Students, faculty concerned racism not a priority for administration

Students, faculty and administrators gathered outside of the Wilbur Cross building on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015 in a demonstration of solidarity against acts of hate on campus. Students addressed a crowd of several hundred gathered during the event. (Kyle Constable/The Daily Campus).

University of Connecticut students and faculty are concerned administrators are not prioritizing persistent systemic racism on campus.

“There is systemic racism,” UConn sociology professor Noel Cazenave said. “I think that it is every bit as deep and broad as it is at the University of Missouri. And I think the administration has done as lousy in dealing with it as the University of Missouri.”

Students have reported facing threats of violence while enduring racial epithets in everyday campus life. Faculty members, especially minority professors, have expressed concern that their voices are growing increasingly faint in the university president’s office.

Willena Price, the director of UConn’s African American Cultural Center, said students tell her their stories of racism on campus – “enough to make me sick.”

“I heard of two young ladies who were sitting up at Storrs Center – they had just moved on campus – the Friday of move-in week,” Price said. “They were sitting, having a coffee, and someone drove by and yelled the n-word at them. They had just gotten here. Can you imagine how they felt?”

Protests and demonstrations at the University of Missouri earlier this month resulted in the resignation of the university system president as well as the school’s chancellor and prompted discussions at college campuses around the country about the effects of systemic racism.

UConn has been no exception.

President Susan Herbst sent out an email to UConn students just hours after Tim Wolfe, the University of Missouri’s former system president, resigned on Nov. 9 due to student and faculty pressure. Herbst said in the email that she planned to hire an associate vice president to serve as the university’s chief diversity officer.

Cazenave called the timing of the email “convenient,” adding that he thought Herbst “suddenly got religion.”

“This is the same President Herbst who dismantled much of our diversity target leadership and structures on campus and ignored the existence of the provost's commission on institutional diversity established under a previous president,” Cazenave said.

“The plan is to hire a ‘Head Negro in Charge,’ or something or the other, to make sure all of that stuff goes away and keeps her free to pursue the other matters she has consistently stressed to our suffering students of color are more important.”

Those matters, Cazenave said, are centered around raising money for the university, which he said is moving toward a “corporate model.” He said Herbst is an “invisible, missing-in-action president” when it comes to on-campus issues in the everyday lives of students.

Tom Breen, the university’s deputy spokesman, said Herbst played no role in changing the university’s diversity infrastructure as Cazenave alleges. Breen said the blame falls on former university president Michael Hogan.

“Any suggestion that President Herbst reorganized the Office of Multicultural and International Affairs and its associated departments is simply false; that was done by President Michael Hogan,” Breen said. “As the old saying goes, everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts, and the fact is that office was reorganized before President Herbst arrived at UConn.”

Breen said Herbst has been active in tackling issues of diversity on campus, commissioning a diversity task force in October 2014 and working to hire a chief diversity officer in the coming months. He pointed out that UConn’s minority enrollment has increased substantially during Herbst’s tenure – from 21 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2015 – and that increasing faculty diversity is “one of (her) highest priorities.”

However, the diversity task force’s findings, published in August, showed some troubling patterns. While UConn’s undergraduate and graduate student populations are growing more diverse, the faculty is not experiencing the same trend in all schools and colleges. It found that the percentage of black faculty has remained effectively unchanged in the last three years and gains among Hispanic faculty have been “incremental.”

It also found that the current administrative infrastructure, in particular the Office of Diversity and Equity, needs to be reorganized to make its mission on campus more specific and clear.

Furthermore, there have been six reported race-based hate crimes at UConn’s Storrs campus in the last three years, according to the university’s annual security and fire safety report. These include four instances of vandalism and two instances of intimidation.

The University of Missouri has more than 27,000 undergraduate students enrolled compared to 18,000 at the University of Connecticut, according to statistics provided by CollegeBoard. In addition, Missouri has a much higher percentage of white students than UConn – 79 percent to 62 percent. However, the University of Missouri’s 8 percent black or African American student population is slightly higher than UConn’s 5 percent, the report shows.

I absolutely feel an obligation to... step into a space and defend my identity, and this is all something that I live. It’s just literally exhausting to feel like you’re stepping into every space as if you’re bringing all your people with you.
— Haddiyyah Ali, sophomore double majoring in political science and Africana studies

In short, the ratio of white to black or African American students is higher at UConn, 12.4 to 1, than the University of Missouri, 9.9 to 1.

Where UConn leads the University of Missouri is in percentage of Asians, Hispanics and Latinos, with 13 percent more enrolled at UConn’s Storrs campus than at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus.

While diversity statistics raise some interesting questions, some students are questioning if the percentages matter at all.

