History Repeats Itself

A coalition of Syracuse University students and alumni fed up with long-running problems of racism on campus demand systemic and tangible change.

November 25, 2019
 
Syracuse University

To hear some Syracuse University students and alumni of color tell it, the headline-grabbing events on campus over the past two weeks were a long time coming.

They say while other colleges and universities across the country have experienced intermittent racial incidents and controversies, they occurred regularly at Syracuse. The problems were like a slow burn that went back decades and ultimately turned into a conflagration of anger, frustration and disappointment.

“This isn’t anything new. Students of color have had to deal with things like this on the Syracuse campus since I was a student in the mid-'70s,” said Butch Charles, a 1980 alumnus and adviser to the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity chapter on campus. “It’s been an off and on type of situation. There will be two or three years where things will be normal -- whatever normal is -- then there will be times when different things will happen on the campus that will bring it up to the surface.”

What brought things to the surface this time at the central New York campus was 16 separate incidents that began on Nov. 7, when the first reports of racist vandalism in freshman residence halls were reported to the university’s Department of Public Safety, or DPS. Graffiti expressing racial epithets and hateful sentiments aimed at African Americans, Asians, Native Americans and Jewish people continued to proliferate over the next two weeks.

The incidents included a black student being harassed by white fraternity members while leaving a party; swastikas drawn in the snow; the N-word written multiple times in stairwells, bathrooms and other common areas of dorms; slurs against Asians shouted out of dorm room windows and directed at passing students; and a white supremacist manifesto posted on a Greek life online discussion forum.

Some students decided they had had enough. By Nov. 13, #NotAgainSU, a newly formed coalition of students of color and white student allies, was staging a multiday, 24-hour sit-in at university building to protest what they say is the university's slow response to the incidents, flawed handling of the situation and failure to recognize the seriousness of the unfolding events. Students occupied the Barnes Center at the Arch, the university's newest facility, for more than seven days.

Before long, the New York governor was criticizing the university's handling of the incidents, elevating a sense of urgency that some students and alumni said was lacking among university administrators, and prompting local and national media to descend on the campus.

“It took a situation where the pot was boiling a little bit with one incident, then another, then another,” said Hub Brown, associate dean for research, creativity, international initiatives and diversity at Syracuse's Newhouse School of Public Communications.

The students have since called for the resignation of Kent Syverud, chancellor of the university, and other top administrators.

#NotAgainSU and a coalition of international students issued an extensive list of 19 demands to Syverud, which included clarifying the student code of conduct to explicitly include elevated punishments for acts of racism, developing a facility to house multicultural student resources and forming mandatory diversity and inclusion curriculum and training for all faculty and staff, with input from students and faculty members of color.

"The administration has made severe mistakes, not only over the past two weeks but the past five years," #NotAgainSU wrote in a series of tweets Nov. 22. "They have gone without consequences for their historical failures for far too long, and it's time the student body holds them accountable to the standards we should expect of the individuals responsible for our experience in pursuing higher education."

The students have advocates both on and off campus. ​Members of the local NAACP joined the protestors in the Barnes Center to offer support and participate in the sit-in, according to a Facebook post by the organization.

“We want to show our support for the hard work these students are doing to ensure that the University confronts these very serious problems and creates solutions that ensure SU is a place where all people are respected,” local NAACP president Linda Brown-Robinson said in a statement. “These incidents are absolutely unacceptable. We applaud the students and stand ready to help them any way we can.”

While observers on and off the campus are asking how things could have deteriorated so quickly over such a short time period, others say the explanation is not that complicated. They believe university administrators have simply lost credibility for giving regular lip service about valuing diversity and inclusion while doing little to put those words into tangible action.

“A lot of institutions have not gone beyond the diversity conversation,” said Brown, who, like Charles, is African American. “There’s not a lot of thought towards inclusion … You can have a whole lot of efforts towards diversity, but you’re going to waste them if you don’t bring them into the culture.”

