Above: Syracuse students sit-in protesting racism. By Jessica Tran.
A student uprising, brewing for years at Syracuse University, transformed overnight a new $50 million campus gym into a shelter for protesters.
The sit-in eventually commanded a national audience and threatened top administrators at the college. A crowd that started with about 50, mostly black students grew into a small village – replete with a fully stocked, makeshift cafeteria and a tutoring center.
Increasingly diverse students and supporters packed the lobby of SU’s Barnes Center at times to its capacity, tripling the size of the sit-in over one week.
Choir singers and therapy dogs came in, and workshops in self-defense sprang up. Students of color wrote pleas, some translated to Mandarin Chinese, of how they were “weary,” “angry” and “disappointed” over continuing to feel out of place at SU.
This village became the home base of a movement that seemed at first to be reacting to reports of racist graffiti on campus but really rebelled against what they saw as years of neglect by administrators. They chose the online hashtag #NotAgainSU.
They wrested power from a school administration struggling to gain control of events and clearly communicate the safety risks on campus to students and parents. Administrators seemed willing to give the protesters almost all they wanted, but still the situation spiraled.
A representative for the protesters summarized the fear and widespread consequences “two weeks of hate” caused on campus.
“The #NotAgainSU occupation of Barnes Center represents a continued struggle of students standing up against attempts to minimize our voices, threaten our existence on this campus, and reduce our ability to achieve success in the classroom,” the student said.
But student demands dated back further, to The General Body in 2014, which occupied an administrative building for 18 days in criticism of university budgeting for things like counseling and various multicultural programs. This February, police declined to prosecute as a hate crime an off-campus assault on a student involving the N-word.
Two weeks ago, students — already exasperated at the university’s response to the needs of students of color — had heard enough when the school didn’t immediately alert the public about racist graffiti discovered in a dormitory bathroom.
Students posted a set of demands, including better diversity training and orientation. They set a deadline for Chancellor Kent Syverud to meet them.
The group declared itself a “nameless, faceless” movement, refusing to use their names or give on-camera interviews with reporters.
Political science professor Jenn Jackson said students want the administration to get racism and bigotry on campus under control.
“They’re saying we need you to make this a place where we can actually just be students,” Jackson said. Jackson started working at SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs this academic year, after earning degrees from the University of Chicago and University of Southern California, which both have a majority of white students.
“I distinctly remember what it’s like to want to focus on classes, study for calculus – but also have to navigate racism I confronted on campus,” she said. “Students are expressing they feel the university’s priorities – in terms of how they spend money even – is reflective of how they value students of color.
“They do this work to bring folks in, but once they’re here, you are kind of on your own,” Jackson said.
Recent examples of bigotry picked raw the wounds left by the Theta Tau videos.
Administrators took some steps at the time. The university hired a chief diversity and inclusion officer and began to overhaul training and coursework for students to address issues like racism and anti-Semitism. It swiftly expelled the fraternity and took action against the students, including fighting them in court. Syverud appointed a committee to tackle issues with diversity when students first raised concerns to him in 2014. In three years, the group completed nine of its 18 goals.
Students said that wasn’t enough. What they saw as a slow and inadequate response sent a message that change wasn’t really all that important. Some felt that silently permitted hate to thrive at SU.
Syracuse University, like other colleges, takes up a grand experiment each year: It handpicks a new class to join its community.
And at SU, diversity and inclusion are values written in recruitment literature, fundraising campaigns and the university’s mission.
Protesters and others said that despite SU’s stated commitment to students of all backgrounds, the school doesn’t end up feeling like a welcoming place to everyone.
Freshman Brandon Williams, who participated in the sit-in, noted students often pay a lot of money to live, learn and socialize at SU. The sticker price for total cost of attendance annually is about $70,000 and students on average pay $34,000 a year when factoring in financial aid. Syracuse city residents get a free ride through Say Yes to Education scholarships.
