The man behind ‘Sorry Phyllis’

A message is left for Chancellor Phyllis Wise in front of Anniversary Plaza on the Quad on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014.

By Elizabeth Dye

Snowflakes whirled through the frigid winter air, pelting the face of Luke Dobrovits, sophomore in FAA, as he dragged his feet through several inches of snow. 

It was around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, and except for the snow removal team clearing the roads free of grey slush, and perhaps a few squirrels scurrying across the Quad, little life seemed to inhabit the campus.

Nevertheless, Dobrovits, bundled in various bulky layers of shirts and jackets, was determined to brave the bone-chilling gusts of wind and snow to finish the design he had started to create. 

And after three hours of diligently trudging through the tightly packed snow, his work was finally done. The morning sunlight swept over the Quad, revealing Dobrovits’ meticulous and time-consuming work: two massive words carved out of the slush and snow covering the Quad in front of the Illini Union. The words? Sorry Phyllis. 

“It just felt like the most appropriate thing to write out in the Quad. I faced the words toward the Union, as a way to represent the campus apologizing to Chancellor Wise,” Dobrovits said.

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    Dobrovits was one of the thousands of University students who, late last January, witnessed the racist and sexist remarks targeted at Chancellor Phyllis Wise after she sent out a Massmail, informing the campus community that the University would still hold classes the next day.

    “I respected Wise’s snow decision. It was just cold,” Dobrovits said. “It’s fine to have your own opinion, but there was no justification for our fellow students to lash out in the way they did. It was completely uncalled for.”

    He said he hoped his apology on the Quad would atone for the actions of a few of those students, but at the time, Dobrovits had no idea that his middle-of-the-night drawing would gain much attention.

    “I saw the ‘Sorry Phyllis’ drawing on Twitter before I even saw it on the Quad,” said Dayne Kang, junior in Media. 

    Pictures of Dobrovits’ public apology began popping up on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter within hours of the drawing’s completion. Amassing more than 700 “likes” on the University of Illinois’ Memes Facebook page and more than 300 retweets on Twitter the same day, pictures of Dobrovits’ public apology drew campus-wide attention.

    “The point of the message was just so students could see it on the Quad the next day. I didn’t really put much thought into it and didn’t think anyone would really think anything of it,” Dobrovits said.

    Dobrovits explained that the idea of drawing an apology in the snow came to him as he was walking back to Newman Hall from Flagg Hall, where he spent all night sketching designs late last Tuesday.

    “I was walking through the snow, back from Flagg, just making zig-zags and other patterns in the snow,” Dobrovits said. “I remembered that there was a bunch of snow on the Quad, and I thought I could go make something there.”

    Once at the Quad, he composed a quick sketch of his design and began his work. Using a grid-like design, he was able to create a large rectangular box by walking in the snow. Then, he segmented the box, lengthwise, into two halves. He then created five equal-sized boxes in the top half and seven boxes directly beneath it.  

    “I then walked on the edge of the boxes to make the outline of each letter. Then I stamped down and pushed away the snow surrounding the letters,” Dobrovits explained.

    Because of the massive size of the letters, it took almost three hours to complete, but Dobrovits believed the apology in the snow was well worth the time in the cold.

    “I, personally, did not take part, in any way, shape or form, of the bashing of Wise on Twitter that night, but I felt like saying ‘sorry’ to Phyllis was the only appropriate thing to say at that time,” Dobrovits said. “The whole thing really gave U of I a bad reputation, and I just hoped this apology would rebuild the great reputation we’ve always had.”

    The Twitter backlash that Wise received garnered nationwide coverage, with articles on BuzzFeed, Reddit and the Huffington Post, along with stories on several news and radio stations criticizing the University and its students’ behaviors as sexist and racist.

    “I don’t think it’s fair to say the University as a whole is racist and sexist, and only a small amount of students behaved that way. And even they just got swept up into the bustle of it,” Dobrovits said. “I feel many students acted immaturely, but the whole University shouldn’t be reflected in the actions of those few students. … As a whole, we are a lot better than what our actions have shown a few of us to be.”

    Albert Qiu, freshman in Business, shared a similar opinion. 

    “Students were just upset we wouldn’t be getting a snow day, and so they needed a scapegoat to lash out on, and that scapegoat was Chancellor Wise,” Qui said. “Most of the students who posted negative comments about Wise weren’t racist or sexist, but merely felt entitled to a snow day that they didn’t get, and thought lashing out would change that.”

    Since the Twitter backlash made headlines, the University has responded by making more efforts to emphasize how inclusive the campus is, including a two-hour long session called, “#OneCampus: Moving Beyond Digital Hate,” which took place last Thursday at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

    “I believe the University is handling the situation well,” Dobrovits said, “and I did a small part on the students’ behalf to show that we are trying to mend the situation as well.”

    Dobrovits said he hopes that Wise accepts the snow apology, and that the students who helped tarnish the University’s reputation have learned a few valuable lessons.

    “It takes years to build credibility,” Dobrovits said, “but only an instant to throw it away.” 

    Elizabeth can be reached at [email protected].

    Editor’s note: A previous version of this incorrectly stated that the picture of Dobrovits’ public apology amassed more than 70 “likes” on the University of Illinois’ Memes Facebook page. It should have said 700 “likes.” The Daily Illini regrets the error.