Students demand ability to select roommate based on race during days-long sit-in

Syracuse Students are demanding an option for selecting same race roommates in student housing, along with other demands.

Students are occupying a campus building until these demands are met.

The Chancellor at Syracuse University has stated that he will actively work with a group of students who have issued several demands meant to address a racism issue at the school, including the institution of a new policy that would require students be offered an option to choose that their roommate share the same race.

The demand to allow “students of color” to elect not to room with students of other races was one of several such demands issued by a group of protesting students who aired their concerns about racism on campus during an ongoing sit-in. Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud spoke at the sit-in in a live-streamed exchange.

Calling themselves “#NotAgainSU,” this group of protestors is calling for the chancellor to resign if he does not sign a document conceding to the list of demands by Wednesday. Even before the given deadline, over 1,000 protesters have already petitioned for his resignation online.

“The general consensus is that black students, and we’re talking specifically on behalf of Black students, may feel safer and better rooming with other Black students rather than saying the same race has an implementation of a profile system or a portal system. That includes interests as well as race,” a representative of the student protesters said during the meeting.

Chancellor Syverud responded, saying he spoke with students and learned that they had “good reason to fear” roommates who “harbor