In an academic environment where hate speech and ideals of white supremacy are becoming commonplace, Binghamton University is failing in its duty to protect not just its most vulnerable students from irrevocable harm, but also its most vulnerable employers — graduate student teaching assistants.
In the spring of 2021, a graduate student teaching assistant was referred to by a derogatory racial slur, and the aftermath of this event included an email that reprimanded sociology professor Dr. Price, stating that “everyone has as much of a right to be racist as they do culturally competent,” and that instructors have a duty to their racist students to make sure they are “able to move through the course and trust they can be treated fairly.” Dr. Price has since left BU.
In defense of graduate student TAs who face hostile and racist students in their classrooms, the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) drafted a petition demanding that BU administration stand by faculty and staff, including graduate student assistants and come up with a plan to address future racism in the class. Over 1,500 members of the University have signed the petition. The petition was met with a reiteration that free speech is a protected right and that University employees are welcome to speak with the Office of Disability and Equal Opportunity on an individual basis.
More recently, a white male undergraduate economics major by the name of Sean Harrigan released the names of his professor, Ana Candela, and her TAs to the online journal Campus Reform for her use of anti-racism policies in the classroom. Campus Reform is particularly harmful to faculty members, as those whose names have been published face threats via email, social media, physical mail and in person. Faculty members who are of a marginalized identity and who teach topics of race or politics are more likely to be targeted. In the face of threats, affected faculty frequently reduce their online presence, and some have even switched universities or changed their teaching and research agendas. Harrigan went even further by baiting his graduate TA into a long series of email debates regarding the efficiency of masking during COVID-19 and sharing these personal email exchanges, out of context, with Campus Reform. This prompted xenophobic comments and slurs from readers of the journal, as this TA is an international student. When GSEU reached out to see how the University, particularly Harpur College, planned to protect this TA, we were told that if anything threatening were to happen, we were welcome to contact campus police. That was the extent of the action they were willing to provide. Candela has since left BU.
Even more recently, a BU alumnus by the name of Jon Lizak, who was both a former president of BU College Republicans and integral in bringing Turning Point USA onto BU’s campus, was arrested for violently storming the U.S. Capital. Both Lizak and Harrigan were members of the College Republicans, as were other students who provided comments to Campus Reform.
These are just two examples in the last year and a half where BU has prioritized the feelings of its white male students over those of its marginalized graduate employees, who often have very little recourse to protect themselves in the classroom. As we just saw with the recent arrest of Lizak and the harm that can come from being targeted by Campus Reform, these are not simply words coming out of the mouths of angry men but are linked to real incidents of violence. The complacency of BU in the face of harm to its most vulnerable is both disheartening and dangerous.
With the current political climate becoming more accepting of bigotry against marginalized folks and educators, often finding themselves on the front lines of a culture war they are neither trained for nor paid enough for, these incidents will only increase in quantity and severity.
Now more than ever, we need to stick up for our friends and colleagues, our professors, mentors and our students. As the chapter president of the GSEU, to all my fellow graduate employees — we are here for you and we are willing to fight this fight with you. As a teaching assistant, to my students — I will do what I can to protect you and to advocate for you whenever I can. To my mentors, supervisors and professors — graduate students are also here for you and will stand up for your rights and safety.
Emily Blakley is a cognitive and brain sciences Ph.D. candidate and is the president of Binghamton University’s chapter of the GSEU.