Racism is ever-present on U.S. college campuses, and Syracuse University is no exception. In the past month, Syracuse’s campus community has faced at least 14 reported incidents involving hate speech targeting Black, Asian, and Jewish people. On Nov. 6, students vandalized Day Hall, a freshman dorm, writing the N-word and slurs against Asian people in bathrooms and on bulletin boards. Since then, other buildings across campus have been defaced with similar racist language, and students and faculty have reported feeling increasingly threatened and unsafe.
On Monday night, the white supremacist manifesto written by the Christchurch mosque shooter was allegedly AirDropped to students’ phones at Bird Library, one of Syracuse’s largest libraries. The Department of Public Safety claimed that there was “no specific threat” associated with the manifesto, but notified the State Police and FBI and doubled patrols around the campus and residence halls. So far, they have not been able to find any students who received the manifesto, but a link to it was posted on an SU discussion board on Greekrank.com. Regardless of the claim’s veracity, students and faculty alike are feeling threatened and fearful for their lives.
One professor tweeted that she was directly threatened for her Jewish heritage in an anonymous email that referenced the Holocaust. She told Syracuse’s student publication, The Daily Orange, that “this is deeply embedded in the culture and history of SU,” expressing that she wanted to show that she was not afraid to speak out and show solidarity with student protesters. Other professors have canceled classes or allowed absences and the College Deans have allowed students to receive accommodations if they choose not to attend. Despite the Student Association’s push for university-wide cancellation of classes, the administration kept classes going throughout the week.
Syracuse officials have focused their efforts around increased security and investigation of these incidents, aiming to find and punish perpetrators. They suspended the fraternity Alpha Chi Rho indefinitely after several of its members yelled the N-word at a Black female student as she walked by them on the night of Nov. 16. All other fraternity-sponsored events for the rest of the fall semester were suspended as well, with members being required to attend three training sessions relating to Title IX, masculinity, anti-racism, and bias.
These events have been dubbed the “November Hate Crimes” by a group of Black Syracuse students, who have started the movement #NotAgainSU in response to their administration’s delayed response to these incidents. On Nov. 13, a coalition of students led a sit-in in the lobby of their health and wellness center that lasted for eight days. The group composed a 19-point list of short-term and long-term demands for their administration to improve diversity and inclusion issues on campus, calling for concrete protocol and punishments for varying levels of involvement in hate crimes. They also outlined a plan to increase funding for related programming and requested that an effort be made to improve the diversity of faculty and counselors. Many students have pushed for the resignation of University Chancellor Kent Syverud, a figurehead of the administration’s inaction surrounding these issues.
Prominent politicians have spoken out in support of Syracuse students and against the University’s responses, with Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York calling on the University’s Board of Trustees to begin a formal investigation. He issued a statement saying that the incidents “have not been handled in a manner that reflects this state’s aggressive opposition to such odious, reckless, reprehensible behavior.” Two prominent Syracuse alumni, former NAACP President Olivia T. Johnson and former Vice President Joe Biden both expressed disturbance regarding these reports, with Johnson encouraging SU students to “stay safe, thrive in truth, and fight like hell.”
After days of deliberation and increasing pressure from students and politicians alike, Syverud agreed to 16 of the 19 demands. Three of the demands were sent back to be reworded, as they would require approval from the Board of Trustees and potentially violate the law. The protesters remain dissatisfied with the chancellor’s response to their 19 demands and many are still petitioning for his resignation, along with the resignation of DPS Chief Bobby Maldonado and Associate Chief John Sardino.
Syracuse students aren’t fighting solely against racism. They’re fighting against an administration that has historically failed to address the long-term issue of racism on their campus. In the spring of 2018, fraternity Theta Tau had pledges perform skits that used slurs targeting Black, Jewish, and Latinx people. Syverud initially suspended the fraternity members, eventually expelling the fraternity permanently. Last winter, Black students were attacked and called the N-word by white passers-by, but the Department of Public Safety did not disclose in its initial report that the incident was racially motivated.
Racism at higher institutions is not limited to racist incidents; it is a long-term issue that needs to be addressed at its roots, not after the fact. Here at Boston College, students of color—particularly Black students—have faced similar university responses to hate speech in the past few years.
When Michael Sorkin, CSOM ’21 vandalized Welch Hall with anti-Black hate speech and assaulted officers in Walsh Hall, students outside of these two residences were sent a vague, oversimplified email statement from Interim Vice President for Student Affairs, Joy Moore. Students and faculty looked to University President Fr. William Leahy, S.J. to release a statement condemning Sorkin’s actions—only to be met with silence from the administration.
At a panel in Robsham Theater hosted by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College, University Spokesman Jack Dunn commented that Father Leahy is “a very good man” but that he believes his role is to encourage students to think for themselves rather than to tell them what to think. Students have often criticized Leahy for selectively choosing to speak out about taxes on the University and about scandals within the Catholic Church, as well as for not attending the Silence is Still Violence march in 2017.
However problematic Dunn and Fr. Leahy may be, the panel provided a space for administrators to address the “Resolution Demanding a Comprehensive Institutional Response to Racism at Boston College” passed by UGBC. Many of these demands were paralleled by Syracuse’s this year, as they called for the immediate expulsion of Sorkin, requested the hiring of two mental health professionals of color, and asked that a first-year seminar course be centered around cultural competency. UGBC also included demands for increased budgets for the Thea Bowman AHANA+ Intercultural Center and Montserrat Coalition, as well as faculty diversity training and student representation on the Board of Trustees. Moore and Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley agreed that the administration would work with the authors of the resolution to construct a four-year action plan, but did not agree to the demands of the resolution.
These reactionary responses seem so common at universities—rather than creating a culture of inclusivity and celebrating diversity, students’ institutions fail them until they demand change. Shouldn’t issues of oppression be addressed before they culminate in threats to student safety and mental health?
In regard to Syracuse’s response, Syracuse student Caleb Sheedy ’22 told The Gavel, “They cannot continue to cover up such blatant and dangerous hate crimes. They need to be upfront about what is going on and become more transparent instead of leaving students in the dark literally fearing for their lives.”
Universities should be safe spaces for students of color to come home to, not places where they are constantly otherized and continually marginalized. Students deserve a commitment to their safety that goes beyond law enforcement and disciplinary standards.