Theta Tau videos are latest example of SU’s discriminatory culture, students say

UPDATED: April 23, 2018 at 12:11 p.m.

In a 350-word message to the Syracuse University community, Chancellor Kent Syverud acknowledged the university’s shortcomings and pledged to improve.

That message came in November 2014 at the end of weeks of protests by THE General Body, a coalition of students and other SU community members upset with what they called a racist and generally discriminatory campus culture. Prompted in part by cuts to a scholarship program designed to improve campus diversity, the students organized an 18-day sit-in that fall — Syverud’s first full semester as chancellor — inside Crouse-Hinds Hall, home to SU’s upper-administrative offices.

Syverud said in the message that he admired and respected the students’ passion. He apologized for the way the university had communicated decisions. He said SU would work to bring “continued action and resolution” to address the students’ concerns.

“We will do better,” he wrote to end the message.

Three and a half years later, inside Schine Student Center on Friday, Syverud again faced student protesters. In the aftermath of the publication of videos that shows individuals in the house of SU’s Theta Tau chapter — which was expelled by the university Saturday — using racial slurs, the campus has again erupted in a series of student-led protests. Like those before them in 2014, the students, organized as Recognize Us, are demanding change on a campus they’ve described as hostile to marginalized communities.

Inside Schine, Syverud told the students he admired that they’ve shown they care about the community. He apologized to them, this time for not attending a student forum inside Hendricks Chapel the night the video surfaced. He told the students he saw them, that he heard them and that he was “deeply concerned.”

“We will do better,” he told the students.

THE General Body, a coalition of student organizations, organized an 18-day Crouse-Hinds Hall sit-in in 2014 to protest topics in a 45-page list of grievances and demands. Daily Orange File Photo

Seven semesters after Syverud first made that pledge, students say the problems THE General Body brought to the surface of campus dialogue are still present at SU. In the eyes of some students, the Theta Tau videos are the latest example of a widespread campus culture of discrimination that has not improved since THE General Body’s protests.

Students said their concerns have not properly been addressed by Syverud and the rest of university leadership, which is made up of white men at disproportionate rates relative to the student body.

“History tends to repeat itself in cycles, and because of that, you have the same things that were happening in fall 2014 in spring 2018 as we are getting ready to walk across the stage and graduate,” said Taryne Chatman, a senior African American Studies major who was a freshman during THE General Body movement. “It’s definitely the same ideology, the same feeling, the same anger.”

To reverse the trends on campus, students said they need those in power at SU to engage with students and make sincere efforts to address their concerns, even if that means the university’s image suffers in the short term.

History tends to repeat itself in cycles, and because of that, you have the same things that were happening in fall 2014 in spring 2018 as we are getting ready to walk across the stage and graduate.

Taryne Chatman, senior African American Studies major

“I want people to see us,” said Saumya Melwani, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I want people to stop and listen to us and not disregard us because of our age or the color of our skin or whatever little part of intersectionality they don’t appreciate about us.”

•••

The voting members of SU’s Board of Trustees are mostly white men. Eighty-nine percent of the voting trustees — 41 out of 46 — are white-passing. About 75 percent are men. Most are leaders in the for-profit sector who come from big banks, private equity firms, international law firms and other corporate jobs.

The board, the university’s central governing body and highest authority, is not fully representative of the university’s student body. Fifty-seven percent of SU students are white and 46 percent are men, according to SU’s CollegeBoard page.

Higher education and race experts said a lack of diversity among trustees is likely to result in a campus culture that isn’t welcoming to students who aren’t represented on the board. To SU  student activists, the lack of diversity means the board is largely incapable of understanding or addressing the challenges that marginalized students face.

“If we don’t have people in positions of power who are educated in these areas and also don’t have colleagues who look like us, the things that are spoken in that room can very much be discriminatory toward the student body,” said Tayla Myree, a sophomore political science and history major and an organizer of the Recognize Us movement.

