Campus NAACP raises concerns for faculty, staff and students of color

I'Jaz Eberhardt, Associate News Editor

On July 27, SUNY Buffalo State’s collegiate chapter for the NAACP made an Instagram post expressing concern for the treatment of faculty, staff and students of color on campus.

The post contains a manifesto with nine demands from the organization for President Katherine Conway-Turner, including more minority representation in the college’s faculty and staff, as well as the reinstatement of various African-American individuals who the group believes were either demoted or fired due to their ethnicity. Email correspondences between the Buffalo State NAACP and Conway-Turner were also posted.

The student organization’s vice president, Gaëlle Jean-Baptiste, stated concerns arose around mid-May, nearing the end of the Spring 2018 semester. She said after the removal of a key figure in the Student Life department and the Buffalo State NAACP’s own advisor, both African-American males, the group believed to have noticed a pattern among faculty and staff of color facing either demotion or termination.

“We found out that all these people were being removed and nothing was being done, and they were basically being demoted or removed for no reason,” she said.

Jean-Baptiste said she and other members of the group decided to publicize the documents to raise awareness of their concerns and their belief of discrimination at the college. The organization has also declined to meet with Conway-Turner and her cabinet until at least one of their demands are met.

“My E-Board and I decided we don’t want that meeting,” she said. “We want action. We want to see that you’re taking us seriously before that.”

The NAACP is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, with a mission of ensuring “the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.” Jean-Baptiste expressed her association with the organization is to uphold that legacy.

“I feel this is bigger than myself, and a lot of people have been taking this personally and nothing’s personal; this is all business,” she said, “and that’s the reason why I joined the NAACP…to take action against injustices against people of color.”

More recently, on July 31, the organization posted a call for students and alumni to contact Conway-Turner via email or telephone. The post claims the president has not returned an email asking her to meet at least one demand and that “students are tired of meetings with no outcome.”

The administration’s response

President Conway-Turner, Provost Melanie Perreault, and Vice President for Student Affairs Timothy Gordon have all responded to the concerns and charges made by Buffalo State’s NAACP.

Conway-Turner and her administration’s initial objectives were to arrange a meeting with the student organization’s leaders to hear their concerns and work toward resolutions.

“My response was, ‘let’s come in and talk about this,’” the president said. “You have some concerns, so let’s set a meeting.”

The Provost shared the same sentiment, adding a meeting would allow for discussion about what implementations she says are already taking place to improve areas of student concern, especially those relating to the NAACP’s demands.

“The areas of concern that the NAACP students have raised are legit concerns and [are] in areas that we have really been working on and trying to improve,” she said. Perreault expressed that the administration could “talk about some things that we have done and hear a little bit more from students [about] where we could do better.”

Gordon stated the administration is vigilant about hearing students and fostering communication with them.

“As soon as students share concerns, the president and the administration certainly want to make sure that we’re hearing students’ feedback and voices,” he said.

Conway-Turner said she has even arranged a meeting with the president of Buffalo’s citywide NAACP chapter and has extended an invitation to members of the collegiate chapter as well.

“I want to share information with them and hear from them and learn what their concerns are, but we can’t do it unless we come together, so hopefully they will accept this invitation,” she said.

As of now, it is unclear when that meeting will take place and if the student organization’s leaders have received and accepted the invitation.

The NAACP’s indications of discrimination on campus were the most surprising components of their letter, according to Conway-Turner.

“We have really a very diverse campus student-wise, faculty, staff,” she said. “We could always do more, but fifty percent of the administration comes from underrepresented voices so it’s a surprise to me that the overall gestalt was that somehow the institution wasn’t paying attention to diversity.”

She supported Buffalo State’s commitment to diversity by referencing the college’s recognition with INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine’s HEED (Higher Education Excellence in Diversity) Award for Diversity for five consecutive years, as well as departments within the campus dedicated to promoting diversity.

The President’s Council on Equity and Diversity was established in 1996 “to address discrimination, harassment, and campus climate issues as they relate to recruitment and retention of students, faculty, staff curriculum development, and student life on campus,” as explained via the council’s page on the Buffalo State website.

“Our chief diversity officer [Dr. Karen Clinton-Jones] meets with every search committee that is hiring anybody on campus to talk about the importance of diversity,” Conway-Turner said, “so we recruit widely in all kinds of different vehicles.”

Although Buffalo State stands as a national model for diversity in higher education, the question of lack of faculty and staff of color on campus is one that has arisen before, even prior to the Buffalo State NAACP’s outreach. The college administration has acknowledged the need to improve diversity as a broad issue that includes, but also extends beyond, the campus.

“I have heard that issue raised before and have responded and again, that’s something that we’ll continue to respond to because it’s a legitimate concern;” Perreault said. “Not just at Buffalo State, but nationally, so we really want to increase our faculty representation.”

Conway-Turner also addressed the school’s longstanding effort to improve representation on campus.

“Every campus across this country works hard to further diversify their faculty and staff, so the difference between us is that we have had a long, long history of doing this, and so it’s not new,” said Conway-Turner. “This is not new work, it’s work that we have been doing for many years.”

The president also explained that 20% of Buffalo State’s faculty and staff are from underrepresented groups, and although the college is among others seeking to improve diversity in a highly competitive field, she still wants to further reconcile the issue.