Holden Powell, a seventh-semester journalism and communication double major, said a rise in diversity does not mean a rise in inclusion.

“This school is already diverse. It’s got its tokens,” Powell said, referring to the various minorities who seem to be meeting a quota more than being a part of the community. “Are they included in the events of UConn? Are they included in everything that it means to be a Husky?”

Powell said since arriving at the Storrs campus last year – he spent his first two years at the Greater Hartford campus – he has experienced several instances of blatant racism along with various “microaggressions” in everyday life.

Within three weeks of arriving in Storrs last fall, he said he experienced a “drunk white male” shouting “F--k you, n----r.” Then, a few weeks ago, he said he was walking in Storrs Center and somebody yelled “n----r” from a car as it drove by.

Powell said he gets asked uncomfortable questions about his hair, rap music (which he says he doesn’t listen to) and culture – even from well-intentioned friends, on some occasions.

“You get stares a lot,” Powell said. “When you’re walking on the streets, everybody just like moves to the next side. They just don’t want to interact with you. I’m in class, usually the only person of color in my class.”

Then, things escalated to a new level on Saturday.

Powell made a controversial post in UConn’s Buy or Sell Tickets Facebook group, which has nearly 26,000 members who are primarily current UConn students or recent alumni. The terrorist attacks in Paris and the ensuing Islamophobia inspired him to write a post addressing broader issues of racism in the United States. He said it “pretty much just told people they need to acknowledge their white privilege and that white supremacy is a thing.”

The responses were swift – and largely negative. One Facebook user told him his comments were inappropriate in light of the tragedy in Paris and that Powell needed to “eat s--t and get bent.” The user later called him an “infantile, attention-seeking moron.”

The comments were even more vitriolic on Yik Yak, a location-based anonymous discussion board social media app that is popular on college campuses.

One post read, “Holden can hold these white nuts” while another said, “Holden is worse than the black president who cried KKK.”

Another user posted, “Who supports Holden?” with a comment in reply that read, “Idiotic blacks.”

Powell said he was not surprised by most of the comments, but one “did sting a little bit,” when a Yik Yak user suggested, “If we just sacrificed Holden to the KKK this would all be over.”

Screenshot of a message posted on the app Yik Yak. (Courtesy of Holden Powell).

Other students have had negative experiences of racism on campus as well.

Haddiyyah Ali, a third-semester political science and Africana studies double major, said she has faced several instances of racism while at UConn. She is also a contributor to The Daily Campus. As an employee at the Women’s Center and an outspoken activist on campus who has organized protest events, she has dealt with instances where her personal space was invaded and a student made racist and Islamophobic comments toward her. 

“I remember last year after the incident,” Ali said. “I remember walking around all day and looking at everyone’s faces and feeling so out of it, that this had happened to me, that I was minding my own business, someone had come into my space and violated my person, things like that are very emotionally exhausting.

“It feels like no one understands ... because no one has to physically have their person attacked, and still come back, and still be the one to start the conversation, and still be the one to get ... spat on and to get called things on Yik Yak, and like, all these terrible things.”

While Ali said that she felt validated during the process she went through reporting this incident to different administrative resources, she was critical of the bureaucratic nature of UConn’s administration, saying she had to visit “like six million offices” and that the whole experience was confusing.

Ali also said she feels overwhelmed by how much she has to do as person of color in Storrs. She said she feels an obligation to protest issues of racism and make herself heard while balancing a regular course load.

“I have like so much more to do,” Ali said. “And that’s not to say white kids aren’t busy at school or anything, but like, I have to plan a protest this week, and I have to go to class, and I have to write papers, and I have to work with the Women’s Center.

“I absolutely feel an obligation to ... step into a space and defend my identity, and this is all something that I live. It’s just literally exhausting to feel like you’re stepping into every space as if you’re bringing all your people with you.”

In that same vein, Anika Obasiolu, a fifth-semester psychology major, feels uncomfortably representative of her race in certain situations.

“In a sociology course I was in last year, the issue of race was brought up and there were like three black kids and 20 plus white kids and it got a bit hostile and I felt incredibly uncomfortable,” Obasiolu said. “They were all pretty much denying racism's existence and us three were like: ‘Nah.’”

For Obasiolu, racist Yik Yak and Facebook comments coupled with the denial of racism is a problem at UConn.

“Once the issue of racism comes up, things often get awkward. I feel like things often remain peaceful until someone points out white privilege, and that quickly pisses off a lot of people,” Obasiolu said. “I have encountered too many people who believe white privilege isn't a thing and call minorities ‘over-sensitive’ for mentioning it, which is what bothers me so deeply.”

Obasiolu pointed to sorority recruitment roll call saying, “They always just skipped over my name. I felt very uncomfortable as a result of that because I stood out like a sore thumb.”

