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Students Demand Better Policies

Racial, other social concerns aired during impromptu meeting with VP

Students+voiced+their+concerns+to+University+Vice+President%2C+Joseph+Oliva.
Students voiced their concerns to University Vice President, Joseph Oliva.

Students voiced their concerns to University Vice President, Joseph Oliva.

TORCH PHOTO/ARIANA ORTIZ

TORCH PHOTO/ARIANA ORTIZ

Students voiced their concerns to University Vice President, Joseph Oliva.

Ariana Ortiz, Co-News Editor

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More than 40 students gathered at DAC on Nov. 16 to protest what they say is the University’s indifference toward the needs of its marginalized students, including students of color, LGBT and disabled students.

The demonstration ended with an impromptu meeting that lasted over an hour inside the Newman Hall office of Joseph Oliva, the University’s vice president for administration, secretary and general counsel.

Oliva, standing behind his desk, listened to the concerns of the students. In a statement to the Torch afterward, he said the administration “welcomes and embraces the opportunity to work with all of our students and the broader University community on both initiatives already underway and new ideas and approaches to creating an inclusive campus climate.”

The demonstration was headed by Students of Consciousness (SoC), a student-led organization that describes itself on its website as “a collective body of students, faculty, and alumni demanding change for marginalized groups at St. John’s University.”

“We are gathered here today to protest…We are gathered here today because black, brown and [LGBT] lives matter,” protesters chanted in front of DAC. “We are gathered here because St. John’s does not value black, brown and [LGBT] lives.”

Demonstrators began by chanting outside of D’Angelo Center, then continued through its lobby and living room where a Commuter’s Day event was being held. Most Commuter’s Day participants watched the demonstrators as they chanted while others joined in.

The group, some of whom held signs that read “Dismantle white supremacy in our classroom & SJU community” and “Market diversity, hire diversity,” then attempted to initiate a meeting with President Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw at his Newman Hall office.

While the group was not permitted to enter Gempesaw’s office—they were told he was in a meeting—they were instead invited to speak with Oliva in his Newman Hall office.

The meeting with Oliva consisted of about two dozen students, most of whom also participated in the demonstration, voicing their personal experiences at the University, grievances and demands. Other participants stood by to watch and listen.

Students voiced concerns to Oliva about issues including:

  • their view of the University’s failure to hire qualified people of color in faculty positions;
  • low retention and tenure rates for students and faculty of color;
  • the complicated procedure of reporting incidents such as racist comments from professors and peers;
  • the University’s celebration of Columbus Day and lack of any celebration for National Native American Heritage Month, which is the month of November;
  • experiences with Public Safety where students believed they were treated negatively because of their race;
  • increasing accessibility on campus for disabled students.

A video of the meeting will be posted on the Torch’s website within the week.

“The meeting was a good opportunity to hear directly from students about ways we can create a more inclusive university environment,” Oliva said. “Addressing issues of equity and inclusivity are a priority of the entire University community.”

Liberal Arts Faculty Council Meeting, Lack of Faculty Diversity

The demonstration took place two days after members of Students of Consciousness were dismayed by what SoC leaders called racist comments and pushback they say they experienced at the Liberal Arts Faculty Council Meeting on Nov. 14.

On Nov. 15, a day after that meeting, SoC released a statement on their Instagram page that described how senior Kenneth Shelton gave a speech on behalf of SoC that focused on how the University’s faculty does not reflect the diversity that exists within the student body.

Shelton “spoke on behalf of the Black students at St. John’s campus as Black and Brown students are confronted with racism in the classroom through remarks and micro-aggressions committed by other students and professors,” according to the SoC statement.

Shelton said in an interview with the Torch that he also mentioned in his speech that he has been disappointed by what he describes as a lack of follow-through regarding diversity and equity for marginalized students. He said he requested that faculty members who are not willing to help create a diverse space for students resign. He offered to help draft resignation letters.

Shelton said his speech was met with verbal pushback from some of the faculty present. He said he felt faculty members there “were more upset about that remark than upset that the problem exists in the first place.”

According to the SoC statement, a tense exchange followed between black students and a white faculty member about racism.

Oliva, during the impromptu meeting with student demonstrators in his office, said, “I did hear about the comments that were made at the faculty council meeting. And we do not support those comments, and I mean that.”

SGI Meeting Community Dialogue

Shelton and fellow SoC leader Kimberly Balderas spoke during the newly implemented “campus dialogue” portion of SGI’s Nov. 27 meeting in which they accused SGI’s e-board of being out of touch with the needs of the student body and suggested that they improve their communication methods to better represent all students.  

Balderas was motivated to attend this hearing because she was bothered by the previous SGI meeting where students attempted to discuss the issue of recognizing Columbus Day. She said representatives cut the discussion short and were not being receptive to student feedback.

“I was very upset because they didn’t care to hear what other students had to say, and they’re supposed to represent us,” Balderas said.

Balderas spoke about how she takes issue with SGI’s current approach and said class representatives do not know the needs of their respective classes as well as they should.

“I said that SGI is supposed to represent the student body, they’re elected to e-board positions…[they] have to work as a community and with the community, because at the end of that day, that’s who [they] have to respond to,” Balderas said. “And basically…the room of faces, they were so uninterested. Some people were, but they weren’t really engaged, they didn’t get it.”

Shelton, who was involved with SGI as a class representative and research and development committee co-chair until his junior year, said he agrees with Balderas that SGI leaders need to be in better touch with the needs of students.

“I think the culture of SGI needs to change, in which it shouldn’t take a community dialogue in the first place for people who are elected to represent people to understand what’s going on,” Shelton said.

In response, SGI President Frank Obermeyer said, “we are always willing to look for ways that our representatives can better serve as advocates. The first step in that advocacy comes from us engaging with our constituents.”

He said the fact that these students addressed SGI representatives as part of the new open dialogue feature shows SGI’s willingness to evolve. “All students are welcome to speak as the first item on our agenda each meeting,” Obermeyer said, referring to the new feature.

“SGI is committed to increasing our engagement with the student body so that we can better advocate for and empower them,” he added. “I encourage students to stay tuned for our surveys and take advantage of our office in DAC 215.”

‘It’s a community project’

Shelton, in his speech at the faculty meeting, touched on a point that—in retrospect—perhaps almost everyone could agree with: that everyone at St. John’s needs to be on the same page with regards to such significant issues.

“It’s a community project,” he said in the interview with the Torch, “not us against [faculty]… it should be us working with them in certain capacities.”

Oliva made it clear to the students in his office that he agrees.

“If you’re an employee of St. John’s,” Oliva said, “whether you’re a faculty member, administrator, staff, and you don’t support our mission—and that mission includes a mission of diversity, and a mission of love and respect, and to do all those things—then you don’t belong here.

“We are committed to that, and we will work with you to root out the issues.”

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