The following is a transcription of President Donald P. Christian’s opening remarks from the “Can We Talk About It?” forum on racial equity held on November 30, 2011.
Good evening, and welcome to this evening’s forum, which I believe will prove to be an important event in the life of the College. I appreciate the opportunity to work with Terrell Coakley, President of Student Association, in planning and guiding tonight’s forum, which we hope will be a “teachable moment” for the campus. Terrell and I are both committed to a productive and forward-looking event that may at least begin to heal the wounds opened by the recent posting of racially offensive material on the campus. Just as important, we hope that this forum will be the first in a series of conversations that we have, and work that we undertake, to address issues of race and racial equity on the campus as well as other dimensions of diversity and equity.
I believe that there are members of the press with us this evening, and we welcome you to this event. I would ask that you respect that we will be talking tonight about sensitive topics, and that you take steps to avoid having your presence inhibit discussion. My strong preference would be that you agree not to quote anyone speaking in any of the small groups but that instead you speak with participants afterwards who would be willing to offer their comments. Certainly taking photos or videotaping the overall event is appropriate, but we ask that you not audio record conversations during the forum. Both Terrell and I will be available to speak with media after the event.
I want to comment on the status of the investigation into the drinking fountain incident in Humanities – the act that precipitated our being here tonight. I know that people want to know what is going on, and you have a right to know. The investigation into this incident has not in any way closed but is active and ongoing – including considerable work today. It also is fairly complicated and is requiring careful and painstaking work. I can share that the investigation has identified a person of interest who is a primary focus of the continuing investigation. This is in no way sitting idle, but is being pursued carefully and thoroughly. And I thought all of you should know that.
I will continue my comments by borrowing words from a message that I sent to the campus community in response to the recent incidents that precipitated our being here together this evening. Acts such as these hurt members of our community. And if actions such as these hurt one of us because of our group identity, they should hurt all of us as members of a community that values equity, diversity, inclusiveness, and respect. Understanding that hurt and taking the first steps toward becoming the community we want to be are the primary focus of tonight’s forum.
In my letter of application for the presidency at SUNY New Paltz last April I wrote that “the diversity of New Paltz (across many dimensions) is a strong and special part of our institution, although I believe that much work remains to enhance our campus climate and institutional life by more fully embracing and reflecting the values we espouse. Later in that letter, I indicated that major directives I want to pursue include “Expand efforts to build an inclusive and equitable campus culture.”
For me, the recent postings of racially offensive material brought that vision into sharp focus, and prompted us to come together sooner rather than later, and with a different sense of imperative to examine our campus climate. We cannot ignore the posting of racially offensive material such as we have seen in recent weeks. We do not know the motivations for these acts. Those motivations may very well have been to hurt people, or to damage the College. They almost certainly – in one way or another –were intended to incite.
But while we must respond, we also must not let senseless acts such as these drive our response. Doing so would very likely feed into the aims of the person or people responsible for these actions, which I am sure none of us wants to do. Yes, we have work to do. But we must develop an agenda that is thoughtful and intentional, and not one that is assembled hastily in reaction to actions that we might characterize as senseless. I know that many people want swift and immediate action, and I too would like to solve the issues we face quickly and with grand action.
But the issues we face are deeply entrenched in our society and our institutions, and change at this level occurs slowly. In a previous position as Dean at another university, I organized a process called Dismantling Racism, and as I was preparing for this project I talked with people at other organizations that were using the same process. One, a county health department in the south, was seeing meaningful change after 7 years of work. But the people involved in that process also told me that they were pleased with and positive about the change their organizations had undergone. I would like to think that we can be more nimble than that, and believe that our students can help us in that way, but let’s all recognize that we are taking on difficult work.
With that background, I want to offer comments focused on three key points. The first of these has to do with the initial offensive posting of a label reading “colored only” on a campus drinking fountain. During my time as a doctoral student in zoology in the 1970s, I conducted research in southern Africa, during the apartheid era. I have seen the signs stating “net blankes” – whites only - on beaches, benches, drinking fountains, and bank entrances. And these images were the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard the report of the posting of a “colored only” sign on our campus. But SUNY New Paltz is not apartheid South Africa. The senseless acts that brought us here together this evening were perpetrated by one or two or a small number of individuals. They are not characteristic of this community. And it is important that we keep that fact in mind.
A second point relates to the way we think about the impact of these incidents on our students and faculty and staff, and especially people of color, and it relates particularly to the comments I have heard and read that “oh, it probably was just a joke,” or “lighten up, don’t take this too seriously,” or that our concern about such incidents is a trivial matter of “political correctness.” Words matter, and we do take them seriously. I spoke in the past few weeks with the president of another SUNY campus that also is addressing race-based incidents and attitudes on that campus. They conducted a survey of attitudes and experiences of faculty, staff, and students -- something we may wish to do as well. This survey included questions that asked students to rank their negative experiences focused on race. For students of color, blatant, hateful, overt acts ranked well down on the list. The top ranked experience was a sense that people were staring at them. And the second was a subtle sense that white people were changing their course ever so slightly on campus sidewalks and hallways to avoid walking close to them.
My point here is that obvious, in-your-face incidents like the ones that have brought us here tonight are only the tip of a large iceberg of the experiences of many members of our community. Most of us do not experience the other things below the surface, or are even aware of them. The posting of racially offensive material on a drinking fountain or in an elevator is glaring, and we would do well to listen to the people who ARE hurt by it. One of our goals here tonight should be to help us all understand these impacts.
A final point I want to make is best told by a fable, one of Aesop’s fables. This is one version of the fable of the bundled sticks.
A dying man called his sons to his death bed. His sons could rarely agree and were always squabbling about something. He handed the eldest a tied bundle of finger-sized sticks and asked him to break them. He could not, nor could each of the younger sons in turn. The man then instructed his sons to unbundle the sticks, and to see if they could break the individual sticks, which they readily could. He pointed out the clear moral of the story – that we are stronger together than we are apart.
And that’s a lesson that I hope we can carry with us this evening, and in the coming weeks and months as we take steps to become a better community than we are. The recent incidents on campus, our responses to them, and the resulting actions we take must be owned by the entire community. Our sense of community must guide our actions, and we must recognize that no one individual or even a small group can be responsible.
Our purpose here tonight is simple, and it is to speak and listen to each other about the ways these recent incidents have affected us individually and collectively, and how we can become better as a community. We might begin each small-group discussion with the simple question “how did the posting of a sign reading “colored only” on a drinking fountain affect you personally?” Our intention is that by talking about these events, about race and racism, and by discussing and listening to each other’s life experiences, we will have a chance to join together and learn from each other. We hope that we also can spend some time brainstorming about important steps that as a community we might consider as long-term responses.