After several Wake
Forest University faculty and staff members received threatening emails from an
anonymous source earlier this month, a culture of fear and anxiety remains for some
in the university community.
More than two weeks after a dozen faculty and staff members
at Wake Forest University received threatening emails from an anonymous source,
some faculty and students say they still feel unsafe and are unhappy with how
the university administration handled the situation.
On Sept. 10, 11 and 12, a dozen emails were sent to seven
faculty and staff in the university’s sociology department and five accounts
associated with the gender and sexuality studies department, the office of
diversity and inclusion, the LGBTQ+ Center and the Intercultural Center. While
the exact contents of the emails have not been released, an email from the
university’s office of communication and external relations to students,
faculty and staff on Sept. 16 stated that the emails were “intentionally inflammatory,
using racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and discriminatory language. The wording
of the email was intentionally intimidating, and threatening, though no direct
and specific threat was made.”
In response to the emails, several sociology professors
cancelled classes through Sept. 13.
Joseph Soares, who chairs the sociology department and was
one of the recipients of the emails, said in a letter and timeline addressed to
Wake faculty, staff and students, that the university’s lack of communication
led to confusion and fear among members of the campus community.
“Wednesday, September 11, the University Police told you
that there [sic] were ‘investigating reports of inflammatory emails [sent
Tuesday night] with racist, homophobic, and discriminatory content sent from an
unknown source… to various faculty and staff members,’” Soares wrote. “Seven
people who work in our department were singled out for a hate email that
praised the while male founding fathers, dismissed our undergraduates with ugly
vile language, and called for our land to be ‘purged’ of people of color and
members of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Soares’s timeline reveals additionally racist wording from the emails that was not mentioned by the university such as a call for the purge of the “hyperpigmented” as well as references to students as “sh*thole mud students.”
In a phone interview on Monday, Soares explained that while
some of the emails contained repeating language, that many of the ones sent to
staff and faculty in the sociology department seemed to be catered directly
towards individual recipients. While people weren’t singled out by name, Soares
said that some of the messages included specific indicators such as race or
ethnicity that directly targeted recipients.
“Specifically, there were vile anti-Semitic emails that I
didn’t receive any of,” Soares said. “There’s a presumption that I’m not Jewish.
You don’t have to put a person’s name on it.”
In his timeline, Soares mentioned the possibility of the
perpetrator being someone who is familiar with the sociology department and
stated that “the emails have been individualized and contain content that is
specific to recipients, making it more likely that sender was someone who had been
in the sociology department at some point.”
Soares elaborated in the interview: “We’re confident that this wasn’t some random person in front of a computer. Some part of this involves eyes on the ground.”
Soares’ timeline also mentions that on Sept. 11, the threatening
emails were pulled from the inboxes of all recipients without notice by the
university’s IT security office. An email from the university’s communication
office initially explained the disappearance of the emails by stating that “the
messages appear to delete themselves from our system after a limited amount of
According to Soares, this caused further confusion among faculty
members and students who didn’t know whether they had been targeted or not.
“This was in my opinion, a mistake,” Soares said. “But it
was the action of the web security team at Wake Forest. The emails did not
The university did not respond to specific questions from Triad
City Beat, but a spokesperson referred to previous communiques released by
the university as well as campus police.
A message sent by campus police on Sept. 17 stated that “the
wording of the emails was intentionally intimidating and threatening, though no
direct and specific threat was made. At this time, we have had no reports of
any students receiving similar emails, and no further emails have been reported
since the original twelve.”
The message also mentioned that the university had
“increased the police and security presence around the buildings housing
impacted offices” and “after consulting with state and federal authorities,
Wake Forest did not cancel classes or issue an alert to students requiring any
change to daily activity.”
The message continues by saying that “the investigation is
still very active, and we thank you for your patience as authorities continue
to pursue answers and follow leads. We will share updates as they become
According to Soares’s timeline, it wasn’t until Sept. 16 that the emails were reinstated into faculty and staff inboxes and students were made aware of the situation through the email sent by the communications office.
