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The Racist Tweet That Won't Go Away

In September, a student at Monroe Community College posted a racist tweet. It’s November, and the faculty union and the administration are still in conflict over the institution’s response.

November 7, 2017
 

This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting on this situation.

In many ways, Wil Forberg’s tweet wasn’t all that surprising. Shocking, sure, and racist, definitely, but nothing unheard-of, unfortunately. Yet again, a student at a public college put something racist on social media -- this time, using the N-word -- and the college noted that the First Amendment protects the communication of students at public colleges.

Amid discussion of the tweet and how to handle it, Monroe Community College, where the student was enrolled, announced an action plan to make the institution more inclusive, which included measures to look at evaluating the hiring processes and curriculum.

However, the tweet in question, posted in September, proved to be the seed of a labor dispute that has pitted the MCC Faculty Association against the institution’s administration, as the two groups -- union and employer -- wage a war of words on the Rochester, N.Y., college’s response to the post.

The tweet, which has since been deleted, was posted Sept. 28, after the student’s Confederate flag was apparently damaged: "Shout out to the nigger at MCC who vandalized my Confederate flag. You'll be a white man’s property soon enough. Give Trump time."

Two days later, Monroe Community College President Anne Kress spoke to local media, denouncing the tweet and acknowledging that, because it was posted from a personal account and MCC is a public institution, there could be no disciplinary action.

“I think everyone who saw that tweet found it offensive,” Kress told Spectrum News. "The reality is this student was posting from a personal account, has freedom of speech and has the right to say what he wishes to say, but we also have a right as an institution that says that’s not MCC's value.”

That denunciation, and the two-day gap it took between the tweet and Kress’s response, drew criticism from faculty members, however, as many complained that it was not forceful enough and was more focused on the First Amendment than denouncing hate speech. Criticisms of Kress would only compound Oct. 6, when Kress announced an action plan to address the incident.

Why would an inclusion plan set off criticism?

For one, faculty members are still pushing back on Kress’s original remarks. On Oct. 10 Amanda Colosimo, president of the Faculty Senate, wrote a letter to Kress expressing her disappointment in the response. In the Faculty Association’s Oct. 13 newsletter, the union commended Colosimo:

First and foremost, the leadership of MCC should have unequivocally condemned the racist tweet and reassured our students and employees that such hatred will not be tolerated. Our response, which echoes the previous statements made by many in our MCC community, is not indicative of a lack of understanding, or respect for, the First Amendment. Instead, it is a reaction to the official response to the racist tweet which failed to lead with a condemnation of racism and instead misdirected attention to the issue of free speech. When condemning racism is the secondary response, it becomes evident that white privilege has become institutionalized.

But the Faculty Association had reason beyond Kress’s statement to raise a furor. Kress’s action plan, said Bethany Gizzi, sociology professor and president of the Faculty Association, unfairly placed blame on the faculty for the lack of diversity in hiring, and ignored previous measures to combat racism on campus.

As the fallout escalated publicly, the MCC Board of Trustees would weigh in to throw their support behind Kress, while the council of department chairs and the International Services Advisory Board would back Colosimo.

Kress’s action plan, detailed here, calls for comprehensive changes and measures to examine racism on campus. It calls for the creation of an implicit bias response team, for the requirement of implicit bias training for search committee members who help determine new hires and for a review of the curriculum to make sure it meets the college’s values. The action plan came after Kress held two open forums on the tweet and the aftermath.

But Gizzi and Colosimo said the action plan did not sufficiently involve discussions with faculty.

“We were never contacted, we were never consulted. There was no discussion with us ahead of time of what those action steps would be, whether we supported them, whether we believed they would be effective, what our role would be in implementing them, et cetera,” Gizzi said.

Gizzi said that the faculty acknowledges that more can be done by everyone, including faculty, to combat racism. But she also said that a review of the curriculum was already wrapping up, so to suggest that as an item on the action plan would be redundant.

“Not only did [the plan] show a lack of consultation, but it also showed a lack of awareness of what faculty are already doing in those areas.”

Gizzi also pushed back against the way hiring processes and proposed reforms were framed by Kress’s plan. Faculty serve on search committees and review candidates, but Gizzi described MCC’s human resources department as “managing” the process.

“Yes, we have a responsibility for pursuing diversity in hiring, and faculty do play a role in that. But to place the responsibility for hiring on faculty alone is inaccurate and certainly is a misrepresentation,” she said.

In a statement to Inside Higher Ed Monday, MCC pushed back against the characterization that the report was put together without enough input, and said that the report is open for further changes going forward.

MCC's action plan was drafted after two forums that attracted more than 400 community members, including faculty, plus additional feedback from faculty and students. The plan continues to evolve as feedback is received. MCC administrators, including President Kress, respect the work that the faculty have done in curriculum review and the primary role faculty play in search, hire, tenure and promotion decisions. Our goal is to come together to build on this work to ensure all voices are heard. With regards to the Faculty Association’s recommendations on diversity hiring, MCC administration received them and has attempted to work with the Faculty Association on building a more solidified approach to increasing diversity in College hiring.

The public back-and-forth continued throughout October and into November. Kress invited Carlos Medina, chief diversity officer at the State University of New York, to visit campus from Oct. 16-18. He issued a series of recommendations in an Oct. 25 report, but those recommendations weren’t shared with faculty or made public until The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle inquired about them. The report would be not be made public until Nov. 3. While many of Medina’s points were similar to Kress’s, the suggestion that Kress’s action plan consult “a larger cross-section on campus” was not lost on faculty.

“It did feel like we were heard by SUNY, and going forward, I am hopeful that Dr. Kress will in fact engage in making the plan more collaborative in nature,” Colosimo said. She had previously told The Democrat and Chronicle that she “wouldn’t take it off the table” that the faculty would call for Kress’s resignation, and told Inside Higher Ed, “it largely depends on how Dr. Kress chooses to respond to the chief diversity officer’s report.”

On Monday, Kress issued an apology for her first remarks on the racist tweet.

"I am truly sorry that my initial response to the Sept. 28 racist tweet was disappointing and hurtful to members of the MCC community," she said in a statement. "The observations SUNY Vice Chancellor Carlos Medina drew from his time at our college following the posting are deeply troubling, and they tell us that MCC has work to do. Over the last weeks, I have met with dozens of members of our community -- employees and students -- to listen to the reality of their experiences at MCC. They have entrusted me with their stories and with the responsibility to lead MCC through the changes necessary to address the impact of structural racism."

Recommendations to make changes to the hiring processes date back to the 1990s, said Colosimo, who characterized the current hiring process as “very much managed by our human resources department.” In 2010, the Faculty Association delivered recommendations to Kress about updating the hiring process to make it more diversity friendly, and different groups at MCC have submitted hiring feedback as recently as 2015 and over the past summer. The Faculty Senate has provided recommendations "on an ongoing basis."

"Faculty and staff are unwilling to accept blame for things that they feel they aren't doing wrong," she said.

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