Weber State grapples with issues of racism, academic freedom in wake of viral student YouTube videos

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Weber State University Campus on Monday Jan. 28, 2019.

OGDEN — Weber State University has launched an investigation after YouTube videos alleging that the university’s debate director teaches anti-white curriculum went viral on social media.

In the videos, first-year Weber State student Michael Moreno, who is white, claims that the Weber State debate director, Ryan Wash, who is black, will not allow students to develop their own arguments but forces them to use arguments he selects or approves — arguments that Moreno sees as discriminatory toward white people. He says that Wash is unfit to teach debate or any other subject and is calling for Wash’s termination.

“I don’t think that students should be forced with that dilemma of ‘regurgitate radical leftist ideology or don’t get to do debate.’ That’s not fair,” Moreno said. “All students should be able to do debate.”

However, Wash and several members of the debate team say that the recordings are taken out of context and show Wash preparing his team for competition by presenting potential arguments that they could make or arguments they could face.

“The larger message and what’s being talked about, especially in that first video, is (that) I was trying to teach them about perspectivism,” Wash said. “... People’s vantage points, their experiences, their cultures, their social location, guide how they navigate the world, what they understand to be true, what they don’t understand to be true, and those are the things that we ... have to navigate in debate.”

Going viral

The three YouTube videos Moreno has shared on the subject have each gone viral. The first video had accumulated 450,000 views as of Wednesday afternoon. Moreno’s YouTube account had gained more than 40,000 followers by the same time.

The videos contain Moreno’s commentary, as well as edited video and audio recordings of Wash, Moreno and other students at debate practices. Moreno also posted a link to the full audio used to make the videos, but the link to that audio stopped working Tuesday afternoon.

The recordings include quotes from Wash that have sparked controversy on social media, including the quote that opens the first video:

“Our argument will be that space is not real — it’s not real. Science, technology — it’s all fake. It’s a projection of white fantasies that has worked to control our interpretation of how the world works.”

The recordings were made at a debate retreat prior to the beginning of the semester and at practices early in the semester. Moreno, a first-year student early in his participation in the team, stopped participating in practices one to two weeks into the fall semester, according to him, Wash and other members of the team, whose accounts vary slightly.

He also shared a folder containing all of the team’s arguments and preparation, making it accessible to other debate teams.

Wash and Moreno’s peers say they were unaware they were being recorded.

This is against Weber State policy, which requires students to “obtain the faculty member’s permission before recording lectures” and prohibits students from making “an audio or video record of any person while on university premises without his/her prior knowledge,” though it’s not against Utah law.

Allison Hess, spokesperson for Weber State, said a decision has not been made by university leadership regarding the situation and the investigation is ongoing.

“Folks on social media rush to judgment, and they immediately take a side,” Hess said. “We’re hearing from individuals who want us to take one stand or another. Everybody has an opinion, and we just encourage people not to rush to judgment. ... The campus is a place where we need academic freedom. We need places where difficult conversations can happen, but we need to make sure everyone is safe as they’re having those conversations.”

The immediate impact

Debate Video 06

Weber State University debate coach Ryan Wash speaks during the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) National Tournament in 2018. Wash is the subject of a controversial Youtube video that was posted by a student, Michael Moreno.

As a result of the videos, Wash says his personal contact information has been shared online, a tactic called doxxing, and he has received more than 100 messages containing racial epithets as of Tuesday morning — about 25 a day, including death threats, he said.

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, just prior to an interview with the Standard-Examiner, Wash received the first threatening call to his cellphone number.

“It’s become a really unsafe situation to where we’ve had to take precautions not only to protect me, but protect the students,” Wash said.

Wash said some threats mention the Ku Klux Klan, saying that the group will take “appropriate action,” though the people sending the messages do not explicitly identify themselves as members of the group.

The Weber County Attorney’s Office is aware of the alleged threats and is working with the Weber State Police Department on the investigation, according to Branden Miles, deputy Weber County attorney.

Moreno said he has not received any threats as a result of the videos.

Debate team members have been offered police escorts to their classes, they said.

Three members of the debate team — Gage Brunyer, Rei Olsen and Zoe Thomae — are also members of Never Neutral Union, or NNU, a group that has formed in response to the videos that is calling for Moreno’s expulsion. The group is also opposed to the position of neutrality that Weber State is taking as the university reviews the matter.

Like Wash, members of NNU were also doxxed. One person who was originally planning to participate in an interview with the Standard-Examiner ultimately decided against it, due to the doxxing and threats.

Moreno said he is not personally responsible for the threats or the doxxing. He said he reached out to the Instagram account that had doxxed NNU members, requesting that the information be taken down, which it eventually was.

This was confirmed by Crystal Legionaires, who participated on the Weber State debate team for five years and occasionally comes back to help coach. She also exchanged messages with the Instagram account that had doxxed members of NNU, and she was told that Moreno had requested that the information be taken down. Legionaires supports NNU, but is not a member of the group since she is not a student.

