RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (KFSM) — Arkansas Tech University avoided any unrest while students protested Tuesday (April 30) over the university naming a scholarship fund for a deceased former professor accused of promoting anti-Semitism.
Officials had prepared for a volatile situation, as a white supremacy website had also urged for a counter-protest at the Hindsman Bell Tower.
The university's public safety department set up two separate "free speech areas" so the groups could express their views in a safe area that wouldn't incite violence, according to Joshua McMillan, chief of public safety.
Last year, ATU announced a scholarship fund named for the late Dr. Michael Link, an associate professor of history who taught at the university for more than 50 years.
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, wrote to Bowen earlier this month, claiming that Dr. Link "repeatedly espoused Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism to his students and in his writing."
"The evidence against Dr. Link includes anti-Semitic passages in his written work, testimony from former student and college and a well-documented 2005 incident in which Dr. Link presented anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi published texts in a graduate seminar as though they were legitimate historical works," ADL stated in the letter.
Demonstrators held signs bearing messages like "we will not be silent" and "no serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place" as they stood in an area roped off near the tower.
Several students told 5NEWS they were upset that white nationalist supporters were allowed to come to campus.
"I don't understand why people are so hateful. I don't understand why we can't just get along," said junior Anna Scherff.
"I guess that's so cliche, but I've got a lot of friends -- all different cultures, all different races -- I accept everyone. I just don't understand why people don't have the heart to do that for others."
In a letter to students, University president Robin E. Bowen said that while she is "committed to diversity and inclusion," the university also "recognizes and support the rights of individuals to speak in public and demonstrate in a lawful manner that is consistent with our speech and domestication regulations."
"(Diversity and inclusion) is integral to who I am as a human being and as an education," Bowen said.
"It is a value that I have observed our university community uphold time and again, but today we must balance personal beliefs with two important responsibilities."
Bowen added that students should give "serious consideration to avoiding engagement with any external groups if they do indeed visit our campus and demonstrate (Tuesday)."
The ADL's letter, signed by representatives from Jewish advocacy groups and university professors nationwide, condemned ATU for creating the scholarship fund to honor link.
Bowen said ATU couldn't find evidence supporting the claims against Dr. Link.
"Accurately assessing the entirety of another person's life after it is complete is a difficult, and perhaps impossible, task," Bowen said.
"Teaching Holocaust denial and promoting anti-Semitism are not behaviors condoned by Arkansas Tech University. We will continue to review this matter and respond to documented facts."
Bowen added that the university will continue to review the issue.
A few weeks after ADL sent its letter to ATU, Inside Higher Ed, an online publication covering higher education in the U.S., reported that one of Link's former students had come forward to support the university for honoring Dr. Link.
Billy Roper, who runs the The Roper Report, wrote that the ADL "failed in their Jewy attempts to intimidate ... (his) alma mater into removing a "beloved history professor’s name from a scholarship he endowed," according to Inside Higher Ed.
On Monday (April 29), Roper's website called for a "free speech rally" and posted a picture of a flyer organizing a walkout against ATU honoring link with a scholarship fund.
"Bigoted Anti-Gentile censors from an off campus racial pressure group, the ADL, want to limit (ATU) students’ access to scholarships, and censor their freedom of speech as well as the first amendment protected views of faculty members on campus," the websited stated.
"These same agitators support the persecution of the Palestinian people and their genocidal displacement in the Zionist occupied territory. Whatever your views are on the Palestinian issue, Arkansas Tech University needs MORE scholarships, not fewer, and MORE free speech, not less."
The ADL has described Roper as the fonder of the Shield Wall Network (SWN), describing the group as a white supremacist faction based in Mountain View.
"Formed in early 2017, the racist and anti-Semitic SWN includes several dozen members scattered around Arkansas, and a handful of members in Tennessee and West Virginia," the ADL wrote.
"Roper and his followers organize white supremacist rallies and conferences, and attend events organized by other white supremacist groups."
The ADL tallied 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents — either harassment, vandalism or physical assault — in 2018. That is a 5% decrease from the 1,986 incidents reported in 2017, but the third-highest total since ADL began tracking the data in the 1970s, according to the Associated Press.
Last week, a 19-year-old man killed one person and wounded several others in a shooting at a California synagogue. Officials have described the incident as a hate crime.