By Monday evening, when Hunter College President Jennifer Raab released a statement on the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer, protests against police brutality had already gripped New York City, and cities across the United States, for four days.
Yet Raab’s statement, while it denounced racism and Floyd’s death, did not mention the Black Lives Matter movement or the protests in which many Hunter students have been involved, nor did it outline any new actions the college would take to combat racism. “The horrific murder of George Floyd compels us to confront systemic racism through a new and urgent lens,” Raab wrote, including quotes from former president Barack Obama and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Some students didn’t think the statement was enough, and they took their opinions to social media.
On Hunter College’s official Instagram page, more than 400 comments on the account’s most recent post ask some variation of the question, “What are you going to do for your black students?” The Instagram accounts of Hunter’s Undergraduate Student Government and Black Student Union left similar comments.
The trend began when a student, who identified as black but asked not to be named for fear of potential repercussions, left a comment on the post and used social media to encourage his friends to do so as well, and to encourage their own friends to do the same. “Once I was told of the idea, I quickly relayed it to everyone and commented on a few photos,” said rising senior Opeyemi Ojo. “If Hunter College is silent on these issues, then it reads as if they don’t support the movement, which then means they don’t support their black students.”
Among disillusioned students is rising junior Diana Kennedy, who felt so strongly about the matter that she penned an open letter to the college, which she sent to administration on Wednesday morning. “Words of solidarity are hollow if they are not accompanied by concrete action,” Kennedy wrote in a statement that she says was signed by 521 people as of Thursday afternoon. “Praising integrated demographics is not sufficient. Our interests as Black students must be addressed.”
On Kennedy’s list of demands are a statement of solidarity, an end to partnerships between the college and the New York City Police Department, expanded mental health resources for black students, increased support for the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, and increased employment of black professors. Kennedy said she’s currently researching how Hunter can fulfill each demand.
Rising junior Christine Ramiro, who signed Kennedy’s letter, said she agreed with the list of demands, especially the one about increasing mental health resources. She said she’d like to see “a virtual discussion group for black students because we’re dealing with a lot right now.” She pointed out that although other students may also be tired, “sometimes a space for just black bodies to discuss the grief would be nice.” She also expressed a desire for Hunter to employ more counselors.
Rising sophomore Tania Rodgers, who also signed Kennedy’s letter, echoed the need for more professors, advisors and staff of color. “Maybe Hunter could do more or say more to show the support and clearly state that black lives matter instead of generalizing racism,” she added.
Rodgers also thinks a course on black history should be mandatory for all Hunter students, as opposed to students being able to pick from a wide range of classes that fulfill pluralism and diversity requirements. “Black history is American history,” she said.
Referring to the final demand on Kennedy’s list, the employment of black professors, Hunter College dean John Rose said of Kennedy, “She makes the statement without actually knowing what’s going on.” Rose, who is responsible for recruiting diverse faculty, referred to fall 2019 as a successful year for diversity, saying that most new professors hired were from minority groups, and eight black professors were hired full-time.
In fall 2017, the most recent year for which the data are available, 32 out of 471 full-time professors in Hunter’s College of Arts and Sciences were black, and 56 out of 1023 adjunct professors were black. That means about 5.9% of all professors were black. Another 10.6% were Hispanic, 1.1% were multiracial and .7% were nonresident aliens whose races are not recorded. “We are working very hard to make sure that we have a diverse faculty,” Rose said, adding that a diverse group of educators makes for a better academic experience for students.
Asked whether Raab supports Black Lives Matter, the controversial movement that began in 2013 after African-American teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by the police, Rose suggested that students were not interested in this question. “We want to talk about what our students are really interested in,” he said.
Rose said that after her statement on Floyd’s death, Raab received a wide range of letters, some of which expressed thanks. “The president is very much focused on taking perspectives into account,” he said. According to Rose, the president will be reaching out to a number of students, including members of USG, to make sure she understands their concerns. Rose contrasted conversations with students with “the passions” and “emotions” of the present moment.
For its part, USG responded to Floyd’s death on Friday, posting links to support Black Lives Matter and critiques of racism on its Instagram page and other social media. On Wednesday, it released a complete statement. “We are here to hear your voices and opinions,” wrote members of USG’s executive board, addressing black students. “We see the suffering, and while not all of us can understand, we will always stand with you.”