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Students protest on the SU campus following the release of the first Theta Tau video. Paul Schlesinger | Staff Photographer

Experts said the number of corporate professionals on SU’s board is consistent with trends in higher education, where wealthy individuals are expected to fill trustee positions because universities need leaders who can provide financial resources. But drawing from wealthy, privileged populations often results in boards that are not sufficiently diverse, said Ronald Hall, a professor at Michigan State University with expertise in race relations.

“This is not always a situation where the decision makers want to act out racism or sexism,” Hall said. “People may legitimately deny that they have racist intentions, but the outcome of their decision-making reflects the same, unfortunately.”

When boards are diverse, the universities they lead are typically more successful in achieving their goals and preparing students for success, experts said. Boards that are homogeneous are less likely to have the diverse views experts said are necessary for creating a campus climate that is hospitable for students of various backgrounds.

This is not always a situation where the decision makers want to act out racism or sexism. People may legitimately deny that they have racist intentions, but the outcome of their decision-making reflects the same, unfortunately.

Ronald Hall, professor at Michigan State University

“Diversity really matters, not just to have diversity, but because of the perspectives that people bring, the experiences that people bring, the questions that people ask, the insights that people have,” said Charlie Nelms, a consultant to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and former chancellor of North Carolina Central University. “It’s hard to make the point that we understand what you’re talking about if you don’t have some form of representational diversity on your board.”

According to SU’s official mission, the university strives to foster “a richly diverse and inclusive community.”

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Students march near Chancellor Kent Syverud’s house after Theta Tau’s initial suspension. Josh Shub-Seltzer | Staff Photographer

Lisa Dolak, a vice president and professor of law who heads the office of the Board of Trustees, said in an interview in early April that enhancing the diversity of the trustees “is very much a priority of the board.” Syverud noted at last week’s University Senate meeting that SU strives to be an “inclusive, student-focused research university.”

But some in the campus community see a disparity between that language and the realities on campus.

“We talk about diversity. However, where are these voices? And I would argue that they’re crying out, and I would argue that they are visible and that they have always existed,” said Huntly Brown, an SU graduate student in the Pan African Studies program. “My question is, are we allowing these voices who are speaking the necessary visibility and representation? And one must ask these questions if we are indeed concerned about diversity.”

•••

Some students have long raised concerns that parties hosted by students of color on South Campus are more likely to be broken up by SU’s Department of Public Safety than parties in the East Neighborhood near Main Campus.

Students of color have said they perceive the phenomenon as evidence that they are targeted by DPS. During a Student Association-hosted forum inside Maxwell Auditorium last fall, DPS Chief Bobby Maldonado said the discrepancy comes from the differences between the neighborhoods surrounding South Campus and Main Campus.

Maldonado said residents from neighborhoods near South Campus sometimes make noise complaints when South Campus parties continue late into the night, which prompts DPS to stop the parties.

“And the demographic of it is that the students who live out there are either Latino or African American in the areas where the parties are taking place,” Maldonado said at the forum. “… I think that’s really one of the demographic issues that has come.

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Department of Public Safety Chief Bobby Maldonado speaks to protesters at Friday’s Schine Student Center sit-in. Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer

Whatever the genesis of the trend, students said it’s one example of an institutional reality in which students of color and other marginalized students face obstacles that privileged students do not. Students said the university’s environment is generally unfavorable to those groups and that institutional decisions and policies often reflect that culture.

In 2015, Syracuse University commissioned a campus climate assessment that found several groups were less comfortable with the campus environment than their peers. Men reported feeling more comfortable than women. White people reported being more comfortable than people of color. Heterosexual people reported being more comfortable than people identifying as LGBTQ. People without a disability reported being more comfortable than people with disabilities.

Students of diverse backgrounds have said the hostility they face on campus isn’t always explicit. Instead, it comes in the form of microaggressions and other subtle types of discrimination.

“It comes to the more invisible things,” Melwani said. “Bias you can feel.”

In other cases, students said there are overt instances of discrimination, such as institutional funding decisions that some say disproportionately benefit white students and detract from the experiences of students of color.

One of the university’s first moves under Syverud was to discontinue most of its Posse program, a scholarship program that recruits students from various urban areas. The national initiative is designed to improve the diversity of college campuses.

It comes to the more invisible things. Bias you can feel.