Nicole Seara, a fifth-semester human development and family studies major, felt that the university has not been responsive to various hate crimes she has experienced.

“(The) incident I reported to UConn police was a hate crime in which a swastika was drawn on my car on three separate occasions,” Seara said. “I had two suspects in mind that I disclosed to UConn police and they said they would call the suspects and ask for an alibi, but they never did. They still haven't followed up with me about updates on the case and I left them a message, but no response.”

Julian Rose, a seventh-semester biomedical engineering major who has engaged in activism on campus as both a participant and an organizer, also described what it is like to be a person of color on campus.

UConn senior biomedical engineering major Julian Rose addressed the crowd behind Wilbur Cross on November 16, 2015. The demonstration was held in response to the racist comments written on Mahmoud Hashem's dorm room door. (Rebecca Newman/The Daily Campus).

“The best way to describe it is that you can’t escape it. It’s not something that you can hide, it’s not something that you can get away with, and you’re constantly trying to find your place here,” Rose said.  “I feel most comfortable in the African American Cultural Center or the Puerto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center. Why? Because they are people who understand that seclusion as a person of color, as a minority on this campus, so we tend to coagulate, really stay together and stick together, because we know that support is important to our success.”

Rose went on to say it is easy to feel isolated at UConn and talked about the added stress of being a bearer of his race. He said he feels a burden to excel in academics in order to disprove stereotypes. Like other students of color, Rose has also dealt with racism directly on campus.

“I think that the manifestations (of racism) are undeniably varied,” Rose said. “Anywhere from someone being surprised when I can actually speak well, feeling obligated to congratulate me on any sort of achievement in a way that seems like ‘I’m really surprised that you were even able to do that,’ to people saying that you got here because of affirmative action, that you didn’t work hard.

“That’s something people of color get all the time. It’s typically a friend that’s trying to speak about student struggles here, for example, like, how I ended up in the honors program, and it’s never supposed to be offensive ... but it is. Because I know I worked hard in high school, I know I earned great grades in high school, I know I studied for the SAT and did well on that ... so to hear that from someone you feel like should be supporting you, is terrible.”

After working at UConn for 22 years, Price said she regularly hears from students about experiences of racism on campus. She said many students have said they were called the “n-word” for the first time while at UConn.

“We see over and over and over again that there are students who just refuse to embrace difference,” Price said. “As much as I’ve heard, as a kid who grew up in the South, it’s still troubling and heartbreaking.”

Events not too dissimilar from these sparked the protests at the University of Missouri, something Herbst took note of early on.

Herbst said she began following the events during a student’s hunger strike, which gained some coverage before the university’s football team brought it to full national attention, threatening not to practice until the university system president resigned.

“These events can happen anywhere,” Herbst said. “Universities are not – even small colleges in remote areas or big universities like ours – are not immune to the larger social challenges associated with racism.”

Herbst said she acknowledges discriminatory remarks and actions occur everywhere, meaning the situation at the University of Missouri is not necessarily unique.

“The (Missouri) campus chancellor has had in place for years dialogues about race and ethnicity, a variety of reports and task forces – a lot of what we’re doing,” Herbst said. “That’s why it’s worrisome in some ways, because the University of Missouri looked like they had a fairly sophisticated infrastructure for students, faculty and staff to talk about these things.”

Although conversations took place on the University of Missouri’s campus, no substantive actions ever came about. The students’ frustration finally reached national attention when 30 members of Missouri’s football team stepped in and said they would not practice and potentially sit out that weekend’s game against BYU.

The football fiasco adds another layer of complexity, raising questions about the role of student-athletes when dealing with pervasive problems on campus.

UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel said a failure in leadership at the University of Missouri allowed the situation to reach the point at which the football team felt obligated to get involved.

“As much as people want to showcase and highlight the fact that the football team put it over the top, I look at it and go, ‘It should have never gotten to that point,’” Manuel said. “I applaud them for doing it, but what led them to do it was the fact that for months it had been ignored.”

Manuel said UConn, while similar demographically to the University of Missouri, has not experienced problems to the same extent because he believes there is a greater “openness to diversity of race, gender, sexuality (and) beliefs” on campus.

While student-athletes participate in sports, Manuel said it should always remain clear they are students first and would not “tolerate putting up any barriers” to their involvement with campus issues. He said student-athletes all must make a decision on how involved they choose to be.

“I want them to be a part of what happens on campus,” Manuel said. “I want them to make the choices they feel they want to make as students.”

Manuel said Herbst and her administration would never have allowed the problems to reach the level they did at the University of Missouri. He said Herbst’s “progressive style” and emphasis on being proactive on every administrative level would have resulted in the students’ concerns being heard much earlier.

