The 27th State of the College address held this Wednesday revealed long simmering tensions between students, staff and the administration.
Students in the Black Student Union and others sat in the audience in silent protest, holding signs which read, “Ramapo recruits us then forgets us” and, “Know Better, Be Better #WeMatter,” to address the issue of diversity on campus.
While President Mercer’s address focused on the many positive accomplishments over the past year and throughout Ramapo College’s history, he also acknowledged that there are issues within the community that must be fixed.
“Some things are more difficult to change than others, but I have to try,” he said. “My conclusion is that the college is not broken, but some significant tuning and the replacement of some component parts are needed.”
The forum section of the meeting was filled with comments from concerned students and faculty about the issue of diversity on campus.
“Throughout my four years here I have heard so many speeches and so many plans for action, however I haven’t seen any action,” said student leader Kate Bahaj.
“We do so much to bring students of color to campus, however, what are we actually doing to keep them here? What is the retention rate of students of color?” she continued. “The two main reasons I think this is happening is because … they don’t feel safe and the fact that a student does not feel safe on campus is just not right. Clearly there’s something that needs to be done because it’s an issue. Second issue is the fact that there is no representation when it comes to the faculty.”
President Mercer had mentioned the creation of a committee to create a program where students can report incidents that happen to them, and Bahaj acknowledged this.
“However, whoever’s going to be on this committee, we need people of color on these committees. Whatever you’re trying to solve, you need people of color there. We need to be at the table,” Bahaj said.
President Mercer said he agreed.
Ramapo’s Chief Equity and Diversity Officer Nicole Morgan-Agard said she would meet with various student groups in the coming weeks to address issues raised on and before Wednesday’s address.
“We do take diversity seriously and we hope in time our actions will speak for themselves,” she said.
“I appreciate all of the initiatives that you are making in regards to sexual violence, inclusion and diversity,” said Maya Poran, an alumna and associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies. “But I felt that I wanted to come up and speak – I’ve actually wanted to speak for many years, but the time is kind of ripe.”
She continued, “I do this not to sow division, but to highlight troubles present for years that need highlighting and addressing. These are issues of diversity and inclusion and sexual harassment and violence on campus.”
Poran detailed how she was sexually harassed by a professor who now has tenure.
She requested that in addition to reviewing ways of dealing with individual training and prevention, that they also look at other areas of institutionalized sexism and racism at the College. She noted that many people have been working on this and trying to find solutions for many years.
Others who spoke out were professors Kathleen Shannon, Monica Jacobi and Naseem Choudhury. Each one shared profound information with the president and the audience.
“I hear stories of people who are afraid to speak out.” said Shannon.
Jacobi added, “We’ve been hearing, especially from staff, for years, and I don’t think it’s a secret. If we have all been hearing it, surely it’s made it up the ladder, and this is really the first time I’ve seen it acknowledged broadly. So I welcome that, but I wonder why it took so long.”
Choudhury commented on the lack of African American professors, recognizing that there are “fewer today than in 2004.”
President Mercer said he was open to resolving the issues, stating that he's never turned down a request to speak with people.
Third year Mounira Elsamra also shared her opinions on the fear minorities on campus experience daily.
“In light of the situations brought to your attention that were reported to public safety, there are situations every day that aren’t reported and they’re not reported because of the lack of action, because we feel if we say something, either we’re going to be heard and brushed off … or nothing is going to happen or it’s not going to be respected,” she said.