“We’re a very expensive school, but we have a lot of people who come here from areas that don’t have a lot of diversity,” Williams said. “I don’t believe everyone here is racist or insensitive on purpose. We’re all products of our environments.”
It’s not just a problem for Syracuse.
Hate incidents on colleges campuses are rising around the country, according to a February report. The FBI also found an uptick in hate crimes reported on college campuses. The number rose from 194 reports in 2015 to 280 in 2017.
A lesson in “how to survive on campus” is something Syracuse-based OnPoint for College has woven into its orientation for students, said executive director Sam Rowser.
The nonprofit aims to remove barriers that keep young people from getting a degree. OnPoint focuses particularly on helping inner-city youths.
“For a lot of the students, it’s not really new,” Rowser said. “Racism is alive and well in America, and it rears its ugly head in multiple places. … Until you get into a situation as explosive as SU, this type of thing often goes unnoticed and unchecked.”
Rowser said what he hears from students he works with, including some now at SU, is a longing for administrators to make clear they have students’ best interests at heart.
SU administrators did not comment for this story. Chancellor Syverud sat for an interview with Syracuse.com Friday afternoon after publication.
Gas on the fire
When the first news of racist graffiti was broken by student media outlets, university leadership was slammed for its failure to tell the public. Chancellor Syverud’s first comments included an admission of disappointment with that.
In response, the school adopted a radically opposite approach. It shared everything. Constant updates elevated every racist graffiti or catcall to tens of thousands of people. Officials sent out two dozen campuswide emails in two weeks, giving the appearance of a crisis, with little context or detail. A professor got an anti-Semitic email. A Post-It had an anti-Native American message.
Officials throughout the last two weeks tried to reassure students, parents and faculty that there was never any threat of physical harm to students of color, but it was a hard sell as the emails kept coming.
The epitome of the school’s fumbled communication was an episode at Bird Library.
At around quarter to midnight Monday, students shared screenshots of a document posted to an Internet forum discussing Greek life at SU. The document was a copy of a New Zealand mosque shooter’s white supremacist manifesto.
The Department of Public Safety then heard reports that someone had pushed the document to the phones of students in Bird Library through Apple’s location-based sharing function AirDrop.
The implication: The threat of violence was in close proximity.
A confusing DPS alert sent to more than 27,000 students, faculty and staff at 3:11 a.m. declared the situation alleged and unconfirmed.
But in conversations and news coverage it played as though the threat level had escalated.
Students said they felt real fear. Some stayed out of class or even went back home. The local district attorney said he personally received a dozen calls from parents worried about their kids.
Just as law enforcement officials were about to start a news conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo turned up the volume. He called for the appointment of an independent monitor to investigate, questioning the chancellor’s leadership and reiterating reports of a “manifesto” being digitally disseminated to SU students.
The news conference, planned to provide information about the manifesto, was hijacked by questions about why the chancellor wasn’t giving face-to-face interviews.
Syracuse police Chief Kenton Buckner was the first to answer a question about the manifesto. He characterized it as going “viral” on social media, admitting he was not a “techie person.”
“We just know multiple people got it,” Buckner said.
National and international news outlets picked up the story.
Thirty-six hours after the alert, the chancellor addressed it in a meeting of mostly faculty.
It was all, he said, probably a hoax.
“To date, law enforcement has not been able to locate a single individual who directly received an AirDrop,” Syverud said. “Not one.”
Wednesday night walkout
From the start, Syverud tried to show he meant business.
When a group of people leaving a fraternity yelled the N-word at a black female student, within hours he suspended four students allegedly involved and banned their fraternity that dated back to 1905 at SU.
He shut down fraternity social events. He mostly agreed with the protesters’ demands, promising millions of spending on their issues.
At a University Senate meeting Wednesday, Syverud took a more personal tone than the public had seen during two weeks of turmoil.
He acknowledged the pain felt by students, parents and faculty over the racism and bigotry. He said he wanted to answer a question many had asked, about whether he could “ever understand how miserable and unacceptable that is.”