The same day, the sociology department demanded a letter
from university President Nathan Hatch to the university community condemning
the emails, police presence in the sociology department, keycard access for the
sociology classrooms, peepholes in faculty office doors, transparent
communication directly with the recipients of the emails and support in being
open with students regarding the situation.
According to the timeline, on Sept. 17, police officers were
assigned to Kirby Hall, the building that houses the sociology department, but
that the officers seemed “unaware of the reason for their presence in the
building” and were “ill-positioned and [did] not appear alert in order to
identity potential threats.” On Sept. 18, peepholes were installed in sociology
faculty office doors and campus police Chief Regina Lawson recommended 24/7
lockdown of the building.
On Sept. 19, president Hatch sent out a message to the
campus that stated that “faculty and staff have worked to protect everyone on [their]
campus while striving to preserve the integrity of the investigation.” The
statement also revealed that after consulting with “law enforcement and
national threat assessment experts — including the FBI’s leading experts on
domestic terrorism, white nationalism, and hate crimes”, that the university
decided to “continue classes and normal university operations” despite the
sociology department’s decision to cancel all departmental classes.
Despite the initial hiccups, Soares said in the interview on
Monday, that “everybody got their act together” and that “we are on top of it
“It was a scary six or seven days before everything was
working the way it should,” Soares said. “They dropped the ball in the
beginning, but people learn lessons from this thing. There’s a lot of security.
The dean, police and FBI have been working very well. We’re not out of the
danger zone, but we’re not in a situation where we don’t know where the threats
are from or the scale. It took a while to get there but once we got everything
out in the open, now we’ve got most of our positions. The reality is we are now on top of this thing.”
He said that there are several officers patrolling the
building and that he held classes as scheduled on Monday but that some
professors chose to host their classes online.
“We don’t know if this is
something that effects this week or two weeks or the rest of the semester,”
Soares said. “We want each person to come to terms with their comfort level of
how they’re gonna continue teaching. There’s going to be a variety of responses.
These are my people and my community, and I don’t want anyone to feel unsafe.”
Email statements and responses
from some faculty and students show that there is still a level of fear and
uncertainty on campus.
Mir Yarfitz, a history professor at Wake Forest, said in a letter to faculty, staff and a dean on Monday that the impact of the emails is lingering in the community.
“On [Sept. 18], I attended an
informal listening session organized by marginalized students who came together
to share their pain, fear, and frustration in the aftermath of the hate emails
sent to faculty and staff,” Yarfitz wrote. “These students’ words have been
resonating in my heart along with those of my own current students.”
Specific fears brought up by the
students as outlined in Yarfitz’s letter include their own lack of preparedness
in the event of an active-shooter situation, their fears of gathering in large
groups on campus, as well as the ease with which someone could attack the
different offices mentioned in the email because of their proximity on campus.
“The fact is that I do not trust that this institution in its current form can protect me from violence and retaliation, whether originating on or off campus,” Yarfitz wrote. “I have heard from students that they do not trust that the institution can protect them either.”
The second half of the letter includes two lists of
suggestions that the university can take to create a safer environment for
students and faculty. Among them, Yarfitz lists greater clarity on the status
of the investigation, an increase in counselors, panic buttons and cameras on
affected offices and building, greater clarity and communication on active
shooter protocols and an assessment of campus security. In the long term,
Yarfitz recommends an outside audit of the university’s institutional culture,
which in recent years has been brought up repeatedly, as well as transparency
in email communications. He also asks for a new legal position to vet
communication from higher administrators, and greater involvement of students
and faculty in moments of crisis.
Soares said that while he’s worried about his students, he’s
also personally been affected by the events.
“This happened Tuesday night, Sept. 10,” he said on Monday.
“And I’ve only had two nights of normal sleep and by normal, I mean anything
over six hours.”
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