UT president addresses racist ‘zoombombing’ of university meeting

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves said Monday the school is investigating an alleged “zoombombing” during a university meeting between students, staff and faculty. The meeting which was zoombombed was the first Zoom meeting for UT Austin’s Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males, according to a Tweet from the center.

In the Tweet, the center said they sends “our deepest apologies to those who participated in our first Zoom meeting earlier this afternoon. We are still a space for black men to organize and uplift one another. We denounce the actions of the hackers in our call and are working to better our newly found space on Zoom.”

The Center went on to say that links for their next virtual meetings will be sent through emails and the GroupMe app going forward.

The director of the center, Dr. Ryan Sutton, spoke with KXAN Tuesday and explained that this group provides holistic support for black males on campus. Everyone is welcome to participate, but the center does focus on black male personal and academic development.

At a large university where 4% of the students are black and, as Sutton points out, an even smaller percentage are black men, the Sweatt Center aims to give black male UT community members a space to process their experiences and access resources.

Sutton explained that the Zoom call on Monday was a group conversation about “how do you stay focused, in the midst of the coronavirus, in the midst of not returning back to campus, how do you continue with your mission, vision and purpose despite your environment?”

He recalled that around 20 minutes into the call, some people who were not invited to the call began interfering and “just began calling racial slurs to the young men who were on the call, being disruptive to the meeting,.”

Sutton said, “We had to end the meeting abruptly in order to limit the exposure to that for our young men.”

Sutton followed up with the students after the call and said that he was proud of how the Sweatt Center students involved handled the situation with composure.

He acknowledged that some group members have been trying to draw in more people from around campus to their events by using social media, and that the appeal to open up meetings to more people may have resulted in the Zoom link being shared to the “zoombombers” in this situation. Going forward, the group plans to look to safeguards like password protections and private meetings for these types of forums.

“Unfortunately, with putting on other safeguards, it runs the risk, because we are an open forum,  for less people to be able to engage, which unfortunately is one of the consequences to this unfortunate event,” Sutton said.

Sutton added that it doesn’t surprise him that an attack like this would happen during a group meeting.

“Yeah we’re in 2020 but we still have a lot of racial, gender, sexist acts that are going on nationwide unfortunately,” he said, noting that more people notice those injustices when they are elevated into the limelight during situations like this.

“My main concern,” he said, “is with the students and that they are taken care of and supported through this, that they can keep their focus and continue with what they’re set out to do, and that at the university level that we can continue to work to make sure this doesn’t happen again”

He added, “I am happy to see the university is responding in such a way.”

Fenves tweeted about the incident Monday night, calling the act “reprehensible,” and “if the perpetrators are member of the UT community, they will be disciplined.”

Zoombombing is when someone, or a group of people, join a meeting hosted on the video-conferencing platform Zoom uninvited and disrupt the meeting. Sometimes, the meetings are joined in an unauthorized fashion via hacking, but other times, the links to the meetings are publicly shared and anyone can join.

The university has a resource page detailing what zoombombing is and how to stop it before it starts. The University of Southern California also recently had a meeting disrupted by a zoombombing.

Due to events like this, Zoom’s security has been called into question. A Zoom spokesperson spoke to Forbes in regard to other zoombombing incidents and offered ways to help combat unwanted guests joining conferences.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a news release Monday, and characterizes zoombombing as “teleconference hijacking,” which is illegal. The FBI field office in Boston says they’ve seen an increase in zoombombing as more schools and companies move to remote classrooms and meetings due to COVID-19 orders.

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