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Campus holds difficult conversation on art, trauma, growth

From left: Jason Young, professor of history, speaks at the forum. Others serving on the panel were Sue Green, co-director of the Center for Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care; Barbara Ricotta, associate vice president for student affairs; Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion; and James Jarvis, associate university council. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published September 24, 2015

The UB community came together last night to hold an uncomfortable, yet vital conversation about the controversial art project that suddenly appeared on campus last week.

The open forum, spearheaded by the Black Student Union (BSU) and undergraduate Student Association (SA), provided students, faculty, staff and members of the Buffalo community an opportunity to discuss the trauma experienced by students, the history of segregation signage, and academic and artistic freedom.

“Tonight, we’re going to have a difficult conversation,” said Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion and one of the night’s panelists. “Every day, in our many classrooms, our faculty lead engaging discussions about difficult, uncomfortable issues in a manner that dignifies all voices.

“And this is great,” she continued, “because if these kinds of conversations can’t happen at colleges and universities, they’re a lot less likely to happen as people get older.”

A few days before the forum, President Satish K.  Tripathi met with leaders from the BSU, SA and other associations of students of color to offer his support. Although he was away on business the night of the forum, he said he feels strongly that continuing to discuss this issue is critical for the entire university community.

“I know that so many in our UB community continue to feel deeply hurt, saddened, confused and angered by the events of the past week,” he said.

“I feel strongly that continuing to discuss this issue is critical for our entire university community. Exploring difficult, even painful topics from diverse points of view is part of what we do as an academic community. At the same time, it is absolutely critical that we do so in a safe, inclusive and welcoming environment in which all our members feel respected, valued and heard," he said.

“Throughout this ongoing dialogue, I have been deeply impressed by the leadership role that many of our student groups are taking — working in active engagement with the university administration — to move  this campus conversation forward in a constructive way.”

The forum, held in Norton Hall, was facilitated by Deidree Golbourne (left), BSU vice president. With Golbourne at the podium is Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

The forum, held in Norton Hall, was facilitated by Deidree Golbourne, BSU vice president. Other panelists included Sue Green, co-director of the Center for Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care; Jason Young, professor of history; Jim Jarvis, associate university council; and Barbara Ricotta, associate vice president for student affairs.

As part of a class project — developed for the graduate course “Installation: Urban Space” (Art 562) offered by the Department of Art — student Ashley Powell posted several signs reading “White Only” and “Black Only” last Wednesday outside bathrooms and above drinking fountains on the North Campus. The signs were immediately removed by University Police and members of the university community.

Reactions to the art project ranged from discomfort and anger to confusion and disbelief. Throughout last night’s forum, students shared their reactions to the signs and related university response, discussed campus diversity and offered recommendations for “moving the university forward.”

For several students who spoke at the forum, the art project led them to not only question their personal safety, but their place at the university.

“At first, I didn’t know the intent of this art project, but my first reaction was that I literally can’t walk to class because I don’t know who put that up,” said Tiffany Vera.

“When I was told of the details and what occurred, it seemed as though it must have been a lie. That it simply couldn’t have happened,” said Jason Caldwell. “We’re still fighting the war on racism, but it’s supposed to be a more subtle battle; this kind of overt racism is not supposed to exist anymore. So seeing this being used under the guise of highlighting the need for progress felt incredulous.”

Some students indicated they did view the signs as a form of art.

Attendees at the forum filled the auditorium in 112 Norton. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

“Art can be perceived in many different ways; it is my belief that art has no boundaries,” said one student. “Art is supposed to stimulate something in the mind. And we’re asking this question whether it was art or a social experiment. I say it doesn’t matter.”

Miller followed by urging university faculty to take into account their students’ past experiences, particularly those that are traumatic, and its effect on their education.

“I hope as we talk more about these issues that we can think about how to increase campus dialogues so that our diverse students are more educated about each other’s lives, and that our faculty and professional staff understand who it is that is coming to campus and their lived experiences,” she said.

While several students acknowledged that change would not occur overnight, many applauded the responses from panelists and commentators that called for an increased focus on diversity at UB.

Diversity training for all university faculty and staff was one of several discussed outcomes from the forum.

Ricotta also announced the introduction of a student of color advisory committee for the University Police that would meet monthly — beginning in October — to help campus officers learn about students’ past experiences with police officers in their hometowns and on campus, and discuss ways to make sure students of color feel safe.

Several students shared their intentions to reinstate a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter at UB as well.

Micah Oliver, BSU president, closed the forum with a call to continue the momentum created during Wednesday’s dialogue: “Conversations cannot end here,” he said.

READER COMMENTS

Nice job reporting on the meeting. I hope the student got an "A" for the project; it certainly evoked a wide-ranging response.

 

Richard Gronostajski

It is unfortunate that 31 years after my bad experience as a black graduate student at UB, black students still do not feel welcome at that campus.

 

Diversity training for all university faculty and staff is overdue. My research adviser told me to go back to Africa where I would be a king with a master's degree from an American university, which shows how little he knows about Africa.

 

Chris Onyeso, MA Chemistry '85

Obviously there is a history of racism against blacks in America, but why wouldn't whites feel just as threatened by these signs as blacks? They also excluded whites from drinking from the "black-only" fountains.

 

What would be the reaction of the university to a White Student Union?

 

Let's stop all forms of race exclusion.

 

William Reid