SU Racism Forum Features Walkout by Students, Pledges by Administration to Work on Changes

Nov 20, 2019

Students and staff packed Hendricks Chapel for forum on racist incidents and University policies
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

Updated 10:11 a.m. to add Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and Provost comments.   

A forum at Syracuse University to try and ease fears on campus over racist incidents and improve policies on diversity and safety did not meet either goal.  But students and some staff members did get promises from the Chancellor and administration to make changes that could improve inclusion and the handling of future racist incidents.

The forum came after more than a dozen racist indidents, and a sit-in protest by students who issued a list of demands.  During the forum, Chancellor Kent Syverud, who had responded to work on all of the demands, indicated he could not sign off on every word of the list without some clarification and further discussion.  

Leaders of the sit-in protest #NotAgainSU listed reasons why Chancellor Syverud and other top officials should resign over responses to racism incidents and overall campus policies toward diversity and inclusion.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

That caused students that are part of the #NotAgainSU movement to walk out of the forum chanting “sign or resign”.  One organizer explained that Syverud was responsible for missteps by the university in handling the racist incidents.  He further called for the ouster of Public Safety Chief Bobby Moldanado for officers’ failing to keep students of color safe.

“…must face consequences for repeated mistakes interacting with students and securing our safety.  Given hat the department’s explicit purpose is public safety, the consistent fear that students of color have is evidence that they are acting in direct contradiction to their stated function.” 

After the walkout, some students and staff did stay to ask questions of a number of senior officials.  Many made it evident that they were not confident positive changes would result, or that they felt unsafe on campus.  One student, who said she is a mother and grandmother, noted she is reconsidering the wisdom of coming here.

“Because I am a black woman on campus that’s not quite clear on how to handle a problem that’s systemic.  I’m trying to figure out can my grandson come to this school and be safe when his grandmother is worried crossing the campus?”

Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

At one point, Chancellor Syverud announced he was going downstairs at Hendricks chapel to meet with some of the student protest organizers on specifics of their demands and his response to them.  He later returned to the forum announcing a desire to hammer out an agreement, including meetings with international students and Jewish students to include issues important to them.  He said he believed an agreement and progress could be made by Thursday, though noted the reality of the situation.

“I don’t think racism on this campus will ever be solved completely.  I think it’s going to require a culture that constantly works on it every day every year.  And it demands that of everybody who works here and comes here.  And I’m committed and I think that’s the spirit of what we’re asked to do with these demands.”

After the forum concluded a number of students took up their protest in the Barnes center once again.  One of the organizers remained skeptical that even agreements to the demands might not result in real change to make campus safer.

“I don’t think you can teach racism out of anybody and I don’t think that’s the argument we’re trying to make.  This is a microcosm of what our nation is dealing with right now.  We’re just a snippet of that; there’s a little United States right here in Syracuse.  The goal is to enhance critical thinking, allow people to understand each other’s experiences so we can have these open and hard discussions.”

Demands include improving curriculum so that more diversity and understanding is part of every student’s education;  hire more diverse staff and faculty; improve communication, especially when racist or potentially dangerous incidents occur; and improve training for staff and faculty, among other things.

Officials also updated those at the forum on investigations.  They indicated the campus was working with the FBI, State Police and Syracuse Police to try and find out who posted the white supremacist message to a website linked to some campus organizations and allegedly sent it to specific students, but had not come up with a suspect. 

Four students were identified as being part of a racist shouting incident aimed at a black student; they have been referred to campus disciplinary measures.  Another member of the group accused in that assault was identified as being from Rutgers University, which has been notified.  There is also no suspect in the spate of racist graffiti messages.  Maldonado said information is likely going to come from student interviews to identify suspects, given that most of the postings were done in campus buildings late at night. 

Following the forum at Hendricks Chapel, Chancellor Kent Syverud sent an email to the Syraucuse University community saying he has signed the list of the demands. In the email, he says the university has "worked in good-faith to support the thoughtful, forward-thinking and constructive solutions offered by many of our students.":

That is why, a short time ago, after meeting with small groups of students, I signed the recommendations presented by international students and the students peacefully protesting. Of the 19 recommendations made by student protestors, I have agreed to 16 as written; I have suggested minor revisions to the other three for them to consider. These revisions are required to comply with law or because of the need for Board of Trustees approval. Later this morning, I will meet with Jewish students, and I am confident we will make good progress together.

Implementing these recommendations is the right thing to do. They will make our community stronger.

Vice Chancellor and Provost Michelle Wheatley also addressed the campus community via email regarding the topic of cancelling class:

I have heard many different perspectives about whether to hold classes Thursday and Friday. I appreciate the input I received. In order to avoid a likely requirement to add days to the end of the semester, I have given broad discretion to all faculty and students in regards to attendance. Any student who feels unsafe going to class should not go to class. They can make that decision knowing that all absences are excused and no penalty will be applied.