Wash, debaters respond

Debate Video 01

Debate students and members of the Never Neutral Union (NNU) student group Gage Brunyer, left, Zoe Thomae, center, and Rei Olsen talk with the Standard-Examiner regarding a controversial video posted on Youtube of the debate coach on Nov. 4, 2019, at Weber State University.

Brunyer, Olsen and Thomae say that debate team members are allowed to make a wide range of arguments as long as they adequately prepare for competition.

It’s also important, they say, to understand that “debate is absurd,” Legionaires said. “Someone makes an argument, you have to respond to them and say why they’re bad, if you’re negative, or if you’re the affirmative, you have to make an argument and try to make it compelling.”

Many of the arguments Wash makes in the video don’t necessarily line up with his personal views, he said.

“(The video) assumes that I believe that science is not real. Obviously, that’s untrue ... from the vaccinations that I receive to the albuterol that helps my nephew live, quite literally,” Wash said. “But I do think that science can be appropriated in a way that’s not neutral to where it can have adverse effects on certain bodies and certain people.”

Brunyer, Olsen and Thomae arranged their interview with the Standard-Examiner through Hess, but they said an invitation had been extended to the entire debate team. They also said they were representing NNU rather than the debate team.

“Ryan is the most accommodating of running different arguments of ... any coach I’ve ever had,” Olsen said. “It is very common, at least in college debate, that the coaches just say, ‘This is the argument you’re running — as a school, we all run the same argument.’ But Ryan is amazing at letting us all run what we want to run.”

One of Moreno’s complaints is that Wash requires arguments to include mention of oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation or class, even if the debate topic is not directly related to any of those themes. Moreno describes this approach as encouraging a victim mentality.

Wash says his standard for approval of an argument is “whether or not it can stand up to scrutiny.” He said race, gender, class, sexual orientation are not required features of every argument on every topic, but they come up frequently in the arguments of opposing teams, so it’s important for Weber State teams to be prepared to address them.

One of the last conversations that Moreno recorded with Wash, which Moreno describes as leading to him to quit debate, doesn’t mention those issues.

In the recording, which is included toward the end of Moreno’s first video, Wash says that if Moreno doesn’t accept his feedback, Moreno could compete using the argument independently, but not as a member of the team. Moreno pushes back, offering to re-explain his position. Wash mentions in the conversation that he had given the same feedback before.

“It was pretty evident I wasn’t going to be able to compete at that point,” Moreno said. “So I guess it’s kind of ‘I quit,’ kind of ‘he kicked me off,’ depending on how you look at it.”

“I don’t think any football coach would allow their players to run the team,” Wash said.

Wash is seen and heard swearing throughout Moreno’s videos. Brunyer, Olsen and Thomae claim swearing is common practice in college policy debate.

Wash says the reason for his intensity while making some of the arguments in the recordings is to demonstrate how other teams may make them so his team can experience that.

Actions Moreno took before posting the videos

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Michael Moreno talks with the Standard-Examiner regarding a controversial video he posted on Youtube of the debate coach on Nov. 4, 2019, at Weber State University.

Moreno said he took steps to resolve his concerns before posting videos online.

He shared with Wash that he felt like he was “hated by everyone,” and Wash told him he wasn’t. Wash confirmed having that conversation, though Wash did not recall a conversation where Moreno shared larger concerns about his position on the team and his relationship with Wash.

Moreno said he already knew how Wash felt about him.

“If you listen to the audio, he’s vulgar and rude to me,” Moreno said. “He does not like me.”

Moreno took his concerns to university administrators, first to Sheree Josephson, chair of the communications department, starting in mid-September. He also met three to four times with Barry Gomberg, executive director of affirmative action and equal opportunity.

Moreno said Josephson didn’t think there was much that could be done, but she’d pass the issue along to the dean. She also referred him to Gomberg. Moreno said he never heard back from Josephson, but he also did not follow up.

It was Moreno’s understanding after conversations with Gomberg that he couldn’t pursue a formal complaint about curriculum, only personal treatment toward him, so he decided not to submit the complaint he had drafted and shared with Gomberg.

Hess confirmed that Moreno met with Josephson and with Gomberg’s office.

The university released its first statement on Oct. 28, saying that the university was aware of the first video, which appeared to be “part of a longer discussion from a coach preparing the debate team as they engage in a wide variety of issues during a season of competition.

“Weber State University supports academic freedom and has policies in place to protect both faculty and students from harassment and discrimination as they engage in these conversations.

“This matter in its complete context will be reviewed further by the university to make sure all perspectives are equally and fairly represented.”

In two subsequent statements, made after Moreno posted additional videos, the university reiterated the same themes, adding emphasis that a deliberate approach will be taken in reviewing the matter and that “no one benefits from a hastily reached conclusion.”

There is no set time frame for the investigation because it will last as long as necessary to review all the relevant information, said John Kowalewski, executive director of marketing and communications at Weber State.

It’s also likely the public will not know the outcome of the investigation.

In President Brad Mortensen’s message to campus on Nov. 1, he says that “if disciplinary action is taken, it is the university’s long-standing policy that it does not publicly share or discuss personnel or student conduct violations.”

Jacob Scholl contributed to this report.

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