Cromwell hosts Zoom to discuss racist comment
About 90 members of the SUNY Plattsburgh community gathered Wednesday afternoon via Zoom to discuss the college’s response to Sports and Wellness Administrative Assistant Rebecca Barnes’ racist Facebook reply last May. Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Michelle Cromwell made it clear that Barnes cannot be fired automatically given the First Amendment, prompting students and faculty, who work closely with Barnes, to share their discomfort with her continued employment in the college.
“How am I supposed to go by day-to-day answering emails from someone and interacting with someone that sees me — and I’m going to make this personal —as less than and considers me, just, I just need a good old fashioned lynching?” Associate Director of Admissions Troy Joseph, who works with Barnes, said. “One that’s going to re-victimize me every single time that email comes into my inbox. Every single time I walk across campus and see this person going on their merry way. How is there nothing that the institution can do to hold this person accountable?”
Hearing Joseph’s concerns caused a domino effect as other faculty members joined the conversation outlining their discomfort with Barnes.
“I work very closely with this person. The first I knew of it was Friday in the newspaper and I just wanted to respond, especially to Troy’s concern because that’s been nonstop on our mind since it started,” Nutrition and Dietetics Journey Gran-Henrikesen said. “I have read a lot about free speech lately, getting caught up on it. I am from a country where we have laws about hate speech and for me, it’s very hard to understand that you can have a freedom of speech that affects our students’ right to learn and to be in an environment where they’re not having to be scared or traumatized.”
As said in a campus-wide email sent last Friday, Barnes’ Facebook reply is protected under the First Amendment despite its racist rhetoric. Students like KC Czermerys continually pushed the point that incitements of violence or lawlessness were excluded from the First Amendment, which would bring further consequences to Barnes for her comment of “LOL 1 less to deal with.”
However, Cromwell acknowledged that Barnes’ reply was the fifth statement under the initial comment saying, “He needs a good ol fashion lynching.” Cromwell said it is unclear to whom Barnes was referring to with her reply. Therefore, one cannot be sure whether her comment was an incitement of violence.
“The words and the comments that were made by the employee are racist, they are hurtful, and they are damaging,” President Alexander Enyedi said, in his opening statement of the meeting. “And in my opinion, there is no debate about this. In my mind, these are the facts. And I will tell you, each one of you, whether we were meeting personally walking across campus, or in this room, or this virtual space today — I’m just personally horrified that anyone would make such comments. There’s no place for that in our community.”
Enyedi said while he cannot fire Barnes, he will continue to support students of color on campus with two initiatives that are no novelty to students and faculty. The first being implicit bias training for all staff members, which would involve the labor unions on campus, and the second would implement a new student orientation training that addresses hate speech, First Amendment rights and bias. He said these ideas will begin the work to transform the college’s biased climate — in which he calls Barnes “the symptom” —into one of respect and equity. Enyedi’s comments were less than satisfactory with students in attendance who were forced to write their thoughts in the Zoom text chat because of the crowded meeting.
“The discomfort that students are feeling is about the frustration regarding lack of action, hypocrisy and performative activism that campus officials have shown year after year,” junior Jose Montilla wrote in the Zoom chat.
When given a metaphorical mic in the Zoom meeting, Montilla emphasized the lack of safety felt by himself and his fellow international students. He admitted to Cromwell and Enyedi the entire handling of Barnes’ racist reply felt like a public relations “stunt” to cover up the entire situation, in addition to questioning the effectiveness of the Zoom conversation itself given the campus majority’s absence.
Cromwell explained the college’s response to the racist reply to disprove assumptions that SUNY Plattsburgh had not taken action against Barnes. According to Cromwell, the racist reply had surfaced at the start of their tenure in 2019, a year before the 2014 alumna discovered it and emailed the diversity office.
“We do not send out an email every time something happens,” Cromwell said. “It might be a perception that people have that is inaccurate, so every time something happens, we do not send out a campus email.”
The campus community was kept in the dark about the racist reply for nearly two years in an attempt to keep students and faculty from being “hyper vigilant,” according to Cromwell, who further explained her reluctance to “traumatize the community” by sharing information about Barnes’ racist reply. The incident was quietly handled by the Diversity Inclusion Response Education and Communication Team who oversees diversity incidents within the college. The college’s policy on these types of incidents highlight Bias acts, defined as an act that unfairly targets an individual based on race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, ability, or sexual orientation, and hate crimes defined as one committing a criminal offense based solely on the characteristics mentioned in the bias act definition. Cromwell said the policy does not include hate speech; therefore, an automatic termination of Barnes’ employment at SUNY Plattsburgh would violate her First Amendment rights.
Cromwell and the diversity office are working to get Barnes to be a part of the student/faculty conversations, so she can know how her words affected the college.