The Union of Graduate Student Employees calls for the resignation of Nicole Sirju-Johnson

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BU condemns the teacher’s response to the handling of the racist incident in his classroom

The Union of Graduate Student Employees (GSEU) calls for the dismissal of the director of the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) and assistant vice-president for diversity, Nicole Sirju-Johnson, following an alleged lack of repercussions after quitting ‘a racially discriminatory remark was made during a sociology class.

On April 6, the GSEU, a union of workers representing teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate assistants (GAs), launched a petition calling on Binghamton University to “uphold the statement it made to condemn racist actions ”. This petition follows a racial incident last month, when a student made racist and sexist remarks to the AT, an African-American woman, during the first discussion class of Sociology 100: Social Change: Intro to Sociology . Joshua Price, professor and head of the sociology department, and Gladys Jiménez-Muńoz, associate professor and undergraduate director of the sociology department, both consulted the TA for support and spent the following class periods discussing racism and racial discrimination. The three also worked together to create an email to Sirju-Johnson, discussing what to do with the guilty student.

In his email response, Sirju-Johnson said the responsibility for taking action against racism lies not only with the DCI office, but also with the Office of Student Conduct.

“Our goal is to provide guidance within the confines of our policies, to create learning experiences for all with the goal of combating inappropriate behavior while keeping the person ‘whole’,” Sirju-Johnson wrote. “We are well aware that students will make glaring errors in judgment, and again our goal is to create opportunities for lifelong learning – that we attract them rather than expel them.”

Sirju-Johnson said she tried to work with Price to resolve the issue, which apparently ended a phone call between the two abruptly about how to resolve the issue in the future.

“Unfortunately, everyone has as much the right to be racist as they have the right to be culturally competent,” Sirju-Johnson wrote. “There was more than one way to approach the situation as I tried to chat with you last week.”

Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations, confirmed that the incident did indeed occur and that the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DCI) attempted to work with Price to propose a solution to the situation.

“The University condemned the act for what it was: unacceptable conduct that has no place on our campus,” Yarosh wrote in an email. “[Sirju-Johnson] repeatedly attempted to work with the official course instructor to strategize to deal with the situation in a manner consistent with federal law and University policy. Unfortunately, the instructor refused to work with Sirju-Johnson and ended a phone conversation by hanging up on her.

Yarosh continued to condemn Price’s actions.

“Rather than working with DEI to use the tools at our disposal, the instructor acted independently while criticizing the University for refusing to act, even as he refused to work with Sirju-Johnson and [Karen Jones, vice president of DEI]Yarosh wrote. “We find his behavior unprofessional, non-collegial and counterproductive. We hope that as members of the campus community we can work together to gain an understanding of difficult situations like this and work together to resolve the issue, rather than trying to destroy each other just because that we don’t agree on how to handle a situation. “

Sirju-Johnson declined to comment further.

According to their petition, the GSEU had numerous issues with Sirju-Johnson’s response to the event.

“[Sirju-Johnson] responded by saying that “ everyone has as much the right to be racist as the right to be culturally competent ” and insisted that instructors place priority on preserving the integrity of students from undergraduate instead of protecting staff and students affected by such blatant racism in the classroom. The petition said. “Additionally, [Sirju-Johnson] defended racist and offensive students by saying that a student who has verbally and racistically assaulted his teacher must “be able to take the course and be confident that he can be treated fairly.”

In addition to calling for Sirju-Johnson’s resignation, the petition demanded that DCI develop a collaborative plan “to address the rights and policies of instructors who experience or witness racism,” specifically giving faculty the opportunity to withdraw and fail students if they commit intolerance. and offensive actions.

Emily Blakley, a GSEU sales agent and fourth-year cognitive psychology student, felt Sirju-Johnson’s action was inadequate and further contributed to racism on campus.

“I think 100% that the inaction of the University and the [DEI] not only normalizes but encourages racist behavior in the classroom, ”Blakley wrote in an email. “Additionally, their lack of answers actively fosters a sense of fear for professors and students of color.”

The GSEU said it felt this response was inadequate and, according to Blakley, went further by creating a petition to encourage a conversation about the prevalence of racism at BU and the consequences of attending such events.

“The purpose of the petition, and the reason we are resending it with the most signatures, is that we want the university administration to sit down with student leaders and organizations to discuss the consequences of non-physical racist behavior in the classroom and to be a greater support and priority of students, faculty and staff of color over racists, ”said Blakley.

According to Blakley, the petition has already gained support. The GSEU plans to also involve the BU administration, local news stations, and other campus and state groups in the conversation about racism on campus.

“The petition currently has 1,500 signatures, and we plan to send it to the administration, including [Jones], [Brian Rose, vice president for student affairs], [Donald Nieman, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost] and [BU President Harvey Stenger]Blakley wrote. “In addition, we help spread the word for the anti-racist town hall [that happened on] Sunday, April 18, and plan to continue working with groups of students and faculty across campus who are ready to stand up to racism. “

Individual students are also taking action to gain support for the petition. Jaelah Jackson, an undeclared recruit, posted an Instagram post containing Sirju-Johnson’s email response which received over 2,000 likes as of April 21. Jackson hopes to see a substantial change in the way racism is handled by the University.

“I hope that [BU] is open to change and adapt its rules and policies to make the campus feel safe and comfortable for all students and staff, ”Jackson wrote in an email. “I don’t want any more emails containing excuses either, I want the University to take steps to ensure that it does not excuse any racist or discriminatory actions.”

Change is coming, according to Yarosh, as the university plans to create a task force to deal with such incidents.

“We remain hopeful that we can come together as one campus to work on a cure for events that serve to injure and attempt to destroy members of our community,” Yarosh wrote. “To this end, the leaders of the Faculty’s Senate have agreed to create a task force that will identify ways to tackle disruptive behavior, including the use of disparaging, uncivil racist language that interferes with the ability to all students in the class to learn; this working group will collaborate with the [DEI], The Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Human Resources are to establish implementation recommendations for the fall semester of 2021. “

Jiménez-Muńoz believes that the University’s current procedures for dealing with incidents of racial discrimination are ineffective and ignorant of the race-related issues that many students of color face.

“The restorative justice approach suggested by these agents has been shown to be ineffective because it ignores how individual racist behavior reflects and is supported by broader power structures by treating a systemic problem as a personal gap and a misunderstanding caused by a rude conduct, ”Jiménez-Muńoz wrote. in an email. “The mere fact that this student is apologizing and participating in a workshop and conversation with diversity officers confirms the lack of accountability for such behavior while telling our students that in the end, he does not. there are no consequences for this kind of act.

Jiménez-Muńoz continued that during his tenure at BU, there was a recurring pattern of racist incidents in classes that study racial, sexual, gender and disability-based discrimination. She believes the lack of compulsory anti-racism courses and the University’s accountability to guilty students will continue to breed such incidents, undermining what the University stands for.

“By failing to hold authors accountable, we inadvertently put them at ease,” Jiménez-Muńoz wrote. “These practices will continue to make the learning experience for our undergraduate students of color that much more difficult. While graduate students of color will think twice before heading to an institution in the north of the state, like BU, to pursue higher education, risking being insulted, despised and harmed as TA by the racism that this university carelessly allows. To move beyond virtue-flagging platitudes and empty rhetoric, the administration’s claim and goal of “no tolerance” for racism must be underpinned by institutional measures that will in fact prevent racism from spreading. proliferate. “

Nicole Marks Kaufman contributed to this article.

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