Hundreds of students, alumni and professors at Towson University gathered Tuesday to declare that the school stands for tolerance and diversity, and that a student who has attracted international news coverage for advocating racial segregation does not represent them.
Some of those attending the student-planned rally said they were deeply frustrated and angry with news media attention to student Matthew Heimbach's White Student Union and the nighttime patrols that he said are aimed at fighting crime.
As they marched through Towson's campus, they sought to portray an image of inclusion and tolerance — one they say is far more representative of the majority of the university.
"It's very obvious to Towson students that it's a handful of students" who are bringing negative attention, said Becky Wiacek, a 20-year-old sophomore. "We want to make that apparent."
"I think that we're portrayed outside as divided, but this rally shows that we're united more than ever," said her friend and fellow Student Government Association member, Kurt Anderson, 19.
The controversy began in early March when Heimbach and another man, Scott Terry, who is not a Towson student but says he is part of the White Student Union, drew attention for racially charged comments at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Terry suggested segregating black Republicans from the rest of the party.
A short time later, they were back in the news with plans for nighttime patrols to watch for crime, with claims that black-on-white crime was spiking.
Towson, one of the largest public universities in Maryland, has said that despite an increase in enrollment, crime is down significantly on campus.
The school's administrators have tried to distance the school's image from Heimbach, while acknowledging they cannot interfere with his right to free speech. His group is not formally recognized by the university, since officials say they have neither the required faculty sponsor nor enough students who want to join. Two-thirds of Towson students are white.
"There is no White Student Union," Towson President Maravene Loeschke said after addressing students at the rally. "We don't like it. It's not us."
Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center — which recently identified the White Student Union as a hate group — said such groups on college campuses are uncommon.
Heimbach, along with others on several college campuses nationwide, started chapters of a group called Youth for Western Civilization a couple of years ago. But that group fell apart on Towson's campus and on others as evidence of racism emerged, Potok said.
"I'm sure this is a mortal embarrassment to the administrators," Potok said of Towson. "No school wants to get the reputation as a home for racists."
Student Stephen Middleton, 23, told the crowd at the rally that he visited a store recently, and as he was leaving, a stranger spotted his Towson attire and told him to look out for himself on campus.
"Rather than thanking him for his concern, I was frustrated," said Middleton, who is black. "Frustrated because of the fact that it made me realize for some people, one bad thing can overshadow so much good."
As students dispersed after the rally, Heimbach appeared, standing in the middle of a group of students and debating whether the white race was under "genocide."
Heimbach, 21, promotes racial segregation. He says his views are based on the Bible — not on hate.
"It's not just about race, it's about culture and Christianity and race," he said. "The idea is that God separated us for a reason. People label that as white supremacy but it's not."
Administrators said they are concerned that potential students would be discouraged from applying because of the controversy over Heimbach's statements. They think Heimbach believes what he says but also revels in the publicity he draws.
Heimbach denies that he is a provocateur.
"I think he's trying to push a certain mindset that has lost its cachet and popularity," said Victor Collins, an assistant vice president who oversees diversity efforts. "He seems mired in a bygone era."
In his age group, Heimbach's views are unusual. In a survey of racial attitudes among the Millennial generation in 2010, Pew Research Center found about 9 of 10 were accepting of interracial marriage, far more so than in older generations. Pew also found that a majority of Millennials say that at least some of their friends are of a different race, while older Americans are less likely to have cross-racial friendships.
Still, students said it was obvious that racism is a concern, which is why they attended the unity rally.
"Segregation is more of a class issue now," said Brandon Thomas, a graduate student from Tennessee. "But it's definitely still here — racism and all those 'isms.' That's why I'm here, to show support against all those things."
Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that universities should address the issue of racism head on, and that rallies like the one Towson held can help the campus return to a feeling of normalcy.
"The worst thing the school can do is pretend it's not happening," he said. "That really does give aid and comfort to the racists."
Heimbach, who grew up in Montgomery County, says he had liberal opinions until about the age of 15, when he got into the writings of Pat Buchanan, the conservative former presidential candidate. He said he believes that the white race and culture is under attack by immigration and race mixing.
After he graduates in May with a degree in U.S. history, Heimbach said he plans to look at graduate schools or perhaps join the priesthood.
Heimbach said a few in his group did a patrol Sunday night "without much fanfare," and did a few last semester, too. He said they did not see any crime on Sunday.
University officials distributed pamphlets to news media representatives Tuesday containing the school's official response to the controversy. In it are pictures of students holding signs saying "#TUstands4" ideals such as courage, justice and integrity.
Students at the rally spoke favorably of Towson's president, who has also been in the news recently after the governor and comptroller criticized her decision to eliminate two men's sports teams. The governor this week announced funding and a plan to save the baseball team.
Loeschke grinned as students spoke of their love and respect for her.
Addressing students, Loeschke said she had never been more proud of them.
"No one told you to have this event," she said. "It captures every core value we have on this campus."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article.