The Graduate Student Employee Union (GSEU) is calling for the removal of Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) Director and Assistant Vice President for Diversity Nicole Sirju-Johnson following an alleged lack of repercussions after a racially discriminatory remark was made during a sociology class.
On April 6, the GSEU, a workers’ union representing teaching assistants (TA) and graduate assistants (GA), started a petition demanding Binghamton University “stand by the statement they made to condemn racist actions.” This petition came following a racial incident last month, when a student expressed racist, sexist remarks to the TA, an African American woman, during the first discussion class in Sociology 100: Social Change: Intro to Sociology. Joshua Price, professor and chair of the sociology department, and Gladys Jiménez-Muńoz, associate professor and undergraduate director of the sociology department, both consulted with 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, addressing the course of action for the perpetrating student.
In her email response, Sirju-Johnson said that the responsibility of taking action against racism does not solely lie on the DEI office, but the Office of Student Conduct as well.
“Our goal is to provide guidance within the confines of our policies, to create learning experiences for all with the goal of addressing inappropriate behavior while keeping the person ‘whole,’” Sirju-Johnson wrote. “We are well aware that students will make egregious errors in judgment, and again, our goal is to create lifelong learning opportunities — that we draw them in rather than push them out.”
Sirju-Johnson said she attempted to work with Price to rectify the issue, who apparently abruptly ended a phone call between the two over how to address the issue going forward..
“Unfortunately, everyone has as much a right to be racist as they have a right to be culturally competent,” Sirju-Johnson wrote. “There was more than one way to address the situation as I attempted to discuss with you last week.”
Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations, confirmed that the incident did in fact happen and that the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) attempted to work with Price to offer 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 instructor of record for the course to develop a strategy to address 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 utilize 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, not 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 one and collaborate to solve the problem, rather than attempt to destroy one another simply because we do not agree with how to manage 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 a right to be racist as they have a right to be culturally competent’ and insisted that instructors prioritize keeping undergraduate students ‘whole’ instead of protecting the staff and students affected by such blatant racism in the classroom,” the petition stated. “Additionally, [Sirju-Johnson] defended racist and offensive students stating that a student who racially and verbally attacked their professor needs ‘to be able to move through the course and trust they can be treated fairly.’”
In addition to calling for Sirju-Johnson’s resignation, the petition demanded that the DEI develop a collaborative plan “to address the rights and policies for instructors who experience or witness racism,” specifically giving professors the option to remove and fail students if they commit intolerant and offensive actions.
Emily Blakley, a business agent of GSEU and a fourth-year graduate student studying cognitive psychology, felt as though Sirju-Johnson’s action was inadequate and further contributes to the racism on campus.
“I 100 percent believe that the inaction from the University and from the [DEI] not only normalizes but encourages racist behavior in the classroom,” Blakley wrote in an email. “Additionally, their lack of responses actively promotes a feeling of fear for faculty and students of color.”
The GSEU said they felt as though this response was inadequate and, according to Blakley, went further to create a petition to encourage a conversation about the prevalence of racism at BU and the consequences of participating in such events.
“The goal of the petition, and why we are sending it again with the higher numbers of signatures is that we want University administration to sit down with student leaders and organizations to discuss consequences for nonphysical racist behavior that is in the classroom and for there to be greater support and prioritization of students, faculty and staff of color over racists,” Blakley said.
According to Blakley, the petition has already gained support. The GSEU plans to involve BU administration, local news stations and other campus and state groups in the conversation of racism on campus as well.
“The petition currently has 1,500 signatures, and we are planning to send it to 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. “Additionally, we are assisting getting the word out for the antiracism town hall [that happened on] Sunday, April 18, and plan to continue to work with student and faculty groups across campus who are willing to stand up to racism.”
Individual students are taking action to garner support for the petition as well. Jaelah Jackson, an undeclared freshman, made an Instagram post featuring Sirju-Johnson’s email response that received over 2,000 likes as of April 21. Jackson hopes to see a substantial change in the way that racism is handled by the University.
“I hope that [BU] is open to changing and adapting their rules and policies to make campus feel safe and comfortable for all students and staff,” Jackson wrote in an email. “I do not want emails issuing out apologies anymore either, I want action taken by the University to ensure that they are not excusing any racially motivated or discriminatory actions.”
According to Yarosh, change is coming, as the University plans to create a task force to address such incidents.
“We remain hopeful, that we can come together as one campus to work toward a remedy of how to address events that serve to hurt and attempt to destroy members of our community,” Yarosh wrote. “To this end, Faculty Senate leaders have agreed to create a task force that will identify ways to address disruptive behavior, including the use of disparaging, uncivil, racist language that interferes with the ability of all students in the class to learn; this task force will collaborate with the [DEI], Division of Student Affairs and Office of Human Resources to establish recommendations for implementation for the fall 2021 semester.”
Jiménez-Muńoz believes the current procedures by the University in racial discriminatory incidents are ineffective and ignorant in regard to race-related issues that many students of color face.
“The restorative justice approach these officers suggested has proven inefficient because it ignores how individual racist behavior both reflects and is supported by larger structures of power by treating a systemic problem as a personal shortcoming and a misunderstanding caused by impolite conduct,” Jiménez-Muńoz wrote in an email. “Simply having this student apologize and partake in a workshop and conversation with the diversity officers confirms the lack of accountability for such behavior while telling our students that ultimately there are no consequences for these kinds of acts.”
Jiménez-Muńoz continued that during her tenure at BU, there has been a recurring pattern with racist incidents in classes that study race, gender, sex and disability discrimination. She believes both the lack of mandatory antiracism courses and accountability by the University to perpetrating students will continue to breed such incidents, undermining what the University stands for.
“By not making perpetrators accountable, we are inadvertently making them comfortable,” Jiménez-Muńoz wrote. “These practices will continue making the learning experience of our undergraduate students of color all the more difficult. While graduate students of color will think twice before coming to an upstate institution, like BU, to pursue graduate work running the risk of being insulted, disrespected and harmed as TAs by the racism that this University carelessly allows. If it’s to go beyond virtue-signaling platitudes and empty rhetoric, the administration’s claim and goal of ‘no tolerance’ for racism needs to be backed up by institutional measures that will actually prevent racism from proliferating.”
Nicole Marks Kaufman was a contributing reporter for this article.
Editor’s note: This article, which was initially published on April 19, has gone through several revisions since its original publication to reflect objectivity. First, on April 22, an official University response was added to give clarity to both sides of the story after they had contacted us the day of publication. Pipe Dream had reached out to Joshua Price on April 19 for the same reason, but he did not give any further comment. Pipe Dream apologizes and regrets the errors in this story’s original reporting. We have added a hyperlink in this story to our original article about this incident for further clarification.