Fast Forward or Rewind?

Syracuse U. students who see university moving away from a commitment to diversity have held sit-in since Monday.

November 5, 2014
Protest at Syracuse

After three rallies this semester against separate administrative decisions on diversity and other issues, students at Syracuse University were seeing a trend. Those decisions, they say, are representative of the growth of a top-down style of university leadership that lacks student input.

After rally number four on Monday, they say they’ll remain at a sit-in at the campus’s administrative building until a Board of Trustees meeting later this week or the administration makes a public statement about a plan for addressing some of their concerns.

About 100 students participated in the Monday's Rally for Transparency and Diversity, which was organized by a new coalition of student organizations called THE General Body. The organization represents a cross-section of activist and minority groups.

The group has written a 43-page outline of demands and grievances, which states that the administration has made repeated changes to university services without enough student input and that the university is not a safe space for students from marginalized groups, including racial minorities, disabled students and students who identify as gay. The various changes come at a time when the university appears to be more focused on ranking than it was previously, an emphasis critics say could come at the expense of diversity.

Chancellor Kent Syverud met briefly with students Tuesday afternoon, as the sit-in continued. Students have been allowed to stay on the first floor of Crouse-Hinds Hall as long as they meet fire code and regulations from the department of public safety.

Syverud appointed Bea Gonzalez, dean of University College, to serve as a liaison between him and the student group, according to a university spokeswoman. The spokeswoman didn't comment any further on the protests.

The group’s grievances include complaints about a decision last summer to close the Advocacy Center, which provided sexual assault prevention education and counseling to survivors. Students were notified of the closing one day beforehand, said Ben Kuebrich, a graduate student and member of THE General Body.

The group also highlighted cuts to a scholarship program for students from urban public high schools. The program, organized by the Posse Foundation, helps recruit more low-income and minority students to campus.  

A third major focus is the administration’s decision not to sell endowment holdings in fossil fuels, despite overwhelming votes of support from Student Government and University Senate, Kuebrich said.

Those three causes, each of which led to one of the previously mentioned rallies, may seem like small issues, but they’re all part of a broader trend on campus, said Yanira Rodriguez, another graduate student and one of the organizers of the rally.

And nowhere is that more visible than in a revised vision and mission statement for the university, organizers said. The new version omits parts of the current vision statement that promote diversity and community engagement. Words and phrases such as "public good," "safe" and "provide access to opportunity," have been eliminated.

“For us, that’s pretty representative of where the school is going,” Kuebrich said.

Students planned their sit-in to coincide with a Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, where approval of the new version of the vision and mission statement is on the agenda.

Members of THE General Body have been polling students to see how many knew about the change in the vision and mission statements, and whether any knew about the public comment period. Out of a class of about 30 students who came to the sit-in today to hear about what the students were doing, none had known about either, Rodriguez said.

The new vision and mission statement is was the work of a new initiative called Fast Forward Syracuse, that, among other things, is creating a strategic plan for the university. Of the 93 positions on committees working on Fast Forward, students protesters say there are 11 students, and only 6 are undergraduates. Members of THE General Body are trying to highlight their disapproval of the Fast Forward project by using the phrase “rewindSU.”

“We’re starting to stand up and say, we’re in no rush to get where it’s headed,” Kuebrich said.

Other grievances on the lengthy list include cuts to an arts center, the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus and inadequate resources at the counseling center.  The demands also call into question Syverud’s focus on college rankings.

An editorial in the student newspaper criticized some of the demands and grievances as lacking facts and encouraged the members of THE General Body to be more understanding of the limits of what the university and Syverud can do. "The university administration and members of THE General Body should meet halfway," the piece states. "THE General Body needs to present complaints that are grounded in fact rather than emotion, and needs to present specific solutions instead of broad claims."

But Rodriguez said people shouldn’t be trying to poke holes in the list of demands and grievances, which are still a work in progress, according to the group's website. Producing the document took a lot of collaboration and time from students who have other responsibilities, she said. They've put a lot of effort into these issues because they care about the future of the campus and its students.

“Nobody wants to be sleeping on brick floors,” she said. “This is not a party for us. We’re really serious about this.”




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