However, this is not the first time racial issues have reached the forefront of the discussion at UConn. Several major instances of racism since the last academic year have sparked conversation among students and faculty about what can be done to address the problem.

During an event at the Spirit Rock in April 2015, students gathered in response to a "Black Lives Matter" message on the rock being defaced. The word "Black" was painted over. The above message signaled inclusion on the UConn campus. (Rebecca Newman/The Daily Campus).

In September 2014, members of the Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) fraternity were accused of shouting racial and gendered epithets at members of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), a historically black sorority, as AKA painted over PIKE’s original message on the “spirit rock” at the Storrs campus.

Ali criticized the administrative response to this incident, saying it was “months, months, months later.”

“I remember being so shocked that that was the nature of the coming out,” Ali said. “I understand that maybe that’s an improvement relating to things going on nationally, but I as a woman of color on this campus, I would’ve liked to have seen a much more swift response. I would have liked to see an example of the fact that UConn acknowledges this, that we see this happen ... because it was such a loud silence.”

The university later revoked Pi Kappa Alpha’s official status as a fraternity in March 2015.

Tensions rose again at the spirit rock in April after it was defaced. Originally, the words “Black Lives Matter” had been painted on the rock, but the word “Black” was later blotted out by an additional layer of paint. This sparked demonstrations across campus, and it is still unknown who defaced the rock.

Price said students are “still murmuring” about the incident.

“It’s to some degree unfinished business,” Price said. “There are people who are still concerned about that.”

The most recent instance of racism came on Friday night, not many hours after the terrorist attacks in Paris left 129 dead and more than 350 people wounded.

A Muslim student at UConn originally from Egypt, Mahmoud Hashem, woke up Saturday morning to find the words “Killed Paris” written underneath his door name tag in his dormitory, the Nathan Hale Inn.

Hundreds of students, faculty and administrators turned out for an event on Monday outside of the Wilbur Cross Building in support of Hashem. They called for solidarity against acts of hatred on campus.

“I think often times when issues like this happen we question, ‘Where’s my place in activism when I don’t identify with the group that’s being attacked?’ and I think it’s right where you are,” Rose said during the event. “I don’t identify as someone from the Muslim community. ... I don’t look Arabic, and so I don’t necessarily feel those attacks. But I do feel them personally because they root from the same attacks on black lives.”

Listening to all students, not just minority members of the community, has been one of Price's priorities at the African American Cultural Center. She said overcoming the challenges on campus means having conversations with everyone.

She said the most significant challenge facing minority students at UConn is developing a sense of belonging and a sense of being valued in the campus community.

“We have to value everybody’s experiences,” Price said. “That’s what I like to see us do, to realize every single student here – I don’t care where they came from, I don’t care what their background (is), I don’t care which generation they are – that they get everything they need to get here at the University of Connecticut, that have they have an extraordinary quality of life, an extraordinary sense of community, where they’re embraced for everything of who they are.”

The task at hand, then, is to find a solution.

Proposed solutions vary significantly among members of the UConn community. Herbst said she believes adopting the diversity task force’s recommendations would be a good start. The first recommendation was the creation of the chief diversity officer position.

The report concludes by saying the university needs “a university-wide sustainable diversity strategy that allows for much stronger coordination, collaboration and connection between the numerous offices and departments working on diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

Cazenave said the administrators, especially Herbst, need to increase their presence on campus at rallies, demonstrations and protests. If the administration does not take swift action to become more visible and involved, he said Herbst should consider resigning.

“UConn needs a president who is the face, the voice and the heart of the university,” Cazenave said. “And it’s entirely possible that President Herbst is not up to that job.”

He added that he hopes students “raise hell” until action is taken.

Price could not name any specific administrative actions that could be taken to resolve the situation, but she said she remains optimistic that progress toward inclusion will continue on campus. Until that day comes, she said her door is open to all students who need someone who is willing to listen. Price said it is “critical” for everyone to listen to each other.

Powell has spent the last two days walking around carrying a whiteboard with his name on it, because he said he does not want to have conversations with people about racism on Facebook. He said he wants to talk face-to-face. He wants to start a conversation on campus about the issue.

Herbst is not the problem, Powell said, adding that he had the opportunity to meet with her in her office earlier this fall and got the sense that “she definitely seems knowledgeable about racism.”

Powell said people at UConn need to be the change they want to see.

“I know everybody is not intentionally racist,” Powell said. “When you think of America, what do you think of? Is it white? When you read a book, is white the default? When the character description is not given clear-cut race, do you automatically picture them as white? Because I do, and I’m a black male.”


Kyle Constable is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at kyle.constable@uconn.edu. He tweets @KyleConstable

Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu. He tweets @SSpinella927