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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, October 2, 2023

Tufts announces results of investigation into Jumbo statue mask incident

Jumbo is pictured wearing a mask on Sept. 6.

Tufts University announced the conclusion of a five-month-long investigation into an incident that occurred on Sept. 1. The Tufts University Police Department was dispatched to the Jumbo statue where a group of three women of color were hanging a mask on the statue as part of a Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life initiative to promote JumboVote and Healthy@Tufts.

The announcement, which came in the form of an email sent to the entire student body, was signed by Executive Vice President Michael Howard and Associate Provost and Chief Diversity Officer for the Medford/Somerville and Boston SMFA campuses Rob Mack.

In the email, Howard and Mack, co-chairs of the Working Group on Campus Safety and Policing, announced that the investigation found no evidence of discrimination on the part of the responding TUPD officers.

“Using the standard that is applied in such investigations, preponderance of evidence, [the investigators] did not find there was discrimination on the part of the TUPD officers responding to the call,” the email said.

However, Howard and Mack apologized for the university’s conduct prior to the matter. Specifically, they reported that the lack of communication between university departments and the TUPD played a role in the incident’s outcome.

“[The investigators] confirmed that prior to the interaction with the police officers, departments within the university made mistakes—including not notifying TUPD—that contributed to the incident which, as the report notes, negatively impacted the project participants,” the email said. “On behalf of the entire university administration, we apologize to the students and staff members for our errors that led to this incident.”

Matt Tolbert, former student chair of JumboVote, questioned the role of TUPD on campus.

"What TUPD [did] was nothing short of harassment and is embarrassing, but sadly that is what policing in the country is designed to do: harass and intimidate," Tolbert wrote in an electronic message to the Daily. "We have to ask ourselves as a university community whether having a full fleet of police cruisers and officers is necessary to keep us safe, as well as who actively feels less safe by their presence."

Tolbert added that he was not surprised by the results of the investigation.

TCU President Sarah Wiener agreed with Tolbert's perspective.

“I found the results of the investigation to be what I expected, an acknowledgement of harm done, what seems to be thorough research, and rather clerical,” Wiener wrote in an email to the Daily.

She added that she was happy to see that Tufts has the Working Group on Campus Safety and Policing and that various offices on campus are offering holding spaces for students. However, she acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done.

“​I think there is a clear need for Tufts to reimagine what campus policing and surveillance look like,” Wiener said. “If events like this cease to exist, and if particularly historically marginalized students can feel safe on-campus, I think then it will be clear the situation was handled correctly.” 

According to the email signed by Mack and Howard, the investigation looked into whether the circumstances of the incident would support the fact that there was disparate treatment. Specifically, the investigators looked at policies and practices regarding the climbing of the Jumbo statue, number of officers responding, officers carrying arms and general decision-making. 

The investigation also looked deeply into the treatment of project participants in comparison to the passerby who assisted them with the art installation.

In many cases, the affected parties request an investigation from the university. In this case, it was the university itself that ordered an investigation. According to Jill Zellmer, executive director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, Title IX coordinator and 504 officer, this is because the university determined an investigation was required even though no one had come forward to request it.

The university outsourced this investigation to Sanghavi Law Office which, according to the email, specializes in civil rights and education law. According to Zellmer, Tufts outsourced the investigation to prevent a conflict of interest.

“In OEO, we sometimes feel as though a conflict may occur if someone internally who’s paid by OEO investigates this type of matter,” Zellmer said. “We also wanted to be sure that we were above and beyond reproach in this matter.”

According to Zellmer, it is a frequent practice of OEO to outsource internal investigations in this way.

Mack said the university has been in contact with those involved since the incident began and has been discussing and will continue to discuss in what ways the university can make the campus feel like a safer place for everyone moving forward.

“[We have discussed] what this means for them and how we can take actions moving forward to ensure healing and ensure that their time on this campus is safe for them,” Mack said. “In addition to that… [we know] that an incident like this doesn’t just impact…the two students and one staff member; it impacts the larger community.”

Wiener echoed the impact of the incident, and how she felt when the incident first happened back in September.

“I felt frustrated and unsurprised that this miscommunication [that caused officers to arrive at the Jumbo statue] re-affirmed that campus is often inhospitable for people of color,” Wiener said.

Mack said that the university was in contact with several groups on campus and has planned a town hall meeting with the goal of providing support and healing for the entire community.

“We’ve recently had some meetings with different stakeholders on campus like the Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion,” Mack said. “We have an upcoming town hall where people have a chance to ask questions and engage in this process, and we will take feedback and work towards solutions.”

Howard also referenced the upcoming conclusion of a months-long workstream initiated last year by University President Anthony Monaco in an effort to make Tufts an anti-racist institution. This specific working group, co-chaired by Howard and Mack, was centered on campus safety and policing.

“I would say generally that the process has [had] extensive engagement with members of our community over a period of months,” Howard said. “I think they should expect to see many of the types of changes or shifts in direction from campus safety and policing on campus…clearly addressed in the findings and recommendations that are in the report.”

Howard and Mack said that it’s a priority of the university to take action that allows the Tufts community to heal and move forward.

“Ultimately, we need to take restorative actions to enable our community to heal from this incident and chart a new path forward for campus safety that serves the needs of our entire community and fully embraces anti-racist practices,” the email said.