On the campus of a small liberal arts school unaccustomed to student activism, Roger Williams University junior Jason Mattera and his band of College Republicans revel in their ability to stand out.
No topic, from gay marriage to feminism, has been off limits since Mattera organized the conservative group his freshman year.
But a Whites-only scholarship that required applicants to “confirm Whiteness” awoke the normally sleepy coastal campus, eliciting criticism from minority students and from the chairman of the Republican National Committee — who suspended the group’s right to use the party’s symbols.
School President Roy Nirschel also criticized the scholarship. Last month he cut short a trip to Vietnam to begin what he called “a healing process” that included forming a commission on civil discourse. Yet Mattera, rated the nation's top conservative student activist by one group, remains unbowed. He said the debate over free speech and affirmative action was just what he wanted. And he promises more.
“We did our job,” said Mattera, 20, of Brooklyn, N.Y. “This is what college is all about, challenging the status quo.”
The 35-member group first clashed with university administration last year over a series of monthly newsletter articles. The articles accused homosexuals of squelching free speech by pushing for hate-crimes legislation and alleged that a well-known gay-rights group indoctrinates students into homosexual sex.
The administration froze the college Republicans’ money for two days because Nirschel saw the articles as “gay bashing.” He said he received threatening letters claiming he was suppressing the group.
Then another article critical of Kwanzaa, which celebrates the history and heritage of Africa, sparked a complaint by a multicultural student group. Before the Student Senate had a chance to deal with that issue, the College Republicans came up with the Whites-only scholarship.
The application for the $250 award required an essay on “why you are proud of your White heritage” and a recent picture to “confirm Whiteness.” “Evidence of bleaching will disqualify applicants,” read the application.
Mattera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, said the scholarship was a parody of minority scholarships. Mattera himself was awarded a $5,000 scholarship from the Hispanic College Fund, he said. “Those who come from White (descent) are left to find scholarships on their own,” Mattera said.
The Whites-only scholarship generated national publicity, which angered university officials and many students who worried their school was being labeled as racist. Minorities make up less than 10 percent of the 3,400 full-time undergraduates.
Some minorities on campus, like Maria Ahmed, a 20-year-old junior from Providence, felt targeted. “At first it was about the newspaper, just about every issue they were bashing some small minority group,” said Ahmed, whose parents were born in Nigeria. “It’s hard being a minority on campus, and it felt like (they) were directly talking about you.”
The scholarship was criticized by the state Republican Party and Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee. In a Feb. 17 letter to Mattera, Gillespie said the scholarship conveys a “message of exclusion” that doesn’t represent the party’s values. He suspended the group’s right to use the party’s symbols.
Nirschel, who’s eager to attract more minority students and faculty members, called the scholarship “repugnant” and convened a town meeting on campus he said attracted more than 500 people. The meeting, he said, was the first of its kind in the university’s history. His commission includes faculty and student members and has already decided to organize a debate team and create a journal of civil discourse. “This has caused me to redouble our efforts to make the campus open,” he said.
Mattera, however, received plenty of support too. The scholarship was raised from $50 to $250 due to increased donations the group received. The American Civil Liberties Union backed the group’s right to free speech after the Student Senate considered taking away its funding, once the scholarship was awarded to Adam Noska, a 21-year-old junior from Weymouth, Mass. The Senate set aside the issue.
And some students liked the idea of a Whites-only scholarship. “Nothing gets to me more than affirmative action,” said Jamie Pattison, 19, a sophomore from Marblehead, Mass. “People want handouts.”
Ron Robinson, president of the Young America's Foundation, said Mattera is the conservative Virginia-based group’s top-rated student activist in country.
“He’s a very gutsy young man ... it really takes an adversarial atmosphere for a person’s leadership ability to come to the fore,” Robinson said.
Despite initial plans to make the scholarship annual, Mattera said it won't be offered next year.
“We’ll continue to fight affirmative action ... but I think I made the point,” he said.
The Whites-only scholarship may end up doing more than advancing Mattera’s conservative agenda, however.
After getting criticized for accepting the scholarship, Noska pledged to donate the money to a fund benefiting victims’ families and survivors of The Station nightclub fire. Last year’s blaze at the West Warwick nightclub killed 100 people and injured some 200 others.
Noska said he also collected more than $750 in campus donations for the fund.
“I walk around campus with a 64-ounce jug and people put money in, I take it to class and sit it on my desk,” he said.
He originally planned to buy books with the scholarship money, but Noska now wants “something good” to come from it.
Bleh. I live in RI, and this just...*sigh* Yeah, I'm coherent.