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Rod Watson: Wave of student activism may be about to hit Buff State

Rod Watson

The student protests over diversity and culture that have struck campuses from Cornell and Princeton to the University of Missouri may be about to hit SUNY Buffalo State after the school’s NAACP chapter presented the administration with a list of demands.

After initially rejecting the college president’s invitation to meet until at least one of the demands was met, the students will have a sit-down. But they don’t think much will come of it and expect to proceed with pressure tactics ranging from contacting SUNY, the media and college alumni to protesting during high-profile events such as student orientations and admissions tours.

"We will be heard," they state in a manifesto to administrators.

But the administration’s take on the impasse can be characterized by a line from the movie "Cool Hand Luke": What we have here is a failure to communicate.

President Katherine Conway-Turner is anxious to sit down with the students, who she said may not be aware of all the school is doing.

"I look forward to sharing with the students the successes we have had," she said.

That first meeting is scheduled for Friday, but the students are not optimistic.

"They’re going to promise us things we’re not going to get, which is why, in the letter, we just asked for one thing," said Gaelle Jean-Baptiste, vice present of the student NAACP chapter.

There is plenty the administration could choose from. The students’ nine demands include everything from more minority faculty and staff, to yearly diversity training, to creation of a five-year plan to retain faculty, staff and students of color to a better "relationship with the administration," citing one vice president they feel demeans students and has no answers when they present issues.

They also want "more efficient advisers," a demand tied to their diversity concern because the students complain about advisers who do little more than hand out pins while the handful of African-American staffers who did take an interest in them were targeted for demotion or dismissal. In fact, one of their demands is the reinstatement of Brian Dubenion, who had been interim director of student life and whose work they said had been recognized with awards from a variety of student groups.

"It was literally like having a parent at school with you; he made sure everything was OK," said Jean-Baptiste, a junior majoring in psychology. "He opened doors for students and that’s what we need, particularly students of color."

They also complain about other African-Americans who were "student driven" being ousted or transferred to different positions.

"They’re removing everyone of color off campus," said Nikita Singh, a journalism major who was in the NAACP student chapter and was vice president of the student government before graduating last spring.

But not all of their demands revolve around diversity, and they note that many – such as more knowledgeable advisers and enough campus housing so that seniors aren’t forced to move off campus and fend for themselves – will improve life for all students.

The school’s undergraduate enrollment is about 50 percent minority, Conway-Turner said, while underrepresented groups make up about 20 percent of the full-time faculty and 18 percent of the staff. But out of 100 professors, only six are African-American and three are Hispanic, while blacks and Hispanics each make up just 3.4 percent of the overall faculty, according to school data.

Like campuses across the country, she said Buffalo State is always working to increase diversity, and noted that the college has developed a diversity fellowship program and received INSIGHT Into Diversity’s Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award for the past five years for its efforts.

"So we are clearly a leader in this area," she said.

Conway-Turner acknowledged the housing issues, recalling that the school had to lease space in the past from another local college because it didn’t have enough beds. But she said a renovation plan is underway and Buffalo State expects to be able to house all of its students within two years.

She said she could not comment on the personnel issues, other than to encourage the students to "come and talk with the cabinet members" who are the subjects of their complaints. She emphasized that many of the issues raised by the students are not "one and dones," that the work is ongoing and that newer students may not be aware of everything being done.

"How can we communicate to our students what we are doing around these issues" is part of the challenge, she said.

But students aren’t the only ones concerned. Buffalo Branch NAACP President Mark Blue called the students’ complaints "alarming," and is slated to meet with Conway-Turner next month. He noted that she has been at Buffalo State for only four years, and that many of the issues predated her.

Sociology professor Ron Stewart – the only African-American professor Singh said she had in her four years – said some departments have never had an African-American faculty member since he’s been there, and he arrived in 1990.

The college is "a good place to work" and he encouraged more African-Americans to come to Buffalo State, adding that budget constraints – and Buffalo’s weather – have made it harder to hire more black faculty.

While Conway-Turner is a public cheerleader for the school and seems to want the best for students, he also cited the difficulty of running Buffalo State, recalling former President F.C. Richardson and the fact that "they almost ran him out of town" in the 1990s.

He called the students’ complaints legitimate while also noting that students were stronger advocates when he arrived back in the 1990s.

Maybe that activism is the ingredient that has been missing in recent years, as this group of students prepares to meet with administrators while expecting little and preparing to take things to the next level – as fellow students around the country have done.

"There’s always been a discussion without any action afterwards," said Daquan Patterson, a business marketing senior and president of the Buffalo State NAACP chapter.

That may not be the case this time – because these students don’t seem like they’re going to let that happen.


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