A Fresh Perspective: Looking at SUNY New Paltz SA

Dan Pneuman, Columnist

I travelled with friends last Sunday, November 6 to SUNY New Paltz. Sunday night, we joined with their Black Student Union and the many members of their Student Association in their Black Solidarity March. That night, we marched around the campus with dozens of other students, singing and chanting slogans such as “I’m black and I’m proud, say it loud!” This was a cathartic experience for the many students that shared testimonials of racialized experiences, celebrated pride in their cultures, and solidarity with one another.

The reason of Black Solidarity Day is to reaffirm commitment to communities of color, and to show the United States how important Black people are to everyday life in this nation, that in fact it could not function without them. All throughout Monday we joined hundreds of students who took the day off from school to attend a conference off campus. The provost for academics there is completely in support of Black Solidarity programs, and excused anyone who wanted to participate from classes. A number of alumni and administrators joined faculty and staff throughout the conference, hosting sessions, eating meals with students and reaffirming their worth and value to their campus community.

The culture of support for diversity at SUNY New Paltz is very different, both in the administration and in their student association, and Oneonta should take it as an example of what we can strive towards. When New Paltz SA heard Oneonta was there, they embraced us in solidarity and we discussed the successes they have had and offered us support and suggestions. The Vice President from their SA told us that our SA President Evan Englander had announced in a statewide SA conference the weekend prior that our campus was experiencing diversity issues and had asked for support from other SA bodies. The Black Solidarity march and conference were both entirely paid for and supported by their SA, and multicultural student organizations are seen as essential to providing a secure and welcoming environment on campus, so I am told that they have the largest budgets. Their SA is chaired by a majority of students of color, indicating that their SA does a much better job in including all voices. In their constitution, they have created the “Council of Organizations,” a body of student organizations, in which every club’s participation is mandatory, that serves to provide a diversity of thought and multivocality on the issues before their SA and resolutions cannot pass without first going through them. Additionally, their student association has established a University Police Committee that serves to address issues between students and their UPD. The chief of their UPD is required to have worked with students as a member of this committee before being eligible to be promoted to that position, ensuring student voices are heard and a person is deemed qualified by students before reaching that position. These lessons from New Paltz should be well heeded, and offer possible solutions to the many serious problems currently facing students on our campus.

This past week, I also met with the Director of Judicial Affairs, Amanda Kiakis. We had an in depth discussion in which we covered many aspects of rights for students both on campus and off. I have heard so many frustrated students relate to us how they perceived their rights to be violated and their dignity denied. For many of these experiences, the police were never held accountable or never sought an understanding with the student, propagating an environment of mistrust between students and the different authorities in this county. Often, it is a serious incident of malicious intent on the part of an officer. Also just as often, it is the lack of ability for students to advocate for their own rights and misunderstanding.

Our administration tells us everything we can’t do, but little of what we can do in our defense and little of what they do to uphold the respect and dignity they supposedly have for us as their students and how they defend us. While search and seizure rights are listed in the Student Handbook, stating that the officer can only enter a dorm room or apartment without reasonable suspicion of drugs or violence by invitation of that resident or a warrant, this is misunderstood. There is a rife of misunderstanding among residents of the dorms. This misconception that because the college owns the dorms, students have signed away their rights in the res life contract, and the police can enter anytime they want, has caused the abuse or incrimination of more than one student and is a failure of this administration to protect its students. Downtown, it is the perception, with plenty of evidence supporting this, that police enter residences unlawfully and target students of color, far too often. There are plenty of experiences by students in which they feel their academic and personal integrity is denied, experiencing racial condescension by their professors or staff on this campus. Yet while all of this is occurring, students don’t know where to turn and don’t believe their college or student association is there to defend them and hold people accountable. Resources and avenues to seek help are unknown by the majority of students, and are not promoted by our administration and Student Association. Our college holds students accountable for their misconduct on and off campus, but does not adequately defend them in cases where their rights and dignity are denied to them.

This campus is far behind other SUNYs in fostering an inclusive, secure and equitable campus. This administration, in the 19 years since the Blacklist, has failed and many students’ academic careers have been harmed or irreparably damaged because of it. I will be interviewing a prisoner who was assaulted by the city police on this campus and dropped out because the college did not defend him, and susequently lost an opportunity at an education and ended up in prison. I am charging this administration with failing its students. It should hold itself accountable. This administration should do all that it can to work towards addressing these issues. Students will not stand for this anymore.

A Student Bill of Rights, that is ratified by our SA and completely supported by the administration, which clearly explains every students’ rights and the resources and commitments by this administration to uphold their dignity, should be printed on posters and hung in every single student’s dorm room and apartment throughout Oneonta. Everyone should agree that promoting knowledge of students’ rights and affirming the administrations and SA’s respect for them and their dignity is one of many solutions that should be sought. A student taskforce on law enforcement to promote an understanding between police and students, addresses issues of security and that within the coming months hosts a moderated students’ rights forum with the police; Kiakis tells me was very successful when it was done by Greek life a few years ago. A committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion within the Student Association is tasked with keeping their fingers on the pulse of communities of color and bringing issues to the attention of our Student Association, so that communities of color actually are represented by their student association from now on. For the examples from SUNY New Paltz to be seriously considered. Serious action and engagement by our administration to work towards solving our problems. I see no reason why any of this is disagreeable.

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