Aftermath of an Ugly Comment

Being called “black bitches” wasn’t quite the response two Cornell University graduate students thought they’d get from a professor after arriving at a conference on black intellectuals that he’d invited them to attend.

April 13, 2010

Being called “black bitches” wasn’t quite the response two Cornell University graduate students thought they’d get from a professor after arriving at a conference on black intellectuals that he’d invited them to attend.

The students -- both African-American women in Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center who have asked that their identities not be made public -- got to the event, at the University of Rochester, late. But they still didn’t expect that after their professor, Grant Farred, thanked them for making the unfamiliar two-hour drive, he’d briefly pause and then add, “When you came in, I thought, ‘Who are these black bitches?’ ”

Yet, that was the response they say they got from Farred, a professor of Africana studies and English. And, in the more than two months since the alleged incident on Friday, Feb. 5, the students and others contend, the Africana center and the university more broadly have failed to foster a public dialogue on the incident and to address deeper tensions involving the center and its role on campus.

“The university’s inaction speaks volumes,” one of the students said. “They have for a few months chosen not to publicly censure the remarks and are, in effect, publicly complicit with the remarks.”

Dozens of students and alumni have written to Salah M. Hassan, the center’s director, as well as David Skorton, the university’s president, and Kent Fuchs, the provost, to express concerns. “[T]he silence from you has been deafening,” a group of Africana graduate alumni wrote in a letter dated April 6 and published Monday in the Cornell Daily Sun. “Not only did you fail to act decisively immediately following this episode, but you have continued to remain inactive …. Instead, you have allowed the environment at the Africana Center to devolve into a toxic, dysfunctional and hostile climate for students, staff and faculty alike.”

Simeon Moss, the university’s deputy spokesperson, said there is “a confidential investigation that is ongoing and it hasn’t concluded.” He added, “This is just one remark we’re talking about.”

Hassan said that as soon as he learned of the allegations on Feb. 8 -- the Monday after the incident -- he set up a time to meet with the students and to begin a formal complaint process. “The perception of a lack of response from Africana’s ‘leadership’ raised in several of the messages I received must be addressed in the context of how decisions are made within Africana and Cornell University,” he wrote in a letter sent to the center’s students, alumni and faculty. “I have consistently consulted with the faculty and continue to do so on an ongoing and intensive basis. I have also remained mindful of and sensitive to the ongoing formal process.”

The center was formed, in part, to be a welcoming place for black students and faculty, regardless of whether they were engaged in its academic programming. Farred, the two students said, had a reputation for being supportive of black women. As an associate professor at Duke University, he voiced support for the black woman who accused three white lacrosse players of rape -- charges that were eventually dropped. (He also called students’ decisions to register to vote in Durham to try to get now-disbarred district attorney Mike Nifong out of office “secret racism.”)

Calling these two young women “black bitches” changed all that. “We both felt that he had sort of unexpectedly revealed what he thought about black women,” the other student said. “Prior to this interaction he had acknowledged us as exceptional students within the department …. So we couldn’t help but think this was not just directed to us individually but to black women in general, that he considers all black women to be black bitches.”

They’re also concerned that while Farred is under scrutiny among Africana faculty and students, many of his colleagues and students in the English department, where he is also associate chair, were unaware of the accusations until they were published in the Sun this week. Moss, the spokesperson, said he could not comment on whether the English department had been formally notified of the accusations or if they merited his removal from that position.

Farred did not respond to requests for comment but has twice appeared to acknowledge he made the remarks, according to the students. Hassan said Farred had not denied making the remarks.

A few hours after the alleged incident, as the two graduate students were preparing to leave Rochester, one of the students recalled, Farred waited for them at a doorway. “He thanked us again for coming,” the student said. “We told him that what he said was very offensive and he recoiled. ‘I’m sorry if I offended you, I’m sorry.’ ”

But, the other student said, “the way he responded about our reaction to his comment, we both felt offended – the apology itself was insincere.” The insincerity was underscored, the student added, when “after the apology, he said to us, ‘Stay out of any low-income neighborhoods while in Rochester.’ ”

The students said they told some students and faculty members about the remarks that weekend, but had not formally reported the incident before they heard from Hassan. In the next week or so, they met with Hassan; David Harris, deputy provost; and Debbie Philip, a human resources generalist who is the center’s diversity and affirmative action representative.

Again, in a meeting with Harris, the students said, Farred admitted to making the remarks. Moss would not confirm or deny that admission.

Hassan asked Farred, who was also the center’s director of graduate studies, to stay out of the center’s building at certain times when one of the students was to be there for a class and to step down from his advisory position. On Feb. 15, Judith A. Byfield, an associate professor who had been at the conference but did not hear Farred’s remarks, took on the position.

Two days later, the center’s faculty met and issued a letter to graduate students “to reaffirm our collective commitment to maintaining a supportive and serious environment of scholarly pursuit and academic training.” The letter also acknowledged the faculty’s “utmost responsibility to ensure that your learning environment is free from all forms of discriminatory behavior, including racism and sexism. We have taken very seriously the recent alleged discrimination by one of our faculty against two of our graduate students.” More than half a dozen faculty were contacted for this story; only Hassan responded to comment.

An early March event cosponsored by the English department was moved out of Africana’s building. A student sent an open letter to Hassan on March 22 – the Monday of Cornell’s spring break -- asking for a meeting for students and faculty.

On March 30, he said, he met with the student. “Let me be clear then in stating that contrary to the unfounded perception of my action, I have never ignored the students’ call for a meeting nor did I object to it,” he wrote in an April 4 letter to students, alumni and faculty. Some students and faculty did meet the next day.

The whole process seems to be moving a bit too slowly for the two graduate students and many of their supporters. “Had this happened with a white professor, or in a different department, the response would have been unequivocal in responding to what was said,” one of the students said.

They’re also concerned that the center was trying to keep the incident quiet to protect its reputation on campus. “Africana is a department that focuses on training black students, so it seems that there is a sort of double standard in waiting so long to censure the comment,” the student said. “We’re second-class students within the university, not in need of protection.”

In editorial published Monday, the Sun’s editors agreed. “We understand why the Africana Center would try to keep this incident in-house … it is embarrassing for a department that stands for equality and combats bigotry to have to deal with an issue as ugly as this one.”

They added: “Why not use this situation as a way to generate an on-campus discourse on how racism and sexism pervade even the most forward-thinking subsets of our society? Why not be at the forefront of the discussion that this situation will undoubtedly create in the coming days and weeks? In choosing to remain silent on the issue, the Africana Center and the administration have attempted to subdue a very important — albeit embarrassing and controversial — conversation about race and sex on our campus.”

An open forum is scheduled for Wednesday.


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