Concern spurs SUNY-wide meeting among Black faculty to discuss SUNY’s inadequate response to global protests
By Alexandra Moyen and Reilly Mullen
Reposted from The Spectrum
June 19, 2020
Sixty-five Black SUNY professors held an unprecedented meeting Monday to discuss their frustration over the way their universities responded to the racial tensions that have exploded across the country since George Floyd’s death on March 25.
The meeting also focused on the lack of support African-American and Black studies professors feel SUNY has offered their departments and the lack of black and brown faculty hired and students at their universities.
Collectively, they penned a resolution asking for a meeting with top SUNY officials, including the interim Chancellor Kristina Johnson and the board of trustees by June 30 to discuss how SUNY and individual institutions can become more openly supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and effectively address the racial tension that has brought thousands to the streets in cities across the nation, including Buffalo, where protesters have demonstrated for 20 consecutive days.
On Wednesday, Johnson announced she had accepted a position as president of Ohio State University, but will not begin that position until Sept. 1. The group also asked for a meeting with the new SUNY Chancellor, who has not yet been named, by Sept. 30.
“SUNY has to listen to Black faculty and staff and take action on their concern,” said Jordan Bell, a SUNY Dutchess English Professor, who helped organize the meeting, “For there is a commonality that Black faculty and staff across all of SUNY are pissed and are demanding changes at the systemwide level and at each campus.”
Bell is part of the SUNY Black Faculty and Staff Collective, which advocates “towards centering and valuing of Black lives on SUNY campuses and beyond.”
In the letter, black SUNY facutly say, “We are writing to demand that SUNY take immediate and meaningful action to deconstruct the present system and rebuild an academic space that is rooted in Anti-Racist ideology.”
The demands include change to administration, curriculum and to include:
- Requiring all SUNY campuses to have a Chief Diversity Officer with a budget of at least $50,000 and a mandate to collaborate with students, faculty and race studies departments
- Ending contracts with prisons for school supplies and furniture
- Hiring more Black faculty
- Expanding general education requirements to include courses on race, Black history, colonialism and anti-racism
- Funding more Black campus groups, provide and compensate appropriate faculty mentors
- Creating more opportunities for all students to learn about Black world views, outside of Black History month
“The time has come for SUNY to move beyond symbolic shows and solidarity, and into cultural and structural changes that deeply improve the material quality of life for Black students, faculty and staff on its 64 campuses in order to address its systemic racism,” the statement says.
The meeting was spurred by a letter penned by UB Transnational Studies Professor Cecil Foster on June 5 expressing disappointment at the lackluster response by UB and the College of Arts and Sciences to the Black Lives Matter and racial justice protests erupting across the globe. The letter, addressed to CAS Dean Robin Schulze and Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence Despina Stratigakos and printed in The Spectrum on June 8, notes that universities across the country immediately organized events to help students and the community discuss and better understand the tensions.
UB did not, Foster said.
President Satish Tripathi issued a five-sentence statement decrying racism on May 30. But, Foster noted, UB did nothing else.
“I noticed that just about every major university had held some event to mark what was happening, video conferencing and statements were coming from major universities,” Foster said. “And I noticed that nothing had come from UB and in particular wanted to know why nothing had come in from the Vice Provost’s office or from the College of Arts and Sciences or from the Center for Diversity Innovation.”
In the letter, Foster, who has studied multiculturalism in Canada and the U.S. for decades, called such silence, “contrary to our legacy, especially that of the African and African American Studies Program now celebrating its 50th anniversary.”
Schulze and Theresa McCarthy, Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence, issued a statement on June 8. In the statement, they expressed solidarity with protests and the nationwide calls for justice. They also pointed out shortcomings in the community. “As we are moved to strengthen our commitment to change, we are challenged to confront the ways in which we have failed to alter the conditions that have made the Black Lives Matter movement necessary,” the statement reads. “If we hope to truly stand in solidarity with African American students, staff, and faculty on this campus, we must do more.”
They did not say what CAS would do.
Also on June 8, Strakigakos’ office announced the launching of a series of university events called “Let’s Talk about Race,” designed to “foster conversations toward achieving our goal of deep cultural and structural transformation.”
The first event was a Zoom meeting today (Juneteenth) from 12-1 p.m. and featured Reverend Jamie Washington, founder of Washington Diversity Consulting Group. According to his website, Washington has consulted for nonprofits and government and faith organizations, including Starbucks, Wachovia and Wells Fargo, Shell Oil, Boston Bank and Greenpeace. He does not list any universities as past clients.
UB Professor Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., who has spent decades studying and writing about inequality, called the UB responses “just short of pathetic.”
Taylor, a professor in the department of Urban and Regional Planning, believes Foster’s letter was “right on target.” He and Foster are both executive members of the SUNY Black faculty group.
“I think it shows absolutely no understanding of the challenges that we face at this moment in time and they just oughta stop and give this to somebody that knows what they’re doing or talk to somebody that knows what they’re doing because it’s been pathetic,” Taylor said. “You know, this university has been backsliding in a lot of areas as it relates to race and class.”
When the protests erupted, the UB communications office put forward Kari Winter, a professor in the Global Gender and Sexuality Studies department and Victoria Wolcott, a professor in the history department, as experts for media contacts. Winter, director of the Gender Institute, studies American literature and history from the 18th century to the present, transatlantic slavery and resistance, women’s literature and Africans in early New England. Wolcott teaches African American history courses and is currently researching the emergence of experimental interracial communities in mid-twentieth century America. Both are White women.
Foster, who has worked as a journalist in Canada and as an editor of Contrast, Canada’s first Black-oriented newspaper, said he’s not surprised UB did not play a more significant role in the media coverage of the protests, even when the national lens focused on Buffalo after a video of Buffalo Police pushing protestor Martin Gugino on June 4 went viral.
