Clemson admin offers recusal after students question relation to protest leader

Several Clemson students got a hostile reception Thursday when they started asking questions about a possible conflict of interest in the school’s investigation of a racial bias incident.

The following day, the official in question declared that she had recused herself from the matter.

Several Clemson students got a hostile reception Thursday when they started asking questions about a possible conflict of interest in the school’s investigation of a racial bias incident.

The following day, the official in question declared that she had recused herself from the matter.

Students affiliated with an unofficial organization called “See The Stripes” began a sit-in last week at Sikes Hall, which houses the school’s administrative offices, demanding that the school take action in response to the discovery of a bunch of bananas hanging from a banner honoring African American history at Clemson. WYFF reports that they ended the occupation Thursday night, nine days and five arrests after it began, having determined that they had little prospect of securing additional concessions beyond those the school outlined that afternoon.

See The Stripes had issued a list of seven demands, including a commitment to prosecute “defamatory speech,” increased funding for minority student groups, and hiring more faculty of color.

University President Dr. James Clements acceded to nearly all of them in a letter sent to the school community Thursday, pledging to construct a new multicultural center to serve as a “safe space” for minority students, double the number of “underrepresented faculty” by 2025, and implement mandatory diversity training for all students and employees.

Clements also stated that the school seeks to foster an environment of free speech in general, but asserted that “that comes a responsibility to treat all members with respect and dignity,” adding, “I will not tolerate threatening behavior and statements, and there will be consequences for any such actions.”

Members of another informal student group called WeRoar, which advocates for the elimination of unconstitutional speech policies at Clemson, became concerned early in the protest that the “banana banner” incident would be used as justification for further speech restrictions, and began seeking out information regarding the identity and motivations of the two individuals who confessed to placing the bananas on the banner.

[RELATED: Clemson students worry ‘banana banner’ will lead to free speech setbacks]

Clayton Warnke, Jack Timmerman, Kyle Brady, Miller Hall, and Alexander Cullen began by meeting with Dr. Chris Miller, Interim Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, to report that the protesters had hung posters in violation of school policy and ask whether the school would enforce those rules.

“Now that we’re notified, we’ll have to go and take a look at what they’ve posted,” Miller responded, adding that the protesters “have to” follow university policy, and that he would ensure that “they sure will.”

[RELATED: Clemson students challenge ‘Black Out’ protesters]

They also spoke with Senior Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Doug Hallenbeck, who informed them that the Office of Community and Ethical Standards was handling the school’s investigation, but cautioned that there would likely be legal restrictions preventing that office from disclosing anything more than general information.

The students told Campus Reform that they then met with OCES Director and Associate Dean of Students Alesia Smith on Thursday afternoon, who confirmed that specific details are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but declined to speak with the students on camera.

“Smith became very vague and defensive at this point and again claimed she could not release the identity under FERPA, but that she could say that the individual did not ‘intend to incite campus,’ which we thought could either mean that they did not intend the act to be racist, or that they did not indent the act to make campus believe that racism was prevalent on campus for the purpose of giving a reason for the protests,” recounted Miller Hall, one of the students present for the discussion.

The students encountered Smith again several hours later when they showed up at Sikes Hall to hear an announcement by the protest leaders, in the process discovering a surprising personal connection between Smith and the student protesters.

“During this announcement, one of the #Clemson5 approached a man who he identified as his father in an emotional moment,” Hall told Campus Reform. “This student was named DJ Smith, and the man he identified as his father was standing next to none other than Alesia Smith.”

The man, Bryant Smith, has been a vocal defender of the protesters according to WYFF, and recently called on the university to drop trespassing charges against his son and four other students who were arrested last week after refusing to vacate the building as ordered by university officials.

Inferring that Mrs. Smith might be related to Mr. Smith and his son, the students begin asking her whether DJ is her son, to which she would only reply that “he is a student.” After the students repeat the question several times, Mr. Smith interposes himself between the two sides and announces that he is DJ’s father, but refuses to say whether Mrs. Smith is related to either of them.

“If you have any questions about my son, you can ask me,” Mr. Smith said

“Oh, is she your wife?” Hall then asked.

“I just told you he’s my son. That’s all you need to know,” Mr. Smith replied, dodging the question a second time.

Later, Mr. Smith grew agitated with Warnke and Hall, and even threatened them, saying they would be sorry if they did not leave the rally immediately.

“Why are you recording this? Why are you recording?” Mr. Smith asked.

“I’m worried about his safety,” Hall replied after seeing that his friend was being shouted down by Mr. Smith.

Hall then apologized for the altercation, but Mr. Smith remained indignant, telling Hall to leave with his friend.

“If you’re worried about his safety you should take him out of here. If you’re worried about his safety, take him on away from me. Get him on out of here. What you sorry, you gonna be sorry in a minute if you don’t get him up out of here. And you need to stop recording,” Mr. Smith shouted.

Mr. Smith continued to insist on the illegality of recording him, despite South Carolina laws requiring the consent of only one party.

“Oh, ok. I tell you what. I understand what this is. You can take your sunglasses and your camera and film the fact that I don’t care about you but you don’t have my permission to use my likeness,” Mr. Smith said.

The students told Campus Reform that they declined to press charges after reporting the altercation to campus police, but remain troubled by the implications.

“It is disturbing that a woman who is charged with the protection of Clemson students refused to do her duty as her husband assaulted a group of them, and that the incident which prompted this confrontation was the exposing of her own denial of a conflict of interest,” Hall remarked. “It is also disturbing that there is a possibility of her own involvement in preventing the investigation of the arrested #Clemson5 under the student code of conduct, which is her job, particularly since she was aware of the violations committed by her own son.”

“It is disgusting to see that the OCES director has clearly overlooked code of conduct violations of her own son, and has not opened up an investigation,” Brady concurred. “As a University official it is imperative that she investigate all students on violations that she is aware of, and not selectively bring charges up against student groups.”

Campus Reform reached out to Smith for comment after verifying her relationship to DJ and Bryant through social media, but she referred further inquiries to Dr. Miller, stating, “I have recused myself and am not involved in these matters.”

Dr. Miller had not responded by press time to messages from Campus Reform seeking further information about Smith’s recusal.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete

(Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Clements was present at Sikes Hall Thursday. The article has been updated to reflect the fact that he communicated his statement to students via email, and was not personally present at the protest.)