At GW’s peer institution, the University of Southern California, the interim president told the freshman class that embracing and leading change was vital for the future during the school’s convocation ceremony. At Boston University, another one of GW’s peer schools, the president addressed the freshman class at their matriculation ceremony and used the time to discuss the importance of embracing diversity.
Meanwhile, last weekend at GW’s convocation ceremony, University President Thomas LeBlanc told the Class of 2022 to be careful on social media.
Preventing racist posts from appearing on social media only puts a Band-Aid on the problem of racism on campus.
While LeBlanc briefly told freshmen to take advantage of GW’s resources to meet and work with people different than themselves, he focused on warning students that social media can ruin your reputation. Two major social media-centered scandals divided campus during the spring semester, so it is understandable why LeBlanc wanted to issue this warning to the freshman class. But, this well-intentioned message is misguided because social media is not the problem. His speech criticizes the platform instead of the individuals who made racist posts, and having this conversation without employing tangible changes is not productive.
The Alpha Phi sorority was embroiled in a social media scandal in February when a Snapchat depicting two members with a racist caption circulated on campus. Just more than one month later, Student Association executive vice presidential candidate Brady Forrest was condemned and called anti-Semitic by several student organizations and student leaders for criticizing a multicultural event for including pro-Israel student organizations in old Facebook posts that had resurfaced. Two days later, former SA senator and presidential candidate Imani Ross apologized for “offensive” posts about minorities published on her Facebook page when she was about 13.
Those situations were shocking and made some students on campus feel uncomfortable, and while social media was the platform that delivered racist messages – it was not the cause of the inappropriate posts. The warning that LeBlanc gave to students at convocation is fair, but preventing racist posts from appearing on social media only puts a Band-Aid on the problem of racism on campus.
LeBlanc’s concern isn’t wrong, but placing the blame on social media is. Instead of discussing social media as the problem, he could have followed the lead of Boston University’s president and discussed the importance of embracing diversity. Or he could have used the time to embolden the Class of 2022 to speak out when they see injustices on campus. Simply telling students to be careful when they post on social media is not a positive use of this time.
This topic choice is also concerning because LeBlanc later said he has no formal plans to address the issue of social media through training, but will continue to speak out about the topic throughout the year. However, continuing a conversation about what the president sees as a problem without taking any steps to remedy the issue is a waste of time.
Social media can worsen the pervasiveness of racism on campus, so some training on how to appropriately use the platform could be beneficial. Providing a training in social media could remind students that posts are permanent and prevent the spread of offensive messages that affect others in the future. But training is a step – not a solution – to reducing incidents of racism and bigotry that spread on campus.
Using this time to instead encourage students to speak out when they see problems on campus would both address the scandals that have played out and actually take steps to prevent racism on campus. All students have an equal part in making up the GW community, so all students should have been told during convocation that they have the power make a difference when they see concerning behavior.
If students are prompted to call out their peers when they have crossed a line and said something offensive, GW would be taking a step to ensure all students know that hateful speech will not be tolerated on campus.
In both instances where social media sparked a campuswide discussion on hate on campus, students were involved in large student organizations. This convocation speech could have also taken time to tell future student leaders that they are responsible for overseeing their members and each member represents their organization.
While the University could consider addressing social media and providing some form of training, it’s more important that officials recognize that the larger problem centers around diversity and hatefulness, not social media.
When racist or otherwise offensive posts appear on social media, the platform isn’t the problem. These posts signal larger problems in the culture of GW that will not be addressed by urging students to think before they post. LeBlanc’s decision to spend some of his first moments with the Class of 2022 discussing social media was a misguided decision and in doing so, he squandered an opportunity to inspire the freshman class to spark change to fix the underlying issue.
The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Renee Pineda and contributing opinions editor Kiran Hoeffner-Shah based on conversations with The Hatchet’s editorial board, which is composed of managing editor Matt Cullen, design editor Zach Slotkin, managing director Elise Zaidi, sports editor Barbara Alberts and culture editor Margot Dynes.