In a message sent today to the University of Wisconsin-Madison community, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said a student convicted in 2005 of setting fire to two African-American churches now wants to start an “alt-right” campus organization. The 33-year-old student, Daniel L. Dropik, served time in federal prison for his crimes.
The alt-right is a white nationalist movement. In a video pitch for his group, Dropik describes it as “pro white student club” that will combat “anti-white racism” on the Madison campus.
Blank said she was troubled by the request and concerned about student safety.
Dropik was sentenced to five years in federal prison after authorities said he set fires at two churches in predominantly black neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Lansing, Michigan, in April 2005. According to court documents, Dropik set out from his home in Oconomowoc specifically looking for black churches “as racial retaliation” for earlier incidents between him and African-Americans.
Dropik, who also works as a student hourly employee, has handed out slips of paper at UW encouraging students to “fight anti-white racism on campus” by joining a Madison chapter of the white nationalist American Freedom Party, according to The Badger Herald. The flier included the hashtag #UWAltRight, using a common term for the ideology that mixes racism and white nationalism.
I have been reading some of the immediate reactions from Wisconsin. First, people are surprised someone could be admitted to the state flagship campus with a record of racially motivated arson. Secondly, people caution new policies to prevent similar admissions risk penalizing all applicants with criminal records.
In May, the Obama administration urged colleges to consider what and how they ask applicants about their criminal backgrounds so that young people who made mistakes and paid for them are not shut out of higher education.
A guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education states:
Today, an estimated 70 million Americans have been involved with the criminal justice system. Data show plainly that people of color are more likely to come in contact with the justice system due, in part, to punitive school disciplinary policies that disproportionately impact certain student groups and racial profiling. There is also growing recognition that successful reintegration back into our society for justice-involved individuals benefits those individuals, their families, and our communities. Research also shows that education can be a powerful pathway for justice-involved individuals to transition out of prison back into the classroom or the workforce, and cuts the likelihood of returning to prison within three years by over 40 percent. 2 With this context, it is critical to ensure that gateways to higher education, such as admissions practices, do not disproportionately disadvantage justice-involved individuals who have already served their time.
Here is the letter from the Wisconsin chancellor. What would you do if you were Chancellor Blank?
Members of the Campus Community,
I want to make you aware of an issue that I know will be of concern to many of you, and is to me as well.
A UW–Madison student has indicated he wants to form an “alt-right” organization on our campus.
I have also become aware that he was convicted in 2005 of racially motivated arsons of two African-American churches. I am appalled by attacks on churches and by organizations that express hatred of people of color, Jews, Muslims or any other identity.
The student claims to be affiliated with the American Freedom Party, a recognized hate group. Its activities are diametrically opposed to our campus values of respect and inclusion. I’ve been heartened to see many students state their strong disagreement with the views of this group.
I’m sure you want to know why this person is here, what we’re doing about his recent activity and how we keep our community safe.
Like many university systems, the UW System’s admission application does not ask for or allow us to consider a student’s criminal history as part of the admissions process. This is intended to ensure that students who have made mistakes, but paid their debt to society, are not prevented from accessing education.
In light of this situation, I will engage the Board of Regents and the System in a discussion and request that the board consider a review of this policy.
The safety of our campus community is my top priority. I recognize the mere presence of this activity is concerning. But handing out political information and expressing objectionable, even hateful, viewpoints is not illegal nor a violation of any campus policy.
At this point, we have no information to suggest a specific safety threat to individuals or campus. Any time we become aware of a potential safety concern, we work with law enforcement and other partners to gather information and determine whether laws or campus policies are being violated. We continue to track this situation closely given the student’s history.
We will not tolerate discrimination against any student. We also will not tolerate harassment, threats, hate crimes or violence against any student. We ask that any such action be reported to UWPD.