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 time.”
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 self-delete.”
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 available.”
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 now.”
“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.”