Correction: Angela Potter is SHIFT’s Publicity Chair, not SHIFT’s Vice President. North by Northwestern regrets the error. Thanks to Angela Potter for pointing out the error.
Only days after Secular Humanists for Inquiry and Free Thought chalked depictions of the Muslim prophet Muhammad around campus, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro met with SHIFT at Shepard Hall Wednesday night to discuss the impact of faith on the university. The meeting had been scheduled prior to the chalking.
“All groups should be given voice,” Schapiro said. “We should have a civil society here at Northwestern. Everyone should be welcomed. I wouldn’t want anyone as a secular humanist to be discriminated against in their dorm or anywhere.”
The discussion came in response to Schapiro’s talk at Sheil Catholic Center in February when he discussed the role of religions in universities. SHIFT member Avi Emanuel responded in a letter to the editor sent to The Daily the next day, in which he stated his opposition to statements made at the event.
“I welcome a president who happens to be religious. I am terrified of a religious man who happens to be president,” wrote the Weinberg senior.
In response, Schapiro said he understands that students wouldn’t want someone in power who would act solely on their religious beliefs, but that there are times where religious views make their presence known. Schapiro acknowledged social justice, love for learning, empathy and charity as some of those instances.
“I cannot separate my day job from the rest of my identity,” he said.
SHIFT members showed concern with distinction between religious group funding and student group funding. SHIFT Publicity Chair Angela Potter said religious groups received more funding than normal groups because they have a higher status.
Schapiro said he had no idea and thought it may have more to do with how the chaplain distributes funding. But he kept the mood friendly.
“But what do I know? I’m an economist,” he joked.
He encouraged students to be entrepreneurs, saying that SHIFT brings a “great level of intellectual discussion,” an aspect that Schapiro called it “gratifying.”
“So am I going to throw lots of money into religious things? If I did, I would give you guys [SHIFT] the same amount,” he said. “Why not?”
When asked for his initial impression of the chalking depictions, Shapiro related the incident to one he faced as president of William College. In 2007, a student hung up posters around her dorm, saying “Happy Birthday Hitler” to satire similar Holocaust remembrance posters hung the previous week. Though what she did was clearly reprehensible, Schapiro said, there was a clear distinction between direct verbal assault and free speech.
“When tested, I think I made the right call.”
One SHIFT member, Medill graduate student Michael Depland, related a similar experience. While an undergraduate student at the University of Texas-San Antonio, his group Atheist Agenda participated in a “Smut for Smut” protest, in which the group took Bibles and other religious texts and exchanged them for pornography on the grounds that “religion has placed women in a second-class role.”
Schapiro’s stance on the issues at hand was clear.
“As upset as I am, we have to protect [first amendment rights],” Schapiro said. “That’s the line. Where you draw the line, that’s what matters.”
“At the end of the day, I think the test on whether you provoked too much to cross the fence is whether people engage in dialogue with you and whether they predict they will hunker down as such a beleaguered group,” Shapiro said. “My guess is you went too far and you’ll never get the chance. But I could be wrong.”
Schapiro said he questioned SHIFT’s methods of chalking stick figure images on the ground, asking why they chalked sidewalks when they could hang posters. Weinberg sophomore and SHIFT president Cassandra Byrne said that SHIFT wanted to keep depictions in low traffic walking areas. Byrne also said that if SHIFT members were allowed to hang up posters, they would have “probably” done so.
According to the Division of Student Affairs brochure titled “Campus Publicity Policies and Procedures,” all posted information must comply with all University policies and may be posted on bulletin boards and kiosks but not on walls, doors, windows, trees, lamp posts, University signage, or traffic and street signs.
Byrne said she thought the event went well.
“I was very pleased that he was so adamant about upholding the first amendment and that he does not add his personal consideration into it,” Byrne said. “We were concerned about his personal beliefs concerning what might happen around campus because he definitely demonstrated that he does let things like that occur. He’s an admirable president and I feel totally secure.”