Racist notes to faculty member sparks investigation

The office of Michelle Jones on South Campus, where two weeks ago there were several threatening and racist notes slid under her door. There is an ongoing police investigation into who was behind the notes.

Jacob Dick

Editor’s note: this article contains graphic language.

Campus police are investigating a complaint filed by the assistant dean of the University College after three threatening notes containing racist language were found in her office.

Michelle Jones said she found the messages folded individually under her South Campus office door approximately two weeks ago after not being in her office for a 10-day period. The documents were typed and printed with racial remarks targeting Jones for being an African-American.

The hallway Jones’ office is in is accessible to faculty and students, but she believes a university employee is responsible.

“I was in disbelief this could happen on campus,” Jones said. “Now I’m worried we have a faculty member thinking this way, teaching minority students who might not feel safe to speak up.”

She wouldn’t describe all of the hate speech in the messages, but did say one of the letters stated “this is bullshit, you should take your black ass back to Africa so this campus and America can be great again.”

Jones said she had immediate hesitation about what to do after reading the messages, and sat alone in her office because she couldn’t believe what she read.

“I remember chuckling to myself because I thought at any moment someone was going to knock on my door and tell me I was being pranked,” Jones said.

A Herald request to campus police for the incident report and documents sent to Jones was denied, citing an ongoing investigation.

Sergeant Rafeal Casas said the incident had been under investigation and the department would be interviewing employees who work near Jones’ office to see if anyone remembers seeing anything. Casas said there are cameras throughout the building, but not in the hallways where faculty members’ offices are located.

This is the second case of a WKU community member being targeted by racist actions after student Cheyenne Mitchell had her car vandalized with a racial slur on Aug. 31.

Jones said she didn’t know why she had been targeted with these letters, but several administrators did confirm there was a recent meeting about diversity and inclusion in which all of the University College attended.

Vice Provost of Personnel and Policy Richard Miller said the college-wide meeting was held because a candidate for the director of the School of University Studies, whom Miller said was an African-American woman, decided to end her candidacy during the search for the position. Miller said the candidate cited a uncomfortable and toxic environment as her reasoning for ending her candidacy.

“Anytime we have a candidate end their candidacy because they perceive a problem with the work environment, there should be a call to address the issue,” Miller said.

It is not known how Jones was involved in this meeting, if at all, but Miller confirmed the subject was geared toward work concerns for African-Americans. Jones is the only African-American administrator in the college.

“We have a despicable racist in our midst and every member of the WKU community should be outraged,” Miller said. “This is a hedonist, intolerable act this institution needs to take serious.”

Miller said there was some initial confusion about who should have been contacted with the complaint and when they were notified. He said he was told Jones told her department head who contacted the university attorney, who then told Human Resource director Tony Glisson. Sometime around when Miller found out about the complaint from Glisson, a formal complaint was filed with the campus police.

University general counsel Deborah Wilkins said that she was not contacted by the department head and did not refer Jones to human resources. 

Dean of Students and Chief Diversity Officer Lynne Holland was asked for comment on the incident and the way in which it was handled but referred all questions to Provost David Lee in an email response to the Herald.

Miller and Lee confirmed they had both seen the letters sent to Jones and a conference call among administrators was arranged Sept. 2 to discuss the procedure of what should occur.

“Things like this get reported in a variety of ways with different offices notified at different times,” Lee said. “There were a number of folks who had a role who talked about how to proceed.”

Lee did have a meeting with members of the School of University Studies last week to briefly address that an incident had occurred and a fellow faculty member had been targeted.

“It just seemed natural that was the group who needed to be talked with because they are in the best position to provide support for Michelle,” Lee said. “We should be supportive of faculty who are targeted and try to resist fear and distrust that the perpetrator would like us to embrace.”

Despite the Sept. 2 meeting and Lee’s meeting with the School of University Studies, there has not yet been an official statement from university administration. Miller said he was displeased there hasn’t been a hard message publicly decrying what happened to Jones.

“The proper administrative response should have been proactive instead of reactive,” Miller said. “I think the institution’s response has been inadequate.”

President Gary Ransdell said he has been aware in passing that an incident may have occurred, but he wasn’t fully briefed on the situation until Thursday morning. Lee confirmed he was not in attendance at the Sept. 2 meeting.

“I haven’t been aware of the incident, the search or departmental tension,” Ransdell said. “I do look forward to talking to Ms. Jones and offering our full support to her. Right now, this is a departmental matter and it is being dealt with in that way.”

Jones said she just hopes the person who sent her the letters is removed so people won’t think that type of behavior is tolerable. She said safety isn’t necessarily a concern, as the way the writer went about the attack was “cowardly,” but she couldn’t help being disturbed by the incident.

“It’s been stressful,” Jones said. “I’m a resilient person and I thought I could handle things but I can’t handle the anonymity of the message. I’ll always have to wonder about other’s actions toward me and if they were the one who wrote it.”

Reporter Jacob Dick can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @jdickjournalism.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from university general counsel Deborah Wilkins.