“Two Weeks of Hate”
Sixteen incidents of racism have riddled the campus since Nov. 7.:

  • Nov. 7, 14, 18 and 21: Eight separate reports of graffiti depicting racial slurs against black and Asian people being found on several floors of Day Hall, a first-year student residence.
  • Early morning Nov. 14: Racist graffiti aimed at Asian people was found in the physics building.
  • Later on Nov. 14: A swastika was found drawn in a snow bank across from a student apartment complex.
  • Early morning Nov. 16: A Chinese freshman reported someone yelled a racial slur at him while he was leaving Day Hall; more racist graffiti against Asians found in Haven Hall, another first-year residence.
  • Evening Nov. 16: Graffiti depicting a swastika found in Haven Hall and a student yelling a racial slur against black people reported in Sadler Hall, another first-year residence.
  • Nighttime Nov. 16: 14 students -- four of them from Syracuse -- harassed a female black student who was leaving an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity party. The four students and chapter have since been suspended, and the case was referred to the Onondaga County district attorney.
  • Early morning Nov. 19: A white supremacist manifesto, said to be the same one shared by the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooter, was posted on the website greekrank.com in an online forum for Syracuse Greek life members.
  • Later on Nov. 19: Genevieve García de Müeller, a Mexican and Jewish writing and rhetoric professor, received a threat in her work email with anti-Semitic language, The New York Times reported.
  • Nov. 21: A message with racist language aimed at Native Americans was found in Flint Hall, another first-year residence. Another instance of racist graffiti targeting Asian people found in the Comstock Art Facility.

University administrators had been considering reshaping the diversity and inclusion curriculum for first-year students before the recent spate of racial incidents, Brown said. There have been discussions of restructuring SEM100, a course required for first-year students that is focused on diversity and inclusion that some students say is ineffective. The academic affairs committee of the University Senate will begin discussions on how to improve the course in upcoming meetings, said Ramesh Raina, chair of the biology department and a member of the committee.​

In the meantime, the coalition of students has taken it upon itself to push for more and faster change.

For his part, Syverud acknowledges mistakes. He has reached out to students, faculty members and the broader community in the city of Syracuse, most recently at a campus forum held last week to address the crisis, where students voiced their concerns about the handling of the racist incidents, and how they felt the university was overlooking its cultural problem with racism by focusing heavily on each incident rather than on how students of color have felt threatened by racism on campus for many years.

He agreed that “There are things that have not been handled well enough during this series of recent events” and that news of the racist incidents was “not communicated clearly and rapidly enough to get ahead of escalating anxiety.”

And in a speech to the University Senate on Nov. 20, he spoke bluntly of the expressions of hate and intolerance on campus.

"These incidents highlight both an immediate challenge to our institution and its values and a long-term need to dramatically do more," he said. "That need to do much more is, in my view, a fact."

He has given no indication that he will be resigning any time soon, however.

"We are at a time in this nation when we risk it becoming an acceptable leadership style to ignore facts, to insult and attack those with whom we disagree, to refuse ever to admit error, and most of all to evade responsibility," Syverud said during the speech. "That’s not who I am or how I was raised."

After calls at the campus forum for Syverud to “sign or resign” -- by "sign" they meant for him to agree to their stated demands -- he agreed to “98 percent” of them, Raina said. The remaining 2 percent were outside of his purview legally or needed the approval from the Board of Trustees, he said.

However, the #NotAgainSU students are not satisfied with 98 percent. In a statement posted on Twitter Thursday, the group accused Syverud of being unwilling to discuss the demands prior to the community forum, though the university has disputed this.

The university has also been working with outside law enforcement agencies such as the New York State Police’s Hate Crimes Task Force after Governor Andrew Cuomo said the racist incidents were not handled adequately and placed pressure on the chancellor to act. Administrators also suspended all fraternity social activities on campus for the rest of the semester, a decision that displeased some in the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which is comprised of nine historically black Greek organizations, said Charles, the adviser for Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

“They were screaming [the N-word] at us. Why do we all of a sudden have our programs shut down?” Charles asked rhetorically, conveying the frustrations of students. “Something had to be done, but you have to take a little more measured steps … we support the school in doing whatever they can, as long as it’s going to be fair.”

The suspension of fraternity events is intended as “a call for reflection and action and not a punishment,” Dean of Students Marianne Thomson said in a statement, noting that fraternities don't only throw parties.

In the wake of what seemed to students like escalating threats and potential for violence against targeted groups, some students emailed their professors expressing fear of coming to class. Les Rose, a broadcast journalism professor, said he and other Newhouse professors volunteered to take shifts being in the lobby of the Newhouse building to reassure concerned students of their safety.

“It hurt my heart,” Rose said. “I woke up at 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday night because I couldn’t sleep -- I was worried about what another racist idiot would do -- and there’s an email from a very concerned student of mine who didn’t want to come to class. She was truly unnerved.”

Students of color who participated in the protests say their mental health has deteriorated from mounting fear of being targeted on campus.

