A surprise appearance by University President Harvey Stenger at a student-led discussion of racism Wednesday led to an unexpected turn of events, as several students used the opportunity to publicly accuse him of enacting racist policies.
The discussion, previously centered on personal run-ins with racism by students and administrators, became heated when an event moderator, student Toivo Asheeke, directed several comments and criticisms directly at Stenger.
Stenger, who witnesses say was visibly caught off guard, then had to defend SUNY 2020 against an audience onslaught of the initiative’s proposed tuition hikes.
“It’s interesting because if you read the legislation, it requires that tuition will not affect anyone who qualifies for financial aid,” Stenger said. “2020 actually allows us to charge higher tuition for higher-earning families.”
Other students quickly followed suit, rising not to share personal anecdotes of discrimination, but rather to demand Stenger answer for University policies they believed to be racist.
As the questions became more pointed, the discussion strayed from its question-and-answer format to more unstructured accusations. One student even shouted “he’s not my leader” in response to a defense of Stenger by Affirmative Action Officer Valerie Hampton.
Though there was an attempt by Asheeke to reel in the discussion, it routinely strayed back to questions for President Stenger.
Shehryar Qazi, a second-year graduate student studying sociology who was among the most outspoken during the discussion, condemned SUNY 2020 and other University policies during a subsequent interview with Pipe Dream.
“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 was also charged with cutting back the Clifford D. Clark Fellowship for Diversity.
In an email to Pipe Dream, Toivo said the University’s increased focus on departments in which blacks and Latinos are underrepresented and tuition hikes are hurting the school’s minority and low-income students.
“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 email in time to ask Stenger to respond.
The rational tuition plan, the official title for a series of planned tuition increases included in SUNY 2020, 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 intended to be a forum for students and administrators to share their personal experiences dealing with racism. It 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.