#NotAgainSU: Replacing A Culture of Fear

by Jalen Nash

Fear is a powerful emotion. It compels people to take action, inspires them to move quickly towards a goal, or it can completely paralyze a movement.

In the past ten days, our campus community has slowly fallen into the grips of fear, starting from one incident in Day Hall, to a series of attacks featuring slurs, swastikas, malicious emails and other harmful racial epithets.

When the initial incident took place, many were surprised at the magnitude of the response. “Although the incident was unfortunate,” they said, “it is an isolated incident.” University leaders such as Basketball Coach Jim Boeheim and DPS Chief Bobby Maldonado, chose to ignore the divisive climate which breeds hate, and rather, claimed the problem could be fixed  through faster response times and greater transparency when these events happen. They told us not to worry, and asserted their commitment to keep students safe.

Since these initial promises were made, our campus has progressively gotten more dangerous. 

Students have received multiple bias reports each day-- reporting instances ranging from graffiti, to disturbing emails and verbal attacks. The tally sits at ten since November 7th. This university did not feel like home before, but now it feels like hell

Protesters of the #NotAgainSU movement have been camped out in the Barnes Center since Wednesday afternoon, fighting valiantly for change. They’ve organized a movement which has inspired students, faculty, and the outside world in a remarkable way. 

Handwritten signs decorate the walls of main campus buildings, while the impact of the movement grows by the minute through social media and student journalism. And while many moments in their struggle have been beautiful, these moments of deep joy are often halted by news of another attack.

This is serious. 

What began as a referendum against an unresponsive administration, has slowly become a true struggle for safety, justice, and our belonging to be on our campus. A struggle piqued by fear, complacency, and leadership that consistently fails to place equal value on all student lives. 

The past few years have seen the rebirth of fear as a mainstream tactic. What many see as a pushback to a previous era of social progressivism, today's politicians and business leaders often value profits and public perception over the health, security and experiences of people. This can be seen in the ways they discard, attack or silence people in the name of “progress.”

This culture starts at the top. With a US President who openly condones racism, sexism and xenophobia, instances of hate crimes have skyrocketed within his term. 

Based on data collected by the Anti-Defamation League, counties that have hosted a Trump campaign rally have seen hate crime rates more than double since his visits, compared to similar counties that did not host a rally. Condoned by leadership, most of these hate crimes go unreported and the perpetrators go unaccounted for. The perceived lack of consequences emboldens actors to do it again.

There are clear similarities between these national trends and the actions of the perpetrators of these campus crimes. Both try to use fear tactics as a way to limit the progress of change movements, both use their audacity as a tool to disguise their cowardice, and both are a product of structures which will rarely hold them accountable. 

Formerly the Dean of Washington University’s Law School, Kent Syverud leveraged his experience in advanced litigation to become Chancellor of Syracuse University in 2014. Transferring his legal knowledge into our institutions, Kent Syverud first used his legal knowledge to justify massive budget cuts, staff firings and the closing of important campus resources, like the Advocacy Center. 

Since then, he has repeatedly received the same grievances about his lack of transparency, his uber-industrial focus and his decisions to snub diverse educational opportunities in favor of financial interests. In his vision, backed by the Board of Trustees, to break fundraising records, renovate buildings and attract higher-paying students, he has repeatedly failed to prioritize student life, student safety and the overall health of our on-campus environment. 

This is reflected in a student life culture marked by its separation, intolerance, and veils of secrecy. 

Since taking office, Syverud has presided over numerous incidents: the GENERAL BODY protests, the Theta Tau videos, the attack on Ackerman, the professor at Madrid, and now, the spree of hate crimes that brought the campus to a standstill.

Addressing these issues is not a matter of increased surveillance, more police presence or more transparency. It is not even fully a matter of diversity training or curriculum adjustments.  

Rather, real change must be structural, and acknowledge the role leadership plays in promoting a culture. 

Policies cannot be effective outside of social norms. 

The culture of Syracuse University, much like the culture of the United States, is influenced by a leadership style which puts profits over people, values individual liberty over the common good, and discredits the experiences of marginalized voices. 

The events of the past ten days are NOT random or spontaneous. Rather, they are a consistent byproduct of an environment, cultivated by our leadership, which condones their actions. 

Radical and structural change may be the most reasonable path for us to receive protection and create a healthy campus environment.

These hate crimes will continue as long as the perpetrators believe their actions will go unpunished. Administrators have left the actions of hateful students unpunished for so long, that their credibility to retroactively implement punishment no longer exists.

This university cannot keep us safe because the perpetrators do not fear punishment. The students committing these crimes see it as a joke. They are amused and emboldened by an environment which doesn’t take crimes against people of color seriously. 

That said, the safest path forward is for students to demand new leadership. 

One that clearly defines the line between free speech and hate speech, one that values the student experience over the tuition they pay, and one that is able to keep its students safe. 

Because how can I learn when I am afraid to go to class?