After stories of “reprehensible conduct” at the University of Hartford ricocheted across the country this week, University of Hartford President Greg Woodward Thursday pledged to respond to injustice and racism on campus.
Woodward spent part of Thursday meeting with students after a white student admitted she covertly harassed her black roommate in a series of incidents she later bragged about on social media.
“This was a terrible event. None of us are psychics. We couldn’t have predicted it would happen. It was an act of an individual student which is horrible,” Woodward said. “We are not going to be able to ever promise that’s not going to happen again. What we are going to try to do is think about how do we educate our community to speak up when they see injustice, racism.’’
West Hartford Police have requested that Briana Rae Brochu, 18, be charged with intimidation based on bigotry or bias, a hate crime. She has already been charged with breach of peace and criminal mischief. Brochu referred to her then-roommate as “Jamaican Barbie” in an Instagram post in which she also claimed to have spit in the woman’s coconut oil, put a toothbrush “places where the sun doesn’t shine,” and rubbed used tampons on a backpack.
Woodward has also told students that Brochu, because of her conduct and this “deeply disturbing situation,” would not be returning to the university.
Woodward said Thursday he has been getting many strong suggestions about how the university can respond to the incident and plans to create “a team of people across campus” who will come up with a plan that will outline, step by step, plans for orientation events and other educational practices.
“This incident is horrible and we don’t want to see it ever repeated, but there might be an opportunity here to make people more aware or to have their vision changed,” Woodward said, “so that they see racism when it happens right in front of them, recognize it as such and they speak up.”
Discussion at the university has been focused on race relations after Brochu admitted to police that she tampered with the belongings of her former roommate, who is black.
Brochu appeared in Hartford Community Court Wednesday and was told she was not to return to the University of Hartford campus and was not to contact the victim.
Woodward, who started at the university in July, said he took the job partly because of how diverse the campus is — 39 percent of the undergraduates are students of color. As he strolled around campus in his first few months, Woodward said he saw groups of students from different cultures and races interacting and wasn’t aware of friction.
“I think I was living a honeymoon,” Woodward said. “I mean where there’s a mixture [of races and cultures], there’s going to be issues.”
Woodward met with about 400 students at a town hall meeting organized by multicultural groups on campus Wednesday night, which local and state political leaders as well as leaders of the NAACP attended, and then followed that with meetings of smaller groups of students on Thursday.
Students on campus say the conversations have been extremely helpful as they try to address the painful and shocking incident. Many of them say they were concerned about the lag time between the date when Brochu’s Instagram post became known to the university’s public safety team — Oct. 17 — and when Woodward first informed the community about the situation in an email, which was earlier this week.
Some suggested that it may only have come to light because the victim posted a long video earlier this week on Facebook that explained what happened and went viral.
However, Woodward said Thursday that he was not aware of the incident until Tuesday when he learned of the video.
Woodward said he wasn’t informed earlier because the event “did not rise to a level where it involved or threatened the safety of others. It was an individual-against-an-individual event, so it didn’t rise to … a level.”
“But now we realize that somebody might have seen that there was a kind of volatility about this,” Woodward said.
“We followed our student conduct code perfectly, we followed all the legal codes perfectly,” Woodward. “The question is: Is the code right?”
In addition, Woodward said there has to be a certain lag time while an investigation is underway. “People aren’t guilty until you figure out they’re guilty or even [if they can be] charged.”
Eric Cruz, a freshman, said that before meeting with Woodward Thursday, he felt that “the university had done nothing to rectify the situation.”
“Being a Puerto Rican man, just knowing that there could still be this level of hatred and this level of bigotry in a place that I’ve been … a short time, but just love so much,” Cruz said. “I couldn’t let that stand.”
But after talking with Woodward on Thursday, Cruz said, he understands why there was some delay in Woodward’s delivery of a statement on the matter and sees that the president feels as strongly as he does about the situation.
“I feel like we as a university and a student body are going to move past this,” Cruz said, “and we’re going to be a lot better in the future.”
Other students also expressed hope that positive change might occur because of the incident.
“I think this is the start of liberation,” said Uchenna Ogechukwu, a first-year student, after emerging from a meeting with Woodward and about a dozen other students in the dining hall. “Liberation is about talking. It’s about having open dialogue, about talking about different perspectives and why you feel this way. I feel like this is the start to our school’s liberation.
“I feel like our generation is really doing a lot right now to make change, so I feel like there is some good and I’m seeing it, but sometimes you have to go through bad things to make the good come out.”
Woodward said he will continue his meetings with students in the coming days and together they eventually will produce a plan.
Among the suggestions he’s heard is to require that all students on campus take a class on culture-sensitivity, racial identity and microagressions, which are more subtle, often unintentional incidents of discrimination.
He also heard another suggestion for a “a big picnic of unity” on the lawn next week.
“Clearly we have got work to do … Are we alone in this? Everyone’s got this work to do,” Woodward said. “Hatred is kind of fashionable at the moment, which is unfortunate.”