AU’s rector confirms: there will be no costume ban

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Rector Brian Bech Nielsen promises that there are no plans to introduce a costume ban at AU.

2018.10.11 | Lene Ravn

Brian Bech Nielsen, rector of Aarhus University, supported the decision to remove photos of a student who had painted her face black and who was dressed up like Obama. “Our assessment was that it could develop into a media witch hunt against the student, so we took down the photo,” he writes in a mail to Omnibus. Archival photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo

In brief

On Monday last week, Omnibus published a story about three photos that had been removed from Instagram by AU’s social media editorial team in September. The photos pictured a group of female students at a new student introduction week party, one of whom had painted her face black and dressed up as former United States president Barack Obama. 

After three Instagram followers criticized the photos, specifically referring to the concept of ‘blackface’, the social media editorial team removed them. The senior management team supported that decision.

Part of the context for these events was the zero-tolerance policy for harassment adopted by the senior management at the University of Copenhagen this summer, shortly after which the introduction week tutors on the law programme there were informed that their Mexican and American Indian costume themes “did not live up to the faculty’s values of diversity and non-discrimination”.

Should Aarhus University have a zero-tolerance harassment policy like the one the University of Copenhagen introduced this summer? There’s been considerable debate about this in the wake of a story published in Omnibuslast week. But despite several requests, the rector has declined to be interviewed. Instead, he agreed to answer some of our questions by mail.   

READ MORE: AU removed photos of students in Obama costumes

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen’s stance on a costume ban is clear: 

“We haven’t had a costume ban at AU and we don’t have any plans to introduce one. The management has great faith in the ability of students to handle these costumes.”

What kinds of considerations should students be aware of in general before coming to campus in a costume – for example, do you think that they should make an effort to find out whether there are people somewhere in the world who might find their costume offensive?  

“The same considerations apply everywhere in the public sphere. Freedom under responsibility applies here. Aarhus University doesn’t want to lay down rules for what the students can and can’t do in connection with costumes. As far as I’m aware, the students don’t want those kinds of rules either,” the rector writes.

Removed to avert a witch hunt

Photos of a students dressed up as Barack Obama have been removed from AU’s social media accounts. AU’s head of press affairs Anders Correll explained why last week:  

“The photo wasn’t contextualized, and so there were some reactions on social media. The people who sent me the photos drew my attention to what was happening, and so I supported their decision to take down the photo. In part because you couldn’t decode what was in the photo, and in part because it was offensive to some people. And in that connection, of course we also take into consideration that we have some students who might get attacked by a serious media witch hunt.”

And special consultant Ole Frank Nielsen, a member of AU’s social media editorial team, has also explained the background for the decision to remove the photo of the student dressed up like Obama:

“Well, if you’re coming from the outside, you might well think that Aarhus University is the kind of place where you represent different races in that way. Which is wrong, of course. It gives the wrong picture of student life here. It wasn’t censorship. That’s something we are constantly evaluating.”

Why are American Indians ok?

On social media, several students have since questioned why it’s ok to show photos of, for example, American Indians on AU’s Instagram feed, but not photos of a student dressed up like Obama. 

Rector Bech Nielsen writes:

“This case is not about wearing costumes. It’s about the fact that we removed a photo of a student in a costume which was taken by one of our own photographers. The photo wasn’t contextualized – it was difficult to decode – and we got some reactions on that account. Our assessment was that it could develop into a media witch hunt against the student, so we took down the photo. And I’ve been informed that the student subsequently stated agreement that the photo should be removed. The photos of the students dressed like Indians were contextualized and explained.” 

The rector adds:

“Again – we have no plans to introduce guidelines for costumes. I have no knowledge of any complaints about costumes in connection with introduction week. In general, my position is that cases such as this should be addressed through dialogue, and preferably as locally as possible.”

An AU code of conduct may be on the way

This summer, the senior management team appointed a committee to assess the need for a university-wide code of conduct for employees and students. 

What will a university-wide code of conduct for employees and students contain?

“A committee has been appointed that’s taking a look at whether there’s a need for clearer guidelines for appropriate behavior. I’m not going to speculate about what concrete proposals the committee’s discussions might result in. However, I can promise that there will be no ban on costumes.” 

When will it be announced that we’ll be getting a code of conduct at AU? And in that connection: How will it be communicated to employees and students? 

“It’s still too early to answer that. If changes are made, naturally they’ll be announced to both employees and students through the usually channels,” writes Rector Bech Nielsen.

In brief

On Monday last week, Omnibus published a story about three photos that had been removed from Instagram by AU’s social media editorial team in September. The photos pictured a group of female students at a new student introduction week party, one of whom had painted her face black and dressed up as former United States president Barack Obama. 

After three Instagram followers criticized the photos, specifically referring to the concept of ‘blackface’, the social media editorial team removed them. The senior management team supported that decision.

Part of the context for these events was the zero-tolerance policy for harassment adopted by the senior management at the University of Copenhagen this summer, shortly after which the introduction week tutors on the law programme there were informed that their Mexican and American Indian costume themes “did not live up to the faculty’s values of diversity and non-discrimination”.

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Revised 12.12.2018