During the same time at which Lehigh was taking heat for its response to the killing of George Floyd, the university — twice — removed pro-Black Lives Matter images on its campus.
Chris Woods, ‘19, noticed the images and their removal on his daily walks up South Mountain. The images appeared on rocks about halfway between the ATO fraternity house and the Lehigh lookout.
On June 2 — the same day an open letter circulated calling on President John Simon, Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Clayton and the university to do more to combat racism and injustice — Woods noticed a drawing of what appears to be Floyd alongside the words, “Don’t forget.” The open letter was signed by over 2,300 people in about a day, including students, staff, faculty and alumni.
The next day — the same day Simon and Clayton responded to the open letter, vowing to do more to make Lehigh actively “anti-racist” — Woods noticed the image was gone.
Later that week, on June 7, another image appeared on the same rock wall, reading, “We won’t be silenced #BLM” with a drawing of a raised fist alongside the text.
The same thing happened. On June 8, the image was gone.
The timing stuck out to Woods.
“When I first saw the image up, I thought that it was a powerful message and I thought that it was important and its location on the big flat of the rock, it really stood out and made an impression on me,” he said. “And then the next day, it was in the midst of John Simon releasing a half-hearted message about race and so… I thought, ‘That’s not right, they should’ve left that up.”
Lori Friedman, Lehigh’s media relations director, said the university was responsible for removing the images.
“The image and lettering was removed as part of routine facilities maintenance of the Lehigh campus without any intention aimed at erasing signs of protest,” she said. “Our general policy is to remove any unapproved markings on university property.”
She added that the university is assessing “at every level” how to make Lehigh anti-racist. She said Lehigh is working to understand how routine practices like facilities maintenance exists “in a wider context and that even without any ill intention, actions have impact.”
“To that end, we commit to a reassessment of our facilities maintenance approach when it comes to markings made by the Lehigh community on campus,” Friedman said. “Lehigh University stands in solidarity as allies in the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to bring justice, healing and freedom to Black people across the globe.”
And yet, these images that surfaced in the past 10 days were not alone on the Hill.
In fact, painted rocks are a well-known sight along the roads of Lehigh’s campus set aside for Greek chapter houses. Many of these images feature Greek letters and symbols associated with the various chapters.
Friedman said permission was granted for those images in advance.
“It felt like hypocrisy to allow one sort of expression on rocks on that same road, and for whatever reason, this was in violation of what Lehigh wants aesthetically,” Woods said. “It sent the message that that’s not what Lehigh wants.”
The content managers of @notmylehigh, an anonymous Instagram account dedicated to publishing statements and acts of prejudice on Lehigh’s campus, said the issue at hand of police brutality is “urgent” and is not something that can “wait for an approval process,” but rather needs to be “seen and heard by everyone immediately.”
The content managers of the Instagram account called the university’s response “tone-deaf.”
“Lehigh prides itself on its Principles of Our Equitable Community, yet time and time again, shuts out voices that try to stand up for students of color,” the content managers said. “This failure to acknowledge meaningful messaging is not surprising, considering the administration’s failure to provide resources, create support systems or contribute to any meaningful or actionable change thus far.”
Sirry Alang, an associate professor in sociology and health, medicine and society, said the university’s actions “fit well with the university’s history of silencing the voices of student activists.”
“I think the university just needs to be transparent and say they do not want BLM protest signs displayed on campus. And we can then start having a conversation about why,” Alang said. “There are black students, staff and faculty on campus. Actions such as erasing BLM protests signs and inactions tell us very clearly whether and how we are valued at Lehigh. Thankfully, messages such as those from the CAS dean and the Council for Equity and Community are reassuring.”
Woods said he thinks Simon needs to address the situation. The Brown and White reached out to Simon’s chief of staff for comment but received no response.
“John Simon has sort of taken the spotlight as the communicator of Lehigh’s official position in regards to the original letter (on May 31) and then the open letter,” Woods said. “The buck stops with him and he’s got to be the one who responds to this.”