‘We’re Not Playing’

Student protesters occupying a building at Syracuse University have dug in their heels and refused to leave. University leaders responded by suspending them.

February 19, 2020
 
Syracuse University

Syracuse University suspended more than 30 students Tuesday for occupying a campus building to protest administrators' slow response to a series of racial and anti-Semitic events that roiled the institution three months ago and made national headlines.

The suspensions came after students began a sit-in at the administration building on Monday and refused to leave.

The sit-in was the second such protest -- the first took place in November, when students occupied another building for seven straight days -- but unlike the last time, when the protesters were allowed to remain in the building while university administrators met and negotiated with them, the institution's leaders took a decidedly hard line after the students refused to move to a suggested different location on campus.

The events have led to a stand-off between university leaders, who insist they understand the students' frustrations and are acting in good faith to address their concerns, and students, who believe they're being given lip service and have to continue to agitate for real change.

Each side has lost patience with the other. The university has made clear it will not tolerate a repeat of the last sit-in. The students have indicated that's exactly what the university will get if they don't get what they want.

When #NotAgainSU, a multiracial coalition led by students of color, occupied a recreation facility on campus last November, they were responding to racial incidents that occurred on campus during the so-called two weeks of hate when a series of swastikas and various racial slurs were discovered on building walls, among other troubling events at the New York campus.

University chancellor Kent Syverud signed an agreement with the protesters committing to address a number of demands, including changes to the university's bias incident reporting policies and increased resources for students of color, such as more diverse staff and a centralized space on campus for multicultural offices and programs -- all of which the university says either have been implemented or are pending.

This time around, however, university officials say they will not bend policies to accommodate participants taking part in a sit-in at Crouse-Hinds Hall, where the chancellor's and other administrators' offices are located. More than 30 students remained in the building on Tuesday, and all received interim suspensions for violating a campus disruption policy. The university also relocated all the classes normally held in the building.

"There was a choice to enforce policy" that was in effect last November and currently, but administrators decided to enforce it on Monday, when students declined to leave the building at closing time, said Ellen Mbuqe, director of news and public relations.

A suspended student organizer for #NotAgainSU who was at both the November sit-in and most recent sit-in, but who did not want to be identified, said she can appeal the suspension. A statement from John Liu, interim vice chancellor and provost, said suspended students who live in campus housing can remain there but they cannot attend classes or enter campus facilities.

“Though the university continues to support peaceful demonstration and the free and respectful exchange of ideas, university leaders are enforcing established policies that help maintain an environment that fosters sensitivity, understanding and respect for all 22,000 students in our community, as well as our faculty, staff and visitors,” the statement said.

University officials said in a different statement that the “continued unwillingness by some to engage constructively, along with changing demands, challenge our collective forward progress.” #NotAgainSU disputed that assertion and said administrators only interacted with the demonstrators to negotiate their relocation to another building on campus, not to discuss their complaints. Administrators offered to let the group hold the sit-in at the university library, which is open 24 hours a day, but that would have defeated the purpose of the demonstration, the student organizer said.

“Change does not come to campus unless occupation like this happens,” the organizer said. “A protest is an active disruption. That’s intentional -- we knew what we were doing.”

The demonstrators continue to demand the resignation of what they call the “core four” -- Syverud; Dolan Evanovich, senior vice president for enrollment and student experience; Bobby Maldonado, chief of the department of public safety; and John Sardino, the deputy chief. Though the officials have made no indication of stepping down, #NotAgainSU has given them a deadline of Friday to do so.

There was no specific incident that ignited the new demonstrations; students were simply frustrated with the administration's slow progress on responding to their demands and investigating the numerous bias incidents on campus that prompted the first sit-in, the organizer said. The suspended students say they are being punished while there are perpetrators of “hate crimes who are still roaming campus freely,” said the #NotAgainSU organizer.

There have been a total of 25 incidents on campus since November, and some continue to be investigated by campus police, Syracuse Police and, in some cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mbuqe said. Six of those incidents -- including two instances where people yelled racial slurs out of car windows at passersby -- occurred during the current semester.

The university has issued multiple statements stating that it has acted in “good faith” since the November incidents. For example, a webpage was created to track the university's progress on addressing protest organizers’ demands as well as a bias incident report page on the website of the department of public safety.

Mbuqe said in a written statement that Syracuse has had the same experience with hate speech as many other colleges and universities.

“Our primary focus is -- and will always be -- ensuring our campus is a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment where our students, faculty and staff are and feel safe, valued and respected,” the statement said. “Syracuse University is not immune to broader societal issues including racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other hateful biases. Yet, we are striving to be at the center of the kind of change that can serve as a model for other universities.”

That's not how the protest organizers see things. They said Syracuse is applying its free expression policies differently than in the past and noted that the university did not enforce the disruption policy during the first sit-in, which “makes no sense to us,” the student organizer said. This time the students were told they had to leave the building by 9 p.m., when the building officially closed. More than 2,400 people signed a petition on Feb. 18 to reinstate the suspended students. #NotAgainSU said it plans to continue the sit-in until their demands are met.

“We’ve already met with administrators; we’ve met with the Board of Trustees,” the student organizer said. “We’re not playing with administrators going forward.”

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