“ I said it is because they are a) offering only White faculty to speak on Black issues, unlike other universities with more media successes, and b) they are offering faculty that are not connected daily to Black lives and matters, but people who merely see Black people as “research” objects. I argued that they should be promoting African and African American Studies Faculty as the experts on these matters.”
Taylor believes its “past due time” for a SUNY-wide discussion on the concerns of Black faculty, including the way s Black faculty often feel “invisible” on campus.
“It seems that the Floyd rebellions and the gruesome, callous way in which he was killed has generated an awakening,” Taylor said. “Now’s the time to have these kinds of real conversations [to bring about] insightful, authentic and legitimate change.”
On June 17, Tripathi wrote a second letter to the university community outlining a plan to better respond to the national crisis, saying “it is imperative that we explore, understand and respond to racism and systemic inequality.” The main part of the plan is a new president’s advisory council on race—composed of faculty, staff, students and alumni. The council “will address issues of race, culture and higher education to guide and shape our university’s programs, policies, activities, traditions,” Tripathi wrote.
Neither Foster nor Taylor were asked to join the advisory council. The Spectrum asked UB administrators why not, but did not get a direct response. Cory Nealon, director of news content said, “It was important to have members from diverse backgrounds who represented many areas across our university, including UB alumni.”
Nealon did not respond to questions about Foster’s letter or the SUNY-wide meeting among Black faculty, but did say, “The University at Buffalo is committed to fighting racism and dismantling systems of inequality, particularly the outsized effect these evils have upon African Americans. These efforts include recruiting and supporting more underrepresented minority faculty members, particularly black scholars, as well as harnessing UB’s strengths – education, research, public service, creative work and clinical care – to help create a more just and equitable society.”
Tripathi has also charged UB Provost A. Scott Weber to evaluate research priorities and the undergraduate curriculum “to build a deeper understanding of racial disparities and injustice,” to look at hiring and retention of Black faculty and to support more campus-wide conversations about race.
Foster appreciates the gestures, but worries about the concrete outcomes.
In a June 12 follow-up letter to Weber and copied to numerous UB administrators and members of the Transnational Studies department, Foster laments that at a time when the nation desperately needs discussions about race and when young people are especially galvanized to protest, UB is moving in the opposite direction.
“Yet in this moment here at UB we are dismantling the Department of Transnational Studies,” he writes. “We are systematically moving away from international leadership in a transnational discourse–at a point when it is so obvious from international, national and local events that we in TNS still have so much to offer–and retreating into separate silos with no collaboration or unity of purpose or thought. To this end, TNS has been largely excluded from offering a comprehensive slate of diversity courses at the undergraduate level.”
In April 2018, The Spectrum pointed out that the UB Pathways curriculum allows engineering majors to take “Communication Systems I” –– a course about transmitters and receivers –– toward an “Understanding Racism” requirement and “Hydrologic Engineering” to discover more about global conflicts.
Unlike other universities, UB has also not moved to rename any buildings, such as Millard Fillmore Academic Center or Putnam’s, due to the histories of their namesakes. In November 2018, The Spectrum pointed out that James O. Putnam, whose name graces the eatery in the Student Union on North Campus, believed Black people were an “inferior race.” In May 2017, The Spectrum highlighted U.S. President and UB founder Fillmore’s legacy as the author of the 1852 Fugitive Slave Act.
Foster, too, has suggested that the Fillmore complex be renamed and points to work done by UB associate professor Lilian Williams, on more appropriate historic figures.
In 2018, Nealon told The Spectrum UB had formed a Campus Building and Landscape Naming Committee that was “in the process of developing policies and plans for the naming of old and new structures and places,” but no new policy has emerged.
Taylor believes no matter how uncomfortable the discussion around race may be, it is necessary. He said the “lack of discussion” on race represents the “triumph of whiteness” and “institutionalized white privilege.”
“The idea is to get white people out of their comfort zone, and to get other people out of their comfort zones so that we can have real meaningful conversations,” Taylor said. “There’s no time, no place, no moment in history, where anybody did anything that could qualify as greatness by operating in their comfort zone.”
UB’s TNS department has struggled for funding in recent years and has fought back rumors that it was being dissolved.
On Feb. 4, students held a town hall meeting with the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Schulze to discuss the school’s lack of black faculty and lack of funding for the African American Studies program.
In the meeting, Schulze discussed the SUNY PRODiG 5 year program which will allow teachers trained in diversity to teach at the school in hopes of increasing minority faculty on campus. Although SUNY will allow them to target hire, Schulze stated she can’t ensure black hires because it would be “discriminatory.”
“It’s discriminatory for us to go out and say we’re only going to hire an African American scholar,” Schulze said after the meeting. “We go out, we ask for the very best scholars who work on ‘blank and blank,’ we look at the pool that comes in and then we are sensitive inside the structure of that pool to get people of color. But by New York state law, just in the same way we can’t say ‘whites only’ we can’t go out and say ‘only blacks.’”
Transnational Studies professors feel as though they have been not only ignored, but left out of the hiring and restructuring process for their program.
In 2009, the Transnational Studies program had seven faculty members and the amount of faculty has since been declining with only one hire in 2011, according to Deborah Pierce-Tate, Assistant to the Chair of Transnational Studies. Foster said he is unsure why each faculty member has left the program, but some have left for retirement or to go to other departments. Since 2011, the program has lost one full-time faculty member every two years, according to Pierce-Tate, and in 2019, the program had four full-time faculty members and one full-time adjunct professor.
“How can you not invest in the university, if it’s authentic and legitimate interest in the plight of people of color and African Americans, then how do you quietly dismantle those institutions and structures that are focusing on their needs,” Taylor said.