Provost, dean of students respond to letter calling for student expulsion


Image via Pitt Black Action Society

The Pitt student leaders’ letter to administrators calling for the expulsion of Ethan Kozak.

By Janine Faust and Jon Moss

Pitt Provost Ann Cudd and Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner responded Saturday evening to a Friday letter from student leaders calling for the expulsion of Ethan Kozak, a rising junior political science major.

The student letter to Pitt administrators was signed by 27 individuals, including SGB President Zechariah Brown and the presidents and vice presidents of both the Black Action Society and the Rainbow Alliance, among others. According to Brown, the student letter was sent to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Provost Ann Cudd, Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner and Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Kathy Humphrey.

Kozak admitted last week to sending racist and threatening Snapchat messages to D.J. Matthews, a 20-year-old Pittsburgh resident. Matthews posted the messages on Twitter on June 26.

In the screenshots, messages from Kozak include threats to shoot Matthews, who is black, and use derogatory language such as the “n-word” repeatedly.

Kozak initially denied having sent the messages, claiming someone had taken or hacked into his phone, but later admitted he sent them to Matthews in a “fit of anger.” Kozak said on June 30, he had been placed on interim suspension. The University would not confirm this claim.

Kozak declined to comment on the students’ letter in a Friday phone call.

Cudd and Bonner said in the response they were thankful for students writing to them and appreciate the calls to “continue creating a respectful, peaceful, diverse and safe learning environment.”

“While certain racist speech may be protected by the First Amendment, racist comments run in absolute and stark contrast to the University of Pittsburgh’s values and mission,” the response said. “Our response has afforded due process to the student involved — as each of us would expect, should we be accused of a serious crime or conduct violation. On this front, we are moving as judiciously and expediently as law and fairness allow.”

The student letter also said the University should provide statements that directly address incidents of discrimination and harassment, as opposed to “automated” statements.

Cudd and Bonner said while the University was cooperating with local law enforcement agencies, Pitt needed to tread carefully about releasing details about any possible disciplinary proceedings involving Kozak, due to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The act prohibits schools, in most cases, from disclosing information from a student’s educational record without consent from the student.

The student letter also asserted the Student Code of Conduct does not properly address students who “incite violence” against other students on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, or certain other classifications — none of the conduct’s 40 violations specifically mention these classifications. To remedy this, the student letter called for the University to develop a “strict policy” for these types of situations.

Cudd and Bonner said they were willing to meet with the student letter’s authors about ways to strengthen the University Code of Conduct, while remaining consistent with the First Amendment.

“In the coming year, we remain committed to doing just that — strengthening our Student Code of Conduct and seeking out new opportunities to discuss the destructive power of white supremacy, racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of hateful language,” the student letter said.

Pitt senior Edenis Augustin, a signatory to the letter and former president of Black Action Society, said in an email he was glad the University responded quickly to the letter.

“I’m taking the time to process their response and how to move forward with the work that needs to be done,” Augustin said. “I hope it leads to a smooth working relationship with administration.”

Brown, who also signed the letter, said he appreciated the administration listening to student concerns.

“I’m looking forward to continuing to discuss ways in which our University can continue to make black students feel safe, protected and valued at Pitt,” Brown said.

Jordan Fields, a senior political science major and one of the letter’s authors, wrote in an email that the signatories are working on a formal response to the administration and was hopeful that the response to the incident would lead to change on campus.

“I hope at the end of the day this leads to more discussions about how we as students can combat hate on campus,” Fields said.

City Public Safety Department spokesperson Cara Cruz said in an email that an investigation into Kozak was ongoing and declined to comment further.