Buffalo School Board member Carl Paladino has made other racially insensitive comments in the past.

Carl Paladino’s comments about “damn Asians” and other “foreigners” attending the University at Buffalo on discounted tuition have sparked both condemnation and a community conversation about the role of immigrants in the region’s future.

It’s not the first time the Buffalo School Board member has been accused of racial insensitivity.

Paladino’s comments, made at a political rally in Olean on Saturday, were printed in the Olean Times Herald, and by late Sunday the article was being widely circulated on social media.

The article said that Paladino suggested many foreign students declare residency after their first year at UB so they can receive the tuition break given to local residents.

The university responded Monday with a statement noting that 99.2 percent of the school’s international students attend on nonresident visas and therefore cannot declare residency.

The statement also asserted that the university’s roughly 5,000 international students do not displace those from New York, and offer “immeasurable academic and cultural value to our campuses and local communities, while making a significant economic impact to Western New York.”

On Monday, Paladino said the point he wanted to make at the rally is that out-of-state students – whether foreign-born or not – are taking advantage of New York’s heavily subsidized university system at the cost of taxpayers. Since the state – via taxpayers – heavily contributes to its university system, the tuition for out-of-state residents is far lower than the actual cost to educate them, Paladino says.

“I don’t think that’s fair to taxpayers,” Paladino said Monday. “Even nonresident tuition is highly subsidized tuition. I was pointing out deeper problems that are not otherwise being expressed.”

The remarks prompted leaders of several organizations that advocate for foreign-born residents to call for a shift in the focus from Paladino’s comments to the role immigrants play in the area’s economic development efforts.

“We should be having a whole other dialogue about how this population is critical to our economic development,” said Eva M. Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo. “If you don’t have a community that is welcoming, you can’t make your other economic development strategies work. If Western New York cannot do that, it’s going to make it very difficult to accomplish the things we want as a community.”

UB said international students contribute about $140.3 million to the region’s economy, based on the latest information from the Association of International Educators.

Out-of-state students, both foreign and from within the country, make up about 22 percent of UB’s enrollment, according to the university. The vast majority are international students.

Paladino said he does not take issue with the fact that foreign students attend UB, but thinks their education should not be subsidized by taxpayers. He said he selected Asians as an example of out-of-state students because it is easy to assume they are not from the area, an assumption for which he apologized.

“I apologize to all Asians for the coarseness of my remark and selecting them as my example,” he said. “That wasn’t the point I was trying to make.”

Several community leaders took the incident as an opportunity to advocate for diversity and greater understanding about different racial and ethnic groups.

“Not only is inclusion better than exclusion from a moral and social-justice standpoint, but the inclusion of diverse views from diverse people with diverse life stories and experiences leads to a better, more robust decision-making process and far superior results whether in a classroom or in a boardroom,” said Lana D. Benatovich, president of the National Federation of Just Communities of Western New York. “The more opportunities you give yourself to know people who are different from yourself, the more enriched you will be as community leaders.”

Some felt the comments were just the latest in Paladino’s history of making inflammatory remarks. In 2010, Paladino garnered national attention during his run for governor when it came out that he had circulated what some considered sexist and racist emails.

“This is not an isolated remark at all,” said Aaron Bartley, executive director and co-founder of PUSH Buffalo. “It may be one of the more explicitly racist, but he has made racist comments over the years that have somehow been accepted, but shouldn’t be.”

Others said Paladino’s comments reflect a deeper problem in a community consistently ranked as one of the most segregated in the nation, and that has a burgeoning immigrant population both in the city and several affluent suburbs.

UB – which is being led for the first time by a foreign-born president – is seeing rampant growth in its population of international students. Between 2012 and 2013, the international student population grew by 13.6 percent, outpacing the overall rate of growth among U.S. colleges and universities.

Students such as Jason Chen, an officer in the university’s Japanese Student Association, said they chose the school because of its reputation as a diverse and welcoming institution.

“I heard it was a large community, with a lot of culture and diverse,” Chen said. “That was one of the big reasons I picked it.”

He called Paladino’s comments “pretty offensive and pretty prejudiced.”

And as the area looks to science and medical fields to drive its economic development, some pointed out that foreign-born leaders are key to advancing the region in the future. Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind SolarCity, is a native of South Africa. Other leaders at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus were also born in other countries.

“It’s no small irony that the entrepreneur behind SolarCity is foreign-born,” Hassett said. “That kind of community, that kind of inclusive community, is critical to our economic development.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com

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