“Who holds you accountable?” senior English major Marissa Pierre asked Vice President of Student Affairs Bryan Hartman and Interim Provost David Hill during a discussion panel highlighting the progress Plattsburgh State has made a year after an act of racism facilitated change.
As part of the Many Faces of Social Justice Teach-In held Wednesday, the issue of the racist snapchat posted by a former PSUC student and the ripple effects felt on campus was opened up and analyzed. The forum was called “Snapchat: One Year Later.”
Hill was visiting family in North Carolina last February when a colleague called and informed him of the social media post.
“It bothered me because I have a lot of affection for this place,” Hill said. “It sounded as though, from the description of that she gave me, the campus was falling apart at the seams.”
following the incident, the student body demanded change across the board from policy to staffing. Another question for administration members asked by Pierre referred to specific changes requested by students.
“Based off the 10-step proposal that Dr. Ettling set into motion, do you believe the administration of this school has done a good job at seeing this list through?” Pierre asked.
The creation of a Bias Response Team was one stipulation. The group was created last April and was headed by the coordinator of Clinical Mental Health Counseling program Portia Turco and Chief of University Police Patrick Rascoe. The team has addressed 14 formal reports of bias and discrimination on campus.
Changes to curriculum to include topics of diversity were also required.
“There is a commitment to, and I know there are active conversations about, a curriculum and general education change,” Hartman said.
One of the biggest requests from students, that has been the most difficult to accomplish, is hiring a more diverse faculty from underrepresented backgrounds.
Hartman stated that position openings and budget limitations is a factor to the slow-moving additions to PSUC faculty. However, Chancellor Christina Johnson has implemented PRODI-G, a program that aims to add 1,000 faculty members of color from different SUNY schools to the Plattsburgh team in the next decade.
“This work, I would compare it to a marathon versus a sprint,” Hartman said. “It is long- term work, we are trying to change culture.”
Implicit bias training has become mandatory for faculty and staff, another grievance of the student body.
“That was a really important step for us,” Hartman said. “A lot of things were learned.”
Hartman stated that this work of inclusion and equity is ongoing.
“I continuously hear this as I attend workshops, club events and so forth: there members of our community that do not feel welcome here and do not feel supported,” Hartman said, “and that is certainly not what we want.”
Connections have been made throughout the Plattsburgh community to extend the principles of inclusion beyond the walls of PSUC.
Events, such as “We Walk Together” and the “Black Lives Matter Potluck” have been organized by the faith-based community, such as Temple Beth Israel, The Newman Center and the Unitarian Universalist church, as safe havens for individuals who do not feel completely accepted to know that they are a part of a community that cares for and supports them.
“Those are positive signs that we’re forming those relationships where we need to be forming them to create the change we all need to be a part of,” Hartman said.
Two Black Lives Matter banners have been hung in the Angell College Center in response to student needs. The administration did so as an independent decision that is at odds with a SUNY Board of Trustees policy. The banners of representation are still flying today.
“That one is out of our hands, but we continue to display those banners,” Hartman said.
Creating a safe space for diversity and inclusion was a mandatory factor of the 10-step proposal. The Center for Honoring Uniting and Building Community has been established in the ACC and its doors opened this spring semester.
“Go to the HUB events,” Hartman said. “The conversations are powerful and they’re eye-opening. I cannot stress that enough.”
Having continual conversations that focus on progression was the overall theme of the discussion.
“My experience is that events that create such intense feelings need to be talked about. This makes for a very difficult conversation, but a necessary one,” Hill said. “[Change] happens through conversations and our own personal growth.”
Students and faculty in the audience were encouraged to ask questions of their own. PSUC alumna and current EOP counselor Jessica Santos stressed that faculty and student relations is one area in which we remain stagnant.
“During our implicit bias meetings, a lot of people said they feel uncomfortable reaching out to others, and they also feel afraid to lose their jobs,” Santos said. “Come reach out to us. I am a woman of color, and I have no problem with people coming to me and asking me questions.”
“Even if you think it sounds insulting, just talk to us,” Santos said. “That’s the only way things are going to change, by having difficult conversations with people of color.”
Pierre reflected on the efficacy of the answers given by Hartman and Hill.
“I think for what they could say about where we’ve gone a year later, they did a good job,” Pierre said.
So who holds the administration accountable?
“Honestly, what’s holding me accountable is students,” Hartman said. “I walk away from every student event I go to with something, some of them this semester alone, have been incredibly powerful.”