“I do understand it,” he said, sharing a story of his involvement in the Vanderbilt Law School Supreme Court case over affirmative action policies. Syverud was dean at the law school while raising a mixed-race family in the South. Syverud has three adult sons with his wife Ruth Chen, an environmental toxicologist and professor in SU’s engineering school.
“My kids were threatened, my wife was subjected to many racial epithets,” he said, pausing and voice cracking as he spoke. “That was then. That was the South. It was hard for my wife. It was hard for my kids. But this is Syracuse. This is 2019. I do not accept this hatred here and now.”
Three hours later, the protesters met the chancellor at a crowded public forum at Hendricks Chapel. He had agreed to 98% of their demands. What was their verdict?
No deal. The protesters, dressed in black, walked out. He had to sign their full demands – without edits.
At 2 a.m. Syverud conceded further. He signed the list, with three red-line revisions.
By Thursday night, the protesters rejected that, too.
“It shouldn’t take seven days of sitting and sleeping in to create strategies for addressing racism at Syracuse University,” the students fired back.
Culture shock – or awakening
On Monday a third-year student and leader of an organization for Asian students agreed to an on-camera interview with Syracuse.com.
On Tuesday, after the manifesto news, she emailed a reporter apologizing that she was no longer comfortable being identified in a story.
“As things progressively got worse, I felt like I didn’t want my name out there,” she said. “I think I’m paranoid that I might become a target.”
Discomfort was not new to her at Syracuse, she said.
As a freshman new to campus, she felt out of place, like people would look at her differently or treat her strangely – something she wasn’t used to growing up in New York City.
“Quite frankly, I hated it here,” the Chinese-American student said. “We try to find solace with each other.”
The undergraduate student body is 6.4% Asian, 6.4% black and 56.2% white. That’s fewer than 1,000 Asian students and less than 1,000 black students who join more than 8,500 white students on campus. National Jewish student group Hillel estimates 18% of SU’s undergraduate population, or 2,800 students, is Jewish.
The college is an economically diverse school located in an economically segregated community.
A 2017 analysis by The New York Times showed SU enrolls high percentages of both students who represent the top 1% of families and the bottom 60% of families. That’s 8.2% of students in the class of 2013 from families with an annual income of more than $630,000 — 30% enrolled from families making less than $65,000 annually.
All this in the city of Syracuse, notorious for its disproportionate poverty among black and Latino residents. Situated in Central New York, SU is in a hub of urban, left-leaning voters amidst a field of right-leaning suburbs and rural areas.
For students who grew up in New York City or Rwanda, the experience of coming to campus can be a cultural shock. That goes, too, for members of the faculty, as the university places additional emphasis on hiring more people of color.
Mixing people with differences, of course, isn’t a problem with college; it’s one of the great benefits.
But those who feel the downsides the hardest are asking SU’s administration to remember its obligations to them.
Religious studies professor Biko Gray, who attended every day of the sit-in, spoke at the public forum before students walked out. He called for combating racism through education.
It’s what a university does best, after all.
Gray favors a university-wide core curriculum, requiring all students regardless of their discipline to take classes in subjects like history and philosophy. He says that’s how to reach young people to think critically about differences in race, religion, gender and privilege. It’s an idea captured by students in their demands.
Shortly after Gray spoke, and protesters marched off school grounds chanting, the professor held court on the steps of Hendricks Chapel. In a pivotal moment for SU, Gray was there, mentoring some of the student-activists to whose sadness and rage he could relate, as a black professor on this campus watching recent events unfold.
Advisor. Confidante. Counselor. These are all hats he wears, some of them he gets paid for.
“It’s a burden that I love to carry. It’s a load that I am happy to shoulder,” he said.
But it’s one the administration could tackle, too.
“The administration cannot stop racism from happening,” Gray said. “I want to be very clear about that: There’s no way that anyone can kill the virus that is racism. But there are always potential ways to actively push against it and make it clear that this kind of violence will not be tolerated on this campus.”
Chris Baker contributed reporting.