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Campus protest makes its way to president's office

by Kari Ashworth - Executive Editor | Brianna Bush - Editor-in-Chief
Wed, Feb 19th 2020 10:00 am
Students, faculty and staff held a sit-in on Thursday, Feb. 13, in the Seymour College Union at 11 a.m. Photo Credit: Brianna Bush/ Editor-in-Chief
Students, faculty and staff held a sit-in on Thursday, Feb. 13, in the Seymour College Union at 11 a.m. Photo Credit: Brianna Bush/ Editor-in-Chief
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Students, faculty and staff staged a protest on The College at Brockport’s campus on Thursday, Feb. 13, to “combat systematic issues — particularly relating to race and ethnicity — that currently exist within the Brockport campus and community,” according to an email sent two days prior.

The protest began at 11 a.m. as a walk out, which led to the Seymour Union. Protesters staged a sit in, with many people holding signs that read “we see you; we want the truth,” “ugh, where do I start?” and “me next?” Chants filled the union periodically as well, including the “we see you,” “we want justice” and “where is Heidi?”

At noon, protesters walked to the Allen Administration Building to proceed with chants. Soon, they made their way into the building and up to the seventh floor where President Heidi Macpherson’s office is. Macpherson agreed to sit down with groups of students — 10 to 15 at a time — along with members of her cabinet.

Students Laura Tryon and Jerry Thompson were part of the collaborative effort to organize the protest. 

“I’ve said that really this was a collaborative effort, that it was a bunch of different organizations, clubs, communities and departments that were involved in this,” Tryon said. “So I had the privilege to help facilitate it, but it was completely a collaborative work.” 

The protest was pegged as a way to combat systemic issues on campus, according to the email sent with the details of the protest. Thompson said former Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) Cephas Archie’s dismissal from the college on Friday, Jan. 24, was a catalyst for the protest.

“We had someone in Dr. Archie who was speaking up on certain things that, as a student, you will be kind of nervous to talk about,” Thompson said. “But he was that person for us and then the removal of him kind of pushed a lot of people to the back. Now you’re nervous to say certain things, you’re nervous to go and do certain things, and that’s not right.” 

Tryon agreed students have felt unheard on campus and many are fed up with this.

“I think what sparked all of this is that for so long the students’ voices and their concerns have been suppressed, and they’ve been devalued, they’ve been dismissed and silenced,” Tryon said. “And this is our way of saying no more, we’re not going to take this, this is not going to be our campus, and to really speak out against that.”

Thompson argued the campus needs more diversity and that more students’ voices should be heard, especially because “without students there wouldn’t be a college.” There also needs to be “more than one type of student” voicing their concerns, as not one type of student can speak for all forms of oppression. Thompson explained while he identifies as a man, he cannot speak for people who identify as a woman or transgender, among other examples.

“I can’t speak for a lot of other students so we need to make sure that we have everyone’s voices heard,” Thompson said.

The college is hoping to mitigate this by creating a Student Advisory Board, something Tryon is weary of.

“I think it will help, but I think, as of right now, it’s kind of a cover,” Thompson said. “Why didn’t we have a Student Advisory Board before because it was pushed for before.”

Tryon also explained some potential barriers to the advisory board. The fact that students must apply and be chosen could mean not all students will ultimately be heard, according to Tryon, and there is the potential only outspoken students will join the board, leaving introverted students at a disadvantage and “not giving an accurate grasp of the student body.”

At one point during the protest, Director of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) Gary Owens had Archie on the phone, announcing to the crowd Archie was thankful for everyone’s support. Owens said it was a special moment for him.

“As it was with me in the room, he was tearful. He said it just warms his heart to know that people cared about him, and he was just tearful,” Owens said. “He says some others sent him videos, and he said, ‘Gary, this is so wonderful that people cared a lot about what I did and what I was trying to do.’” 

Owens said he had similar feelings to seeing such a big turnout at the protest. 

“I understand how he feels because, as you could see in the Union, mine was tearful also,” Owens said. “To see their turnout, their willingness, as I, for one, had almost thought it was dead. I thought they’d given up, they surprised me in a glorious kind of way.”

Owens has been vocal about Archie’s firing, believing it to be “unjust” and a “mistake.” He mentioned a conversation he had with Macpherson months prior to Archie’s dismissal, saying he predicted this very outcome. 

Archie’s firing was supposedly performance related, but Owens said his “evidence of his performance is right here in front of you,” referring to the group of protesters. Owens stands by his comment at the town hall, which occurred on Monday, Jan. 27, about Archie’s willingness to return to the college. 

“I said that at that point in time, I really believe that he had started a work, quote, ‘I’ve started a work and I’d like to finish it; I’d like to see it through,’” Owens said. “And he had commenced a great work and he has not been allowed to finish it. But as I said in that meeting that a CDO has a responsibility of speaking truth to power. In other words, exposing those inner issues that we all have and helping them to work their way through it, if we cooperate with them, if we work with them. And I don’t think our college was willing to work with him, and really uncovering and then addressing the problems.” 

Many of the issues brought to Heidi’s attention focused on what comes next. 

“Some of the common questions I heard throughout the day are ‘what are the next steps’ and ‘what are we going to do to make sure our campus climate is fine,’” Macpherson said. “So I went over, not only the things that are in the campus message that has just gone out and that I read to people beforehand, but I talked about other initiatives that we have put in place previously and the ones that we’re putting in place going forward.”

Macpherson explained answers varied depending on the question posed, but she said she is taking students’ opinions into account moving forward, specifically in regards to hiring a new CDO. The process was expected to move quickly, but Macpherson said she plans to recruit applicants during the school year so students, faculty and staff can have a say in who is chosen. 

In a statement read at the protest, as well as sent via email to the entire campus, Macpherson outlined some structural changes she is implementing on campus. This includes bringing an experienced CDO, Rodmon King, to campus to act as an advisor to Macpherson and interim CDO Lorraine Ackerman, as well as write a report with recommendations for the campus to present to the SUNY Chancellor.

Other points included restricting the current bias reporting system, requiring Brockport’s “leadership team, key faculty and staff leaders” to undergo implicit bias, institutional racism and structural inequality training, reviewing the demographics and diversity representation of every department and committing to holding additional community conversations.

Owens said this is “a quick fix” to the larger issue of Archie’s dismissal. 

“If you read those signs, it says we stand with Dr. Archie,” Owens said. “There was no addressing that request and for us to be satisfied with that is a mistake.”

Like Owens, many students, faculty and staff agree, the conversation about diversity on campus is only just beginning and there will be no easy fix. 

 

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Taken by Vincent Croce:
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