"Woke up feeling sad. Like many others over two weeks, I experienced a lot of pain," an Asian student who participated in the sit-in wrote on Twitter. "It’s been a difficult experience, and one that constantly reminds in my head. I don’t know how to explain it but it hurts. I hope those who cause this pain will be held accountable."

Gabby de Oliveira, a first-year student from Los Angeles who lives in Flint Hall, where a student wrote a hateful message directed at Native Americans, said she doesn’t feel “completely safe.” While many students have left campus early for the Thanksgiving break -- the university is excusing their absences -- de Oliviera cannot reschedule her flight.

“I honestly think it’s people just trying to get a rise,” de Oliviera said. “At this point, there’s so many incidents and it’s snowballing -- it’s trying to get a reaction out of people.”

In some respects, it has worked. The hate has certainly galvanized minority students and white student allies. In addition to Chancellor Syverud, they have also called for the resignations of DPS chief Bobby Maldonado, Senior Vice President for Enrollment and Student Experience Dolan Evanovich and DPS associate chief John Sardino. Leaders of the movement have not replied to multiple requests for comment.

“Our collective action has forced the university to make some progress and to put in basic protections for students and faculty,” the group's statement said. “Chancellor Syverud has reluctantly acted only when under intense pressure … Through his stalling and other tactics, he has proven his inability to deeply understand and act from a place of knowledge of what students need within and beyond the university.”

Racism Embedded in University Culture

Those sentiments were unambiguous at the campus forum last week. Students criticized the administration for its fixation on verifying the “credibility” of each incident of racism and failing to see the bigger picture of a university environment that feels threatening to students of color. Students participating in the Barnes Center sit-in are not only responding to recent events, but also to the accumulation of racist acts over several years and what they’ve observed as a lack of urgency to respond, said Brown, the Newhouse associate dean.

“Whether or not we think at the university level that we’ve been doing well, that doesn’t matter when students feel like they’re not being included and feel like they’re facing threats,” Brown said. “It makes very little difference to them, and if we’re trying to get the message to them, we’ve got to remember that.”

Syracuse’s recent cutback of its Posse Leadership Scholarship programs from three partnerships to just one in Miami, also left some people with the impression that the university is not dedicated to recruiting students from diverse backgrounds, Brown said. The program selects and mentors high-achieving minority high school students, often from low-income backgrounds, and promotes their admission to elite colleges and universities. The university did not respond to a question about shrinking the program.

At predominantly white campuses such as Syracuse, which is 56.2 percent white as of fall 2019, according to the Office of Institutional Research, it’s hard for administrators to directly prevent acts of racism committed by individuals, Brown said. Some students come into the university as racists, and it’s part of Syracuse’s job to teach them to be “better thinkers,” Brown said.

Ben Green, who attended the university in the 1980s and now leads the Friends of SU, a group for black and Latino alumni, said Syracuse needs to better enforce the racist behavior it officially claims it does not tolerate.

“You need a program as soon as possible to teach staff and students about the mixed pot of cultures you have there,” Green said.

Students have noted Syracuse’s missed chances to respond to racism, and the past movements led by students of color that emerged in response to racist acts in 2014. They also point to an incident last year when members and pledges of the Theta Tau fraternity spoke in derogatory and racist terms about several minority groups on a video that was widely disseminated on campus and went viral nationally. The fraternity was subsequently expelled from campus, but two of the students involved re-enrolled earlier this year as a result of a court order, Syracuse.com reported.

Syracuse’s equivocal responses to these incidents outraged members of alumni networks for graduates of color who remember the mishandling of similar incidents. Several of these groups signed on to a letter to Syverud last Thursday voicing support for the #NotAgainSU protesters and stating that the university’s “handling of recent racist incidents has been poorly executed, and reflective of past missteps by the SU administration.”

The letter was signed by the Friends of SU, SU Posse, DC Orange and Blue Crew, the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, and others, representing more than 3,000 black and Latino alumni. Green said he's holding off on a donation he had planned to make to Syracuse around Christmastime

“I can’t donate and back the university if the people who are receiving the money aren’t in shape enough to receive it,” Green said.

Faculty members and alumni understand there is no “instantaneous solution” to the racism, said Raina, the biology department chair. Older members of the university understand the slow-turning wheels of a university far better than the students engaging in protest, who Charles said are “not going to be convinced just by words.” He believes students should give Syverud and others the chance to act on their promises before calling for their resignations, he said.

Brown said the escalation of racist incidents on campus was caused in part by the administration's lack of response to the first set of graffiti.

“When you don’t move decisively and you don’t move full on, you give people room to react and see how much pain is being expressed, and [the racists] delight in it,” Brown said.

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