Last week, Syracuse University administrators suspended 30 students who were protesting the institution’s failure to curb bias incidents that have occurred over the past several months. The suspensions were handed down after students refused to leave a campus administrative building.
Since November 7, 2019, the student-run newspaper The Daily Orange has documented at least 30 hate incidents on or near campus that have largely gone unaddressed and unpunished. Those include cases of verbal harassment, anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist graffiti, and threatening emails towards members of various historically marginalized groups. One student reported being assaulted.
Students, rallying under the #NotAgainSU hashtag, have participated in numerous demonstrations since November without facing discipline. However, the recent sit-in inside a building that houses the office of Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud evoked a strong response. Students refused to leave the premises after the building closed — because protests don’t keep regular office hours — and administrators issued temporary suspensions.
Confounding matters, at least 4 of the students who were suspended had not even been at the sit-in; they were in their dorm rooms at the time. University officials did not clarify how they misidentified those students.
Sophomore Zoe Selesi, who had participated in a #NotAgainSU sit-in last November but was not at the recent protest, felt the university targeted her because of her race.
“I’m just angry and frustrated that I’m being racially profiled,” Selesi, who is black, told the student paper.
A university spokesperson said they regretted the error.
When the swell of hate speech began last November, Chancellor Syverud recorded a video statement condemning such incidents and affirming the university’s commitment to respecting all students of all backgrounds. “When these hateful acts … produce dangerous and hostile environments, it is the responsibility of our university — and our community — to step up.”
Since November, the university’s public safety department has actively worked to deter and investigate such incidents by working longer shifts, increasing the number of property checks, and enhancing the safety escort program. The New York State Police’s Hate Crimes Task Force also offered its support in addressing the incidents.
Shortly after protests following the November incidents, Syverud released a memorandum summarizing the administration’s response to 16 of the students’ demands, including diversity training for faculty and staff, hiring more counselors, and promising “no consequences or sanctions arising for students who are participating in the sit in as a result of their participation in the sit in.” The university has created a public folder containing its progress on each of the students’ demands.
The administration has done a lot — but has it done enough? In spite of the university’s actions, only one of the perpetrators of the incidents have been found (The University is not allowed to reveal their identity due to federal policy.) However, members of marginalized groups have received suspensions. This has prompted students to renew their call for the ouster of Chancellor Syverud — which they first demanded in November and December — along with that of other administrators.
As long as the hateful incidents continue without a response that addresses a system that engenders intolerance, students will and should continue to protest.
Clearly, SU isn’t the only institution struggling to identify and punish perpetrators of hate crimes. Incidents of hate are on the rise in the U.S., on college campuses and more generally in the country. According to the 2018 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s annual Hate Crime Statistics report, law enforcement agencies reported 7,175 hate crimes in 2017, up from 6,121 in 2016. The most-reported cases involved single-bias incidents about race, ethnicity and ancestry (nearly 60 percent), religion (about 20 percent), and sexual orientation (just over 15 percent). The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported in 2019 that white supremacist propaganda had increased on college campuses, citing more than 300 cases between Sept. 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019, an increase of 7 percent from the prior academic year. It was the third consecutive year there was a rise in white supremacist propaganda across the country.
Hate speech and incidents of bias must be taken seriously, and there are some on the SU campus who are doing just that. On February 25, a group of professors, under the name the Faculty Action Collective, issued a statement calling for the removal of Syverud and several other administrators. “In light of the institution’s use of policies and procedures to harm and target students, we have no faith that the current administration can lead our community through this critical and urgent moment.”
By suspending the students, university officials are giving those who perpetrated the bias incidents what they want — a climate that is hostile to minority groups. Worse, the suspensions — though temporary — seem to say that students who are intolerant of hate don’t belong on campus. Syracuse officials are also re-victimizing the students they are supposed to protect.
As a former college administrator, I know that rules exist for a reason. It must have been frustrating for administrators when students refused to vacate the building. But suspending protesters, those moreover who are fighting for marginalized groups that are being targeted by hateful acts, is clearly not a solution. It could and possibly should, however, be interpreted as a punitive response to students who would dare to seek the removal of administrators. Instead of punishing protesters, Syracuse University leaders should continue to investigate the cases and do everything they can to prevent future attacks on students.
Colleges can’t suspend dissent away — that’s not how it works. College officials must show that the institution values diversity and integration in its core functions. Intolerance is often reflected by an absence of diverse voices and perspectives, including within curricula, in student life and college traditions. If students don’t see themselves in their courses, the hidden lesson they learn is that they don’t matter. A curriculum that excludes the perspective of racial minorities teaches the majority group to be incurious or intolerant of those perspectives.
We all have a responsibility to curb racism, especially at our institutions of higher learning.
Campuses can conduct climate surveys and audits to identify opportunities to remove baked-in bigotry. Officials can then replace those blind spots in curricula and student activities with different texts, lessons and new traditions that instill the value of integration.
Syracuse University has since rescinded the suspensions against all students involved in the protest. But this revocation of penalties against the protesting students fails to address the systemic issues that caused the students to protest in the first place: issues of ignorance, respect, dignity, and safety. Black, brown, Jewish, Asian and LBGTQ students should not be forced to live in fear that their university is more interested in adjudicating the violations of the Campus Disruption Policy than protecting minority students from hatred.
*Correction: An earlier version stated that none of the perpetrators of the bias incidents have been found. While the majority of the investigations into the hate/bias incidents are still ongoing, DPS has identified at least one of the perpetrators. The University is not allowed to reveal their identity due to federal policy.