Back in mid-September, my staff and I received a request from the ASUCI Executive leadership to approve expenditures for the planned Shocktoberfest concert. Your elected representatives were determined to make this event as exciting and fun as it could be. Upon further query about the proposed entertainment, we discovered that your student leadership planned to bring a popular rap star to the campus, A$AP Rocky. After sampling some of his songs and reading his lyrics, I had immediate concerns about the artist because the language in the songs represented a level of vulgarity and offensiveness, that I consider inappropriate.
Subsequently, I invited the ASUCI Executive officers to my office for a conversation. We began the meeting by playing the song and asking the students to listen to the words of this artist. The racial, gender, and sexual orientation slurs were frequent and disturbing as I confronted the students about the incongruence between campus values and appreciation of diversity, and how those words and the artist who used them stood in sharp contrast to what we embrace as a UCI campus community. In my queries, I asked the students, as I usually do, what outcomes they wanted to achieve, and how their plan either converged or diverged with those intended outcomes. They argued that planning and executing an event people would rave about was their primary motivation. Admittedly, I was surprised to hear the students one by one, president and vice presidents alike, justify why bringing this artist to campus was the appropriate thing to do.
We discussed at length their limitations related to availability and costs, along with the question of whether or not UCI students even wanted this type of artist. While your ASUCI executives conceded on one hand that A$AP Rocky did not represent the values of our institution, they wanted to continue with the performance based on student survey. They made this decision despite my reminder of the painful “Blackface” YouTube video this past spring quarter and the unresolved tension that still fester below the surface
I also asked them to consider what if members of the campus community began using the same vulgar and inappropriate language. Now, we see images online with individuals wearing and advertising “My N—-‐” shirts that has caused quite a stir. They were also advised to be cognizant of the fact that their “survey results” were a very small and unrepresentative sample of students (some 900/28,400 total) and that they were being incongruent with their own campaign about how language is power. The ASUCI executive officers were putting the need to entertain over the sensitivities of many student cohorts (African Americans, women, LGBTQ, etc.) who I suspected would be offended by the lyrics. And yet to my surprise and disappointment, their advocacy for this artist continued.
Despite my disagreement with the artist and decision by the ASUCI executives to bring him, I am reminded that as a university community, we value and embrace the right of free speech. While we do control time, place and manner of campus speakers, we try not to abridge anyone’s rights to free speech, including your student body elected officers.
As a result of my acquiescence and sign off, we made a deal — if the campus received any backlash due to the artist, they would accept responsibility for bringing him to campus. Well, that backlash has occurred and ASUCI needs to justify their actions to you, the student body that elected them.
UC Irvine prides itself on diversity. Approximately 75 percent of the student population represents an ethnic community. As Anteaters, we celebrate our differences, but as I hear about artists like A$AP Rocky being invited on campus, upon the backdrop of the racially insensitive incidents of last year, I struggle to understand how student leaders, representing a diverse student body, who claim to be socially conscious, can choose to pay thousands of dollar to someone using hurtful and demeaning language for entertainment.
If “elements already torched by fire are not hard to re-ignite” I believe that there are students in our community that are hurting today. If that is the case, I want you to know how sorry I am that you have to experience that discomfort. As leaders, our responsibility, and those of your elected student officials, also requires us to make choices that best serve our constituents and the institution. However, Shocktoberfest does not represent my, the provost’s, nor the chancellor’s aspirations for the campus. We have to be better than this, and in so many ways we are. I want to be clear that while we have the legal obligation to uphold the free speech right of student leaders determined to make choices and decisions that are contrary to advice and counsel they receive, their decisions leave us as senior administrators no less disappointed in their actions. I also recognize that in engaging our students and the ASUCI officers, these are teachable moments that provide important life lessons. We can only hope that they make better choices in the future. My office, for its part, will continue to lend its support to ASUCI and other student groups in ways that seek to facilitate having successful programming outcomes.
Based upon results of last year’s “Blackface” incident, I have already called for an initiative to bring to light issues of race and culture through “New Narratives: Conversations on Race and Culture.” This initiative will allow us to continue the dialogue through forums, trainings, films and programs. I encourage everyone to visit the New Narratives website to get involved, and find out about our upcoming programs by visiting: http://www.vcsa.uci.edu/newnarratives.
I look forward to continuing our discussion regarding campus climate, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
Thomas A. Parham, Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor Student Affairs