University President Harvey Stenger was publicly and unexpectedly censured at a student-organized discussion of racism on Wednesday, completely overshadowing a series of deeply personal accounts of discrimination.
The conversation, which had previously been restricted to student testimonials about their experiences with racism, became heated when a moderator of the discussion, student Toivo Asheeke, directed some comments and criticisms directly at Stenger.
Stenger, who witnesses say was visibly caught off guard, defended SUNY 2020 against an audience onslaught of the program’s proposed tuition hikes, saying they will negatively affect lower-income students.
“It’s interesting because if you read the legislation, it requires that tuition will not affect anyone who qualifies for financial aid,” he said. “2020 actually allows us to charge higher tuition for higher-earning families.”
Other students quickly followed suit, getting up not to share their run-ins with racism, but to voice their concerns with systemic racist policies that they found in in the University, and asked Stenger to answer for them.
As the questions became more pointed, the discussion strayed from a question format to direct accusations. One student even shouted out “he’s not my leader” in response to a comment endorsing Stenger made by Affirmative Action Officer Valerie Hampton.
Though there was an attempt by Asheeke to bring the discussion back to personal accounts of racism, it continually returned to questions and comments for President Stenger.
Shehryar Qazi, a second-year graduate student studying sociology who was among the most outspoken during the discussion, continues to condemn SUNY 2020 and many other University policies.
“It (SUNY 2020) will increase tuition and disproportionally affect blacks, Hispanics and other minorities,” Qazi said. “Our institutional racism is day by day hurting us because we have to wonder now if we can afford college and the tools to lift ourselves up.”
Stenger also had to answer criticism that the University is cutting back the Clifford D. Clark Fellowship for Diversity.
In an email to Pipe Dream, Toivo said not only tuition hikes, but also the University’s increased investment in departments where black and Latinos are historically underrepresented will further hurt those groups.
“The school is investing more in departments like Mechanical Engineering … [that] have the lowest Black/Latino populations (2%) and women populations,” he wrote. “If you extrapolate those numbers into the future it means the number of Black/Latino students will continue to shrink because the [high schools] many are coming out of won’t prepare them for the focus of this transformed campus.”
Pipe Dream did not receive Toivo’s response in time to ask Stenger for a response.
The rational tuition plan, which is responsible for SUNY 2020’s tuition increases, was passed by the state legislature in March 2011, nine months before Stenger took office.
Milton Chester, director of student conduct, stood up for Stenger at the discussion, saying, “In fairness to President Stenger, in one year he’s done more than in the 11 years of his predecessor.”
The discussion, called Rally Against Racism, was sponsored by the Haitian Student Union, Latin Student Union, Men of Color Scholastic Society, Black Student Union, MALIK Fraternity Incorporated, African Student Organization, Thurgood Marshall Pre-Law Society, Caribbean Student Organization, BLACK Unity and Sociology Graduate Student Union as a forum for students and administrators to speak about their experiences dealing with racism.