Plans in progress

The college’s administration said that several of the concerns and demands of the NAACP are already being addressed by initiatives that had been put into place prior to the organization reaching out.

The provost discussed her goal to improve academic advising and explained some of the improvements that have been made.

“Since I’ve got here, we’ve doubled the number of professional advisors, we’ve made advising mandatory, we’ve developed advising training for faculty, including an advising handbook,” she said.

She even stated that recent student surveys have shown an increase in student satisfaction with advising, although the college will continue to be proactive in making improvements.

Another of Perreault’s initiatives includes the newly-implemented Provost Faculty Diversity Fellows, a program designed specifically for people of color in which two ABDs will have the opportunity to teach and complete a research presentation at Buffalo State while finalizing their dissertations. Each recipient will also receive compensation during their time at the college.

The administration also explained that Buffalo State partners with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and continues to make implementations in promoting diversity.

Direct concerns

Besides the desire to have at least one demand met, the Buffalo State NAACP has also declined meetings with the president’s cabinet because they believe the “administration hasn’t been looking out for the best interest of students,” Jean-Baptiste wrote in an email to Conway-Turner. Within the Instagram post, some references are made to alleged remarks by Gordon and Perreault.

In Demand 4, which pertains to improving the relationship between students and administration, the group stated they were “underwhelmed” by Gordon, and they believe he does not meet the needs of students. They even cite Gordon as being “aggressive,” describing an exchange during a meeting between him and USG President Monique Maxwell as an example of how they feel he communicates with students.

“He’s a very aggressive man, and we don’t want to deal with that,” Jean-Baptiste said. “We want to deal with someone who’s not going [to] yell at us because we feel a way about the way things are going at our school. It makes no sense.”

According to Gordon, he has had numerous meetings with Maxwell and the two have had positive exchanges each time.

“She and I have had a number of communications and I had never gotten any feedback that that conversation was anything other than productive,” he said.

Gordon maintains that he is accessible and that he remains committed to working with students to bring about solutions.

“We continue to work through all sorts of things,” he said, “but I will emphasize that that is because I am having dialogue with students, and that is not students having to come to me, but me going out and being in the community to talk with students; so, I always welcome that opportunity.”

In their second letter to Conway-Turner, the NAACP also claims Perreault called poor academic advising an “urban legend” during the first open forum.

The provost did not recall making the remark and said she has actually made strides to improve advising since taking her position at the college.

“I really can’t understand the context of that because I’ve fully acknowledged since day one that we needed to improve our academic advising,” she said. “I do think that with [our] actions, where we’ve invested, where we’ve put resources, we’ve really put a ton of resources into academic support of students since I got here…so I do think that we’ve taken it seriously.”

In the NAACP’s post, two Caucasian faculty members were named who received promotions that the group felt were not warranted. Jean-Baptiste said the two, along with another individual who was recently promoted, “never went through a proper search process for the position[s] they are in.” The organization also stated the student opinion was not sought for these recent changes in positions.

Buffalo State policy does not allow for public discussion of personnel issues, but Conway-Turner did explain that student input is always sought for hiring, especially with positions in Student Affairs, but promotions undergo a different process.

“Most of our employees are unionized so there are very specific criteria that we follow because of the union and because of campus policy,” she explained. “But every new position that we hire in Student Affairs and major positions across the campus, there are opportunities for students to provide input and I think that that is the way it should be.”

The president also noted that in some cases, when an individual has been proven outstanding in their field and they have good historical evaluations, an exception for hiring based on those criteria can be made.

What’s happens now?

Still, the organization wishes to see progress before conducting a meeting with the president alone.

“Before speaking with her, I’d like to see that we’re being taken seriously,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I feel like the only way the school works is when they’re under pressure, and if they’re under pressure and they receive that pressure, they’re going to definitely work with us instead of against us.”

According to the Instagram post, the NAACP says they will take action, including contacting local media and engaging in “free speech and protest” during campus tours, orientations and other campus events.

Conway-Turner said she respects her students’ rights to free speech but believes that a discussion would be more effective in having their concerns addressed.

“I would hope that they would sit around the table and talk about issues and concerns so that we could learn from each other,” she said, “but if students do decide to do any of the formats [mentioned], we’ll be prepared to handle it at that time.”

The president and her administration acknowledge the campus as an educational institution, where they hope to learn from students to improve the college’s structure and operation while addressing a need to improve in all areas.

“I would just ask the student organization that has concerns to come to the table and talk to the people who can respond to their concerns,” said Conway-Turner, “because until that happens, we really cannot truly understand their perspective and allow that to influence the good work that we’re already doing.”

The provost also hopes to learn from students to make resolutions.

“We can’t learn if we don’t talk, if we don’t have a dialogue,” said Perreault, “so I hope we take this opportunity to open a door to not a single event, not a single conversation, but to many conversations; that would be my greatest hope.”

The vice president for student affairs maintains addressing students’ needs are of utmost importance to him.

“I came here, and I continue, with the perspective that I will continue to work very closely to make sure our students have the best, most supported academic experience inclusive of all of their life perspective,” said Gordon. “I am certainly a person who comes from a diverse background and understands that it’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”

Although the NAACP maintains its commitment to seeing results first, Conway-Turner expressed her invitation to meet and converse is still extended.

“I’m willing to learn from students’ perspectives to see what they would like to share as we move forward,” she said. “Come to the table, please; come to the table so we can talk.”

This is a developing story; more information to come.

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