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When Ugliness Visits a Campus

October 5, 2006

Every once in awhile on university campuses, the unthinkable, even the unutterable, happens. A scrawled message shows up on a bathroom stall, a religious symbol is defaced -- and administrators and faculty members are left to try to contain the fallout and forestall another explosion.
    
Pace University, in New York, has been plagued by a series of three racially charged incidents, beginning with the discovery of a library-owned copy of a Koran in a toilet on its main campus in Manhattan September 20. Just four days later, a car parked at Pace’s location in the suburb of Briarcliff, N.Y. was found strewn with litter, the word “nigger” written in the condensation on the windshield, and, on September 29, the same racial epithet and a swastika were found scribbled on a bathroom stall door at the Manhattan campus. No suspects have been identified, although campus officials are operating under the assumption that the perpetrators are insiders, students or employees with access to the buildings.

"This is a major concern for us. Our concern is that we are a very diverse community; we have been a very inclusive community, in terms of welcoming individuals from all faiths, all backgrounds, all religions and so forth,” said Pace’s president, David A. Caputo. “This seems to all of us to be an attack on that.”

Not surprisingly given the current climate internationally, the Koran incident in particular has obtained widespread attention, landing on the United Kingdom-based Muslim News and The Jerusalem Post’s Web site Tuesday. When asked whether he was concerned about the effect on the university’s reputation here and abroad, Christopher Cory, a Pace spokesman, pointed to evidence suggesting that anti-Islamic crimes are on the rise throughout the United States.

In September, the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic civil rights and advocacy group, reported 1,972 incidents of anti-Muslim violence, discrimination and harassment in 2005 – up 29 percent from 2004. The proportion of the total reported incidents occurring at elementary and secondary schools and universities – the group does not categorize incidents under “higher education” – increased from 6 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2005, Afsheen Shamsi, community liaison coordinator for CAIR, said.

“This is a part of a larger pattern that is regrettably present in our society,” Cory said. “The question [regarding] reputation is, ‘How will you deal with it?’ ”

At Pace, Caputo said the administration immediately issued statements on each incident, and is holding a series of meetings with interested students and staff. Caputo has ordered a review of whether security policies were followed in response to the incidents, and whether practices should be changed. University officials are also discussing the possibility of holding a number of educational sessions on different religions, “making sure that students continue to understand the importance of not only tolerance, but understanding,” Caputo said.

The New York City Police Department is investigating the Koran and swastika incidents as hate crimes, Caputo said, and the university is providing assistance to police investigations both in New York and Briarcliff. The investigations are continuing and, so far, no connections between the three events have been found, Cory said.

Zeina Berjaoui, a senior on the downtown campus and president of the Muslim Student Association, said a town hall meeting held Tuesday was “very productive,” allowing students to state their thoughts on the recent incidents. The Muslim Student Association is hosting a series of “sensitivity forums” in wake of the incidents, she said.

For Berjaoui, the events of the last few weeks have shaken her feelings of comfort and safety on campus. “If it’s the Koran found in the toilet today, and then there are these two other incidents, how do we know that a student won’t be physically hurt?” she asked.

Berjaoui added that she’s been disappointed with the administration’s response, including what some members of the Muslim Student Association found to be insensitive comments in Caputo’s e-mail about the first incident. The e-mail described the Koran as having water damage rather than being defaced since it was not urinated or defecated upon. “ ‘Don’t worry about it -- it was not urinated or defecated on.’ Okay. . .but it was found in a toilet,” Berjaoui said. Berjaoui also expressed frustration about the lack of a clear communication channel between Pace security officials and the student body about the status of the investigation.
   
Cory said Caputo used legal terminology in the e-mail, and in fact apologized for the wording at Tuesday’s town meeting. He also said the university is genuinely attempting to keep students in the loop, but that “there are a great number of people to be kept in the loop, in a great many loops.”

Pace University has no records of any previous hate crimes occurring in the five years in which records have been kept, Cory said. Pace does not maintain statistics regarding student religious beliefs, but enrollment is 52 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 12 percent black and 11 percent “other.”

 

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