University of Massachusetts President Martin Meehan on Monday condemned a threatening e-mail sent recently to a number of Black student groups at the Amherst flagship campus as administrators hired a cybersecurity firm to investigate the source of the anonymous message.
“The blatantly racist e-mails recently sent to Black student organizations at UMass Amherst and other deplorable acts of anti-Black hatred are appalling and disgusting,” Meehan said in a statement. “The messages in no way reflect the true character of the UMass community and we have zero tolerance for such behavior.”
As the university’s Black Student Union criticized administrators for their response to the e-mails, Meehan said his office is working with UMass Amherst officials to identify who sent them and “hold them accountable.” The university has hired the New York-based firm Stroz Friedberg Digital Forensics to assist in the investigation.
“While we are mindful of the challenges of determining the source of anonymous e-mails such as these, we are confident that Stroz Friedberg, with its extensive expertise and technical capacity, will methodically follow every lead in pursuit of the contemptible individual or individuals responsible,” Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy wrote in an e-mail to the UMass community on Monday.
“I want to assure you that we are committed to doing everything in our power to support our Black students at this difficult time and will spare no measure in our investigation to determine the perpetrator(s) of these incidents,” he added.
In a statement posted on Facebook and Instagram, the UMass Black Student Union said it was “absolutely appalled” by the anonymous e-mail but “certainly not surprised.” The group criticized the university for not publicly responding sooner to racist incidents that had been reported on campus in recent weeks.
“We are angry. We are hurt. We are tired,” the group said.
Black student organizations began receiving racist e-mails in the second week of September, the group said. In August, someone drove past a group of Black students and shouted anti-Black epithets at them, the group said.
“It took the university almost a month from the initial anti-Black racist incidents to acknowledge these instances,” the group said. “The university’s lengthy response time to racial incidents compared to their rapid response to non-racial incidents is not reflective of a university that claims to be ‘committed in policy, principle, and practice to maintain an environment which prohibits discriminatory behavior and provides equal opportunity for all persons.’ ”
Steve Wessler, a specialist on hate crimes and conflict resolution, said the most important step the university can take is to provide space for students, and the rest of the campus community, to condemn the e-mails.
“That needs to happen quickly regardless of whether this came from somebody on campus or elsewhere,” he said. “It takes it to another level when the campus doesn’t, as a campus, say ‘this is disgusting, this is racist, and it has no place in academia.’”
Subbaswamy said Monday the university will implement “a series of educational opportunities and action steps to promote understanding and an ongoing commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.” They will include a forum on “Black Joy, Black Healing and Black Justice” hosted by the Office of Equity and Inclusion on Oct. 5, an increase in funding for the university’s Center for Racial Justice, and the creation of a Black Advisory Council, he said.
The source of the racist messages is not clear. Last Thursday, Nefertiti A. Walker, the university’s vice chancellor and chief diversity officer, said that in addition to the e-mails there had been “other acts of anti-Black hate imposed on our community through the ‘Contact Us’ online forms of registered student organizations, as well as an incident involving the offender driving by and yelling an anti-Black racist epithet at a group of Black students.”
Walker said the e-mails, part of “a disturbing increase in anti-Black incidents,” were “vile, blatantly racist, and violently offensive.”
Subbaswamy decried the racist incidents as “contemptible and cowardly.”
“We will not be intimidated by the hateful acts of craven individuals who hide in anonymity,” he wrote. “We stand with our students who have been victimized, and we will continually strive for a more equitable community grounded in the principles of dignity and respect.”
This is the second recent controversy at UMass Amherst. Last week, more than 300 students protested outside the Theta Chi fraternity house over allegations that a sexual assault had taken place there. Students also staged a sit-in to demand that the university take action on the accusations.
The school has also dealt with a rise in COVID-19 cases on campus. The institution reported 100 positive cases for the week of Sept. 15-21, the most recent data it has released.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.