Letter to the Editor: Actions Baruch College should Take to uphold commitment to diversity



Marcus Johnson, Assistant Professor of Political Science

As I pen this letter, I do so with what feels like an impossible mix of contradictory emotions.

I am still reflecting on Teona Pagan’s open letter to the college administration, published just a week ago. I share her sense of exasperation with the macabre ritual of black death. And yet, I am inspired by the clarity of her message and the example that she set for our students and faculty.

I am still afraid for my black life and the lives of my black and brown friends, family and students, but I am also emboldened by the roaring current of the global anti-racist uprising.

I am made hopeful by the Minneapolis City Council’s declaration that it will disband the city’s police department to pursue alternative forms for public safety. But I feel guilty for my optimism, because it comes at the price of Breonna Taylor’s life, George Floyd’s life, David McAtee’s life, Nina Pop’s life, Ahmaud Arbery’s life, Akai Gurley’s life, Sandra Bland’s life, Korryn Gaines’ life, Tamir Rice’s life… and death has no meaning for each of these victims of racial violence. They don’t get restitution or freedom. They don’t get their lives back.

Pagan urged Baruch, “[a]s an institution… [to] exert pressure wherever we can fight for justice and change.” As a full-time member of the Baruch faculty, I feel compelled to do my part in this pressure campaign. In this letter I want to reiterate Pagan’s list of demands drawing special attention to three of them. In addition, I hope to add a proposal of my own on how Baruch and CUNY can demonstrate its commitment to racial justice.

If you are a member of the Baruch Community and you have not read Pagan’s letter, I urge you to do so. Each one of her points are valid and provide actionable steps that Baruch can take in its commitment to diversity.

First, I want to emphasize her call for Baruch to cease partnerships with the NYPD. There is a growing list of BIPOC student-lead campaigns across the city —including at different CUNY campuses and the country that are pressuring their universities to end their cooperation with local police departments. In fact, before the Minneapolis City Council made its historic declaration, it was first pressure from students that led the University of Minnesota to scale back its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. This type of change is possible to achieve and there are templates that Baruch can follow to make this happen.

Second, I fully support Pagan’s call to diversify Baruch’s full-time faculty. Baruch has taken an important step by appointing David Wu as president. He will be the first Asian American president of a CUNY college. But there is so much more work to be done to bring meaningful diversity to Baruch. Many students complete their major requirements without taking a single class taught by a faculty member of color. If they have, the odds are that the faculty member was an adjunct— paid less for their work, without benefits, but with the same expectations for their teaching that full time faculty face. If Baruch is truly committed to its “diverse student body”, it must redouble its efforts to hire full-time faculty of color. Moreover, the administration must fight to protect the jobs of adjunct faculty, especially adjuncts of color, and provide fair compensation for their labor.

Third, it is important that Baruch continues its ongoing efforts to uplift the students, staff and faculty in the Black and Latino Studies Department BLS. The faculty in this department are already contributing to the necessary work to center racial justice as a lens for pedagogy and scholarship. This current moment shows the critical importance of properly educating the next generation of students on the historical roots and contemporary manifestations of racism in the national and global system if we are to collectively imagine an anti-racist future. BLS must become a central axis to the Baruch-wide curriculum. However, this should not absolve faculty outside of BLS from their responsibility to intentionally incorporate anti-racism into their courses.

The final proposal that I want to make comes from my experience teaching during this past spring semester. Even before, thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the city faced a racial public health crisis. Even before COVID-19 brought the city to a halt, Asian American and immigrant communities had become the target of xenophobic and racist attacks, both verbal and physical. This trend worsened in April and May. At the beginning of April, we learned that the virus was killing Black and Latinx New Yorkers at twice the rate for white New Yorkers. We know this is due to the fact that the City has historically divested in public services in the poorest neighborhoods made up predominantly of people of color. If we take this stark disparity seriously, we might safely assume that the same burden of racism, illness, death and the precarity exacerbated by the outbreak, not to mention the barriers to technological access for fully-online instruction, disproportionately fell on Baruch’s students of color.

The Credit/Non-credit option that CUNY proposed to provide an equitable solution to grading during a pandemic, while understandable, may possibly create unforeseen challenges for the students who choose to take this option. I think now is the right time to ask, who are the students that are choosing this option? Are students of color more likely to opt for the “Flexible Grading Option”? If so, why? We cannot answer these questions without a CUNY-wide commitment to an evidence-based evaluation of the impacts of COVID-19 on students of color and international students — who make up the overwhelming majority of the student body. Furthermore, it is important that CUNY commit to making these results public and rectifying racial disparities in grading, should they emerge. The Baruch administration must put pressure on CUNY to make this happen.

Systemic racism is exactly that; it is a system. That means that disproportionate police violence is linked to economic disparities, which in turn are linked to health disparities, which in turn are linked to overt expressions of racism and hate crimes, which in turn are linked to disparities in educational attainment, and so-on and so-on. CUNY, as a University system, and Baruch, as a widely recognized and celebrated college in that system, must honor its mission to provide “equal access and opportunity for students, faculty and staff from all ethnic and racial groups [, genders, and sexual orientations].” Baruch prides itself on being the national example for public education. It’s time for Baruch to put its money where its mouth is.