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SUNY Plattsburgh Faculty Discuss Offensive Cartoon

Plattsburgh State faculty and students gathered Friday afternoon to discuss what actions faculty can take to help students and the campus community have a “meaningful conversation about issues of race.”  The gathering was called by the head of the faculty senate in the wake of the student newspaper’s publication of a racially insensitive cartoon.
The forum was the first opportunity for faculty members to find out the facts behind Cardinal Points’ publication on October 23rd of a racially insensitive cartoon.  It depicts a black-faced graduate with bulging eyes and exaggerated smile in cap and gown clutching a degree while strolling a ghetto street with boarded and broken windows, cracked foundations, graffiti, broken street signs, and an old car on cement blocks.   The student newspaper published a full front-page apology on November 6th.

Friday’s all-faculty meeting was called and moderated by the Presiding Officer of the Faculty Dr. Wendy Gordon.    “The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the faculty role in an issue that’s really easy for us as faculty to dismiss as an administrative problem or a student life problem.”

Dr. Gordon handed meeting over to SUNY Plattsburgh president Dr. John Ettling.  He outlined actions the administration has taken in response to the furor over the cartoon, including the appointment of a college chief diversity officer – which had already been mandated by the SUNY system.  

A diversity task force has been reconstituted.  A diversity week will be held in the spring semester.  In response to a student petition, Ettling has empanelled a group to examine the events that led to the publication of the cartoon. Ettling admonished faculty not to dismiss students when they say there is racism on campus.   “I have not seen such spontaneous outrage and hurt on the part of hundreds and hundreds of our students here in a portion of the student body that is especially important to me in this lily-white part of the upstate New York.  It’s hard for them to be here.  As I’ve heard, why am I paying money to be scared?  We have a colleague, not a student, who says he’s been stopped several dozen times by cops in Plattsburgh and Clinton County. And his crimes: driving while black. Students tell me that when they go into WalMart, I believe them, they’re followed around.  I believe them when they tell me that the campus, to a certain extent, is not that different from its surrounding community.”

Faculty wanted practical techniques on how to open dialogue with their students about sensitive topics like race and discrimination.  Many expressed discomfort raising the topic.

One student of color told the faculty that if minority students could be brave enough to leave their homes to study at the college, they too could be brave enough to open a dialogue on race. Business studies sophomore  Tiera Chess:   “I came from a neighborhood where you get shot just because you’re black.  Three days ago I had two of my friends who got shot in front of their house and they passed away. So for me to make it out and to come to a predominantly white institution that shows courage.  And that’s what faculty needs to understand that some people don’t have the opportunity to go to college.  So the fact that we came here as an escape and to see something like that it was more than a picture. It hurt a lot of people. And not just African-Americans, but other people who struggle to get to SUNY Plattsburgh as well.  It took us the courage to come here to college so all we just need you to do is talk about it and be sincere. If you don’t know what to say ask the student.”

The director of the college’s educational opportunity program says the discussion on long-term solutions must occur and there are resources available to help. Kyla Relaford  says the cartoon was not a singular incident but rather a tipping point for student anger.    “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It was that moment that students finally said enough is enough. And to some to degree I think for students this was particularly egregious because this was not a cruel word spoken at a party, one on one. This was a public, broadly distributed offense that was created by their peers and that is deeply hurtful for many of our students.”

The meeting by the Faculty Friday afternoon follows a forum sponsored by the Student Association Thursday evening. A diversity march across campus was scheduled for Monday afternoon.
 

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