Saumya Melwani, junior in the College of Arts and Sciences

Alanne Stroy, a senior in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and a Posse scholar, called SU’s decision to defund Posse “heartbreaking.”

SU recently launched a campus-wide review of all its academic programs to assess the cost-effectiveness of each program. Some programs are likely to either be cut or merged. In a report presented to the University Senate last month, the Senate Committee on Diversity stated that its members are concerned about the potential consequences the review process will have on ethnic studies programs.

Students have also said they believe SU’s cultural centers are understaffed, including the Office of Multicultural Affairs. At the SA forum in Maxwell Auditorium last fall, one student asked if the university planned to increase funding for that office through Invest Syracuse, a $100 million initiative meant to fund the goals of the university’s Academic Strategic Plan.

Dolan Evanovich, SU’s senior vice president for enrollment and the student experience, was noncommittal.

“We’re working with a donor, we’re working to get financing,” he said. “It’s not part of Invest Syracuse money.”

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Evanovich (left), Vice Chancellor and Provost Michele Wheatly (center) and Maldonado (right) answer student questions at an SA forum last fall. Sara Schleicher | Staff Photographer

Some community members said they believe the university’s fiscal decisions are reflective of their priorities.

In recent years, SU has spent millions of dollars to beautify the campus. In 2016, SU constructed a $6 million promenade that runs along University Place in front of Schine, Bird Library and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Now, it’s making $50 million in renovations to Archbold Gymnasium, which will reopen in 2019 as a state-of-the-art wellness and recreation complex.

“There’s definitely a sense that what this board wants to do is turn the campus into a kind of sheltered enclave for wealthy students from families where their biggest concern is whether ‘Johnny’ is going to get hit by a car crossing the street outside of Newhouse,” said Harriet Brown, a professor of magazine journalism and former chair of the Senate’s diversity committee.

•••

From Syverud to the leaders of the Recognize Us movement, there has seemingly been uniform agreement in recent days: Change is needed on campus.

At the Senate meeting last week, Syverud said the university needed to take steps to improve the campus culture and do so “fairly quickly.”

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Students said they have heard similar rhetoric from Syverud and other officials before, including during communications between THE General Body and the university’s administration. This time, students said, they want to see action from SU leadership that will result in permanent, tangible change.

To start, students said, they want opportunities for substantial engagement with SU’s most powerful players. The Recognize Us group has demanded that the university organize a town hall discussion with Syverud and members of the Board of Trustees, an often inaccessible body for students.

All these emails are childish,” said Stroy, the Posse scholar, in reference to university leaders often making statements to the community via email. “Until your person of power speaks up, why are we speaking up?”

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Carolina Sanchez de Varona said at the Friday protest she’s never truly felt like she had a home at SU. Paul Schlesinger | Staff Photographer

Students have also called for specific policies and decisions to be implemented.

Myree, the Recognize Us organizer, said she would like to see SU punish the individual students in the Theta Tau videos. If they aren’t expelled, she said they should at least be required to have bias training.

Chatman, the senior African American Studies major, said he’d like to see similar training required for faculty members. Students have said some faculty members lack cultural competence and understanding of marginalized students’ experiences.

SA President-elect Ghufran Salih has said she hopes to push SU to institute a university-wide diversity requirement that encourages students to take courses in African American Studies, LGBTQ studies or other identity-centered areas.

“Something of that sort to broaden their mind and make them a little bit more sensitive to the people on campus,” Salih said. “If it was encouraged by the school to go out there and learn, it will definitely help, not only on campus but in the future. Because you’re going to run into people who don’t look like you, don’t think like you, don’t talk like you.”

Students have also requested that SU make efforts to hire a more diverse faculty and make changes to the First Year Forum that students are required to take.

Student activists said their goal is to evoke systematic transformations to the point that, in four years, students won’t have to again protest and make demands similar to the ones made first by THE General Body and now by the Recognize Us movement.

Said Melwani: “If you brush this under the rug, every other kid who thinks like (the Theta Tau members) is going to be like, ‘I can get away with that.’”


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This story has been updated with additional information.

Contact Michael: mdburk01@syr.edu

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