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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Syracuse University Scandal

In the last week multiple people have asked me to comment about the scandal at Syracuse University.   I have refrained from writing about the shocking videos released by Syracuse University Daily Orange--the student newspaper. For those unfamiliar with what has happened, two videos of the engineering fraternity Theta Tau were exposed that depict intersectional bigotry.  The crass and offensive behavior in the first video did not surprise me. The homophobia, racism and dehumanizing behavior depicted behind closed doors is indicative of the unwelcoming social environment on campus. During my three year tenure at Syracuse University I was made to feel deeply uncomfortable (any reasonable accommodations requested were met with stiff resistance and extended delays). When I left the university I simply I could not tolerate the hostility directed to people with a disability and other minority groups on campus. The social and intellectual environment was toxic. 

The first video exposed was without question horrific. However it was the second video that has prompted me to write because it was far worse than the first. I refuse to embed the video in this post. It is too upsetting and vile. Since its release I have had nightmares every night and do not want to risk hurting others. However, I will provide a link to a Washington Post news report on You Tube. Be forewarned, the video is triggering and displays hatred under the guise of "humor" and I can only presume a "boys will be boys" attitude. Link:    

To date, the university is doing it's best to handle this crisis. I have no doubt a crisis team has been formed and Chancellor Syverud has tried to address the repercussions and the national press it has garnered. Nothing Syverud has publicly stated has impressed me. I am not sure anything the man says or does can help the situation. I have followed this story as closely as possible and only two people have offered true insight--Diane Wiener (Director of the Disability Cultural Center) and Stephen Kuusisto (professor and poet). In response to the scandal, Wiener eloquently wrote: 

At Syracuse University, and in the City of Syracuse, we have a proud and long history of disability rights being at the heart of political work. In what is an anathema to all that disability activists have striven for at Syracuse and elsewhere, Theta Tau’s video is not only a representation that demeans, dehumanizes and objectifies disabled people, it does so by utilizing toxic masculinity, homophobia, racism and other forms of systemic oppression and violence to accomplish its strategy, hiding behind the false narrative of “humor,” and “boys will be boys.”
Disabled people are not to be pitied; disability is not a devastation that needs to be cured and about which triumph and shame are the necessary or desired aims and outcomes. Yes, some individuals are ashamed of their disabilities, and others would just rather live differently. Some people do not want to be known as disabled, or might prefer only to be called Joe, who happens to have a disability, but disability is not the entirety, let alone the center of Joe’s life. There is no monolithic disability perspective or experience. Some would assert that shame and stigma around disability reflect internalized oppression, highly understandable in a world that was and remains often not built or shaped for us, the same world that has often feared, ignored, dismissed and even, in some cases, killed us.
Disability identity is comprised of a nuanced and variegated set of realities, existing always within and enhancing the workplace, interpersonal relationships, scientific discovery, arts and culture and, of course, the university, among other spaces and landscapes, geographic, political, social, virtual.
Rape culture and locker room talk will never be tolerated at Syracuse University. Ableism and other forms of interlaced oppressions must be denounced and undermined.
We have a lot of collaborative work to do. And, we will continue the labor.
I am not sure how effective Wiener's words will be. The labor as she puts it to me is overwhelming and depressing nearly thirty years post ADA. Yet, the sort of hatred spewed by members of Theta Tau's are something people with a disability deal with on a daily basis. I know this to be true because  Syracuse students sought me out on a regular basis. They told me of university wide failures to provide the most basic accommodations. Stories of harassment abounded. I too was harassed on campus and on the streets of Syracuse. When I walked to the bus stop my last year in the city it was not uncommon to be called a "retard" by strangers and mocked.

Who is to blame for the scandal? Not the many fine people I know who still work at Syracuse University.  Today Stephen Kuusisto wrote that the Theta Tau videos were a "wake up call". Here Kuusisto is being polite in the extreme.

This morning walking my guide dog I thought “maybe a more representative motto for the university should be “Buildings Over People” as opposed to our current motto “knowledge crowns those who seek her”?” We’re great at putting up buildings that show us in the best light. We have “Ernie Davis Hall” but guess what? Ernie Davis’s developmentally disabled son was rejected from SU. We have a multi-million dollar Institute for Veterans and Military Families going up on the site of the former Disability Studies Program’s building. We dispersed the disability faculty across campus without a place to meet. Meanwhile veteran-students have related to me their disappointment at SU, remarking that the campus is an unwelcoming place. This is what I think is most central to our dilemma and which only the Board of Trustees can address: SU is not and I repeat “not” a welcoming institution for veterans, the disabled, people of color, LGBTQ students and staff, foreign students, women, it’s a long list. Link:

The list is indeed long and I would add depressing. Syracuse is a grim decaying city in the grips of poverty and despair. As the city crumbles, Syracuse University builds beautiful building for beautiful people. Cripples need not apply. People of color need not apply. LGBTQ students need not apply. Any person who is in some way different is not welcome and their presence will begrudgingly be tolerated publicly. But behind closed doors at a university that severely struggles with transparency
a radically different narrative emerges. That narrative is dark and ugly. We caught a glimpse of it in the Theta Tau videos. Back to Kuusisto:

Buildings over people is the proper latinate maxim for us. I believe the Trustees bear more than a little responsibility for this situation. So keen are they to cut budgets and put the university on a strict business model management system they’ve forgotten that the buildings don’t mean a thing if the people feel disparaged, maligned, under served, ignored, and of little value.
I’m a disability rights activist among other things and I’ve been asked by students and faculty to weigh in on what’s going on here and I’m trying hard to be measured. Syracuse is a good university with lots of great people. We must reaffirm what’s good here and resist what’s deleterious about our community. We need to do this with brave leadership and a true commitment to change. Buildings and heated sidewalks and underfunded resources in community services and academic programs won’t cut it.
I agree with Kuusisto--Syracuse is a first class educational institution. Many fine people work hard to make the campus a welcoming environment. When I think of Syracuse University I think of people like Diane Wiener, Stephen Kuusisto, Michael Schwartz and others who tirelessly champion the rights of marginalized people. But I also bemoan the way universities are now run. A university is not a for profit enterprise and should not be operated like a business where the bottom line reigns supreme. People like Bruce Harreld have no place running the University of Iowa. Many such businessmen run universities these days much to our detriment. So like Kuusisto, I think the Board of Trustees and the Chancellor bear a great deal of responsibility here. The Theta Tau videos did not emerge from a social vacuum. Campus wide hostility toward marginalized people is a real problem and all the lovely photographs of campus are not going to change that fact. Leadership is required and it is past time for faculty to assert themselves. They are, after all, the people charged with educating the members of Theta Tau. Who knows, perhaps one of the men in the fraternity was in my classroom--a thought that makes me shudder.  

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