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Seen from their body cameras, University of Iowa police officers Eric Seckel and Joe Lang arrive at the Pentacrest to respond to Serhat Tanyolacar's art piece and speak to concerned citizens

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A University of Iowa vice president repeatedly defended UI's initial statement and later response to the removal of a controversial sculpture on the UI Pentacrest on Dec. 5, even amid criticism that the statement inaccurately described the artist's intentions and undermined the university's commitment to free speech.

Before issuing UI's statement at 12:20 p.m. Dec. 5, vice president for student life Tom Rocklin spoke with the artist, visiting art professor Serhat Tanyolacar. Rocklin also had received information explaining that Tanyolacar intended his public artwork to be a critique of ongoing racial violence in the U.S., according to emails and other correspondence released by UI last week.

In responding to several email complaints about the content of UI's initial statement, Rocklin hypothesized that, if he had simply happened upon the larger-than-life Ku Klux Klan figure on the Pentacrest that morning, he probably would have viewed it as a critique of racism. But that scenario would not have changed Rocklin's decision to remove the unauthorized display, nor does it discount the experience of the many people who felt under attack because of the sculpture.

"I have learned a lot from listening to students over the last few days," Rocklin wrote to UI law professor Alexander Somek on Dec. 9. "While I understood that I would view the piece through the lens of my own privilege, hearing the students pour out their hearts as they described the fear they felt when the saw the piece was a visceral reminder that intent is only part of the question ... and sometimes impact trumps intent."

When Rocklin went to view the statue firsthand sometime after 10 a.m. Dec. 5, he already had received multiple complaints.

According to a Dec. 7 email to a student, whose name was redacted in the documents, Rocklin initially received a call from Tabitha Wiggins, an employee of the Division of Student Life, informing him that something strange was on the Pentacrest — something that, to many black students and employees of the university, looked like a direct threat.

In the email, Rocklin said it took five or 10 minutes between when he arrived on the Pentacrest and when the sculpture was taken down. But he described that time as being "excruciating" for community members who feared for their safety.

"In a tense situation like that, I try to balance the need to change the situation with an attempt to keep things peaceful and cooperative," Rocklin wrote. "Perhaps I should have asked the police officer to pick it up sooner."

With UI President Sally Mason in western Iowa and many other UI administrators off campus Dec. 5, Rocklin became the point person for coordinating both UI's initial response to the sculpture as well as the apology Mason issued Dec. 7.

Word about the statue was spreading throughout campus and on social media.

Around 10:45 a.m., two students entered the office of Omolola Anaman, a multicultural specialist for UI's Center for Diversity and Enrichment, to complain about a "KKK statue on the Pentacrest, in the same location where the Graduation Herky used to be." Anaman sent an email about an hour later to Fred Mims, UI's associate athletics director, who then forwarded it to Rocklin and other administrators.

At 10:58 a.m., Dave Visin, then the associate director of the UI police, emailed photos of the sculpture to Rocklin and six other UI administrators along with the sentence, "I am just letting you know we are dealing with this display on the Pentacrest. It is creating some attention."

Over the next 90 minutes, the statement that Rocklin sent as UI's first official response to the sculpture went through at least four drafts.

By the time the final draft of the statement was issued at 12:20 p.m., it had been approved by UI's chief diversity officer, Georgina Dodge, and vice president for strategic communications Joe Brennan. Later that evening, provost Barry Butler sent his approval of the statement and thanked Rocklin for "taking the initiative to get out ahead of the issue."

In the released statement, Rocklin didn't mention the artist by name, nor did he make any mention of Tanyolacar's intent. The statement instead stressed how UI "considers all forms of racism abhorrent and is deeply committed to the principles of inclusion and acceptance."

The two-paragraph statement further said UI "respects freedom of speech, but the university is also responsible for ensuring that public discourse is respectful and sensitive." As such, "there is no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays on this campus."

Rocklin received several immediate responses from the faculty thanking him for his statement. But those responses were countered by faculty members concerned that Rocklin had misrepresented the artist's intentions and undervalued the university's commitment to free speech.

In one particularly pointed exchange the afternoon of Dec. 5, John Beldon Scott, the director of the School of Art and Art History, emailed Rocklin and Brennan and asked whether they actually had examined Tanyolacar's sculpture before denouncing it.

"Are you aware that the work was clearly — to anyone who actually looked at it — an indictment of racial injustice in the U.S.?" Scott wrote in an email. "That it was removed because the placement was unauthorized is understandable, but for an official email to go out implying that the work was racist in meaning does a disservice to our educational mission. A valuable learning moment for the university community — and particularly the student body — has been lost."

Brennan responded at 3:22 p.m: "John, with all due respect that moment was lost when the artist failed to seek permission to use the common space. We could've helped anticipate the misunderstandings, and to frame this in a way that would've allowed for productive discourse."

Scott replied soon after, "Thanks, Joe. I think it would be important to interpret the work correctly. The UI statement gives a false impression about the meaning of the work of art and that contradicts our reason for being an institution of higher learning."

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Seen from their body cameras, University of Iowa police arrive at Jessup Hall as students bring their concerns regarding Serhat Tanyolacar's art piece to University of Iowa officials.

To a question about what more Rocklin would say to Tanyolacar, Rocklin responded in one Dec. 5 email: "All I can say is that the students were not just hurt. Some of them were genuinely afraid that the KKK was on campus and might harm them."

And to a question about whether UI, as a university, should be better about teaching students to interpret subtler messages, Rocklin replied at noon Dec. 8: "As we know now, the piece was misunderstood, in some sense. In another sense, the artist misunderstood his audience and therefore failed to achieve his intent. In any case, the debate is, indeed, on."

About an hour after the statement was sent, Rocklin and Dodge had to organize an impromptu forum with dozens of students who had come to Jessup Hall hoping to speak directly with Mason, who was out of town on university business.

According to the notes of that meeting, included in a Dec. 5 email to Rocklin from Sarah Hansen, assistant vice president for assessment and strategic initiatives, the students made several demands, including: a public apology from Tanyolacar, Mason, and the police officers involved; consequences for Tanyolacar, including possible firing; and a meeting with Mason, among others, the next week.

Those requests led to the creation of an early draft of Mason's apology, which was then distributed to the participating students for their approval and input Dec. 6. The final version sent Dec. 7 included many of the students' suggestions, but didn't include any indication of academic or professional sanctions against Tanyolacar.

Reach Jeff Charis-Carlson at 319-887-5435 or jcharisc@press-citizen.com.

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