A Facebook post by the University of Montana featuring four white students who won an essay contest on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy received overwhelming blowback earlier this week, ultimately causing UM to delete the photos and names of the winners out of concern they could be targets of harassment.
In the aftermath, UM is figuring out the best ways to learn and adapt from the near-viral condemnation.
The social media post, which went up Monday, received more than 1,000 comments, almost all of them critical of the fact that only white students were selected as winners of the essay contest. Many of the comments called the post tone-deaf, and some focused on the specific content of the essays, and whether they had anything to do with King’s message, which was quoted from in the post.
The contest sought submissions from students, faculty and staff on how they had worked to implement King’s legacy at UM, but in the end only received six submissions, all from white students, and no submissions from faculty or staff.
After hundreds of comments rolled in, UM posted a comment responding to the criticism, which eventually was copied into the body of the post.
“The criticism regarding only four white students who submitted and ultimately won the essay contest is fair. It is also troubling,” university officials wrote in the post. “Yes. These students are white. But the color of their skin does not preclude them from submitting an essay, publicly honoring MLK or working toward equality. That takes all of us, including those of you who have responded with passion and concern about the result of this contest.”
Paula Short, UM’s spokesperson and communications manager, said as the post caught more attention, her team discussed the best way to handle the post, ultimately deciding not to delete the post entirely, but to post the update, and eventually remove the students’ photos.
“After the posted update, there were comments on the individual students’ photos targeting their participation in the contest. This was unfair,” Short wrote in an emailed response to questions. “We removed their photos and names so they wouldn’t be targeted or have to bear the responsibility for our decision to post the content. It is our responsibility to take that criticism, which is why the content of the post remained, despite the photos being removed.”
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Short said today’s media landscape and political rhetoric can make having nuanced conversations in public difficult. She said looking back on it, it would have been better to include the context of the panel discussion in which the winners were involved, which was included in an event featuring UM alum and Montana Racial Equity Project outreach coordinator Meshayla Cox as the keynote speaker.
“In hindsight, our team has spoken at length about the careful and delicate nature of having these conversations on social media,” Short wrote. “A university is one of the most appropriate places to have difficult conversations about race; social media has limitations in cultivating this dialogue. This will certainly inform our perspective moving forward, and it should.”
The university is in the early stages of creating a new position titled the diversity, equity and inclusion specialist, which is planned to be “workforce-facing,” Short said, helping UM to be more intentional in hiring and retaining more broadly representative faculty and staff.
The contest and panel discussion the prior week was organized by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee, which is led by African-American Studies program head Tobin Miller Shearer. He said members of the committee had questioned the results of the contest before the post or the panel discussion in which the winners participated.
In addition to leading the campus committee, Miller Shear and a handful of other committee members also serve on the community-wide Martin Luther King Jr. Committee that helps plan larger events.
“Before this blew up we had already talked about the results of the contest with that group as well, which is majority people of color, and we were brainstorming together: How can we do this better?” Miller Shearer said. “So I know one of the areas I’ll be asking the committee to look at very closely is the essay prompt itself.”
This was the first time the campus held the essay contest, as for a number of years winter break was longer and extended through the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. With the recent academic calendar change, the committee was picking up again and creating new events.
“Our intention was to invite the entire campus community to seriously engage with King’s legacy in a way that moved beyond the easy answer of going out and painting a fence, or volunteering somewhere,” Miller Shearer said. “That’s a very easy response to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. What we were looking for is a more vigorous and engaged response. With the first year response, it didn’t work like we hoped it would.”
Many of the commenters pointed to the fact that no people of color had even entered the contest, saying that must mean they did not feel like it was a productive use of their time or energy. Miller Shearer said in discussing the results of the contest with Murray Pierce, special assistant to the Provost and advisor to the Black Student Union, they speculated that many of the BSU members were likely busy planning the Black Solidarity Summit, the group’s upcoming keystone event.
“We take very seriously that we need to be evaluating the results of this, not just our good intentions. Because the results always need to be analyzed in any anti-racism work, and we hold ourselves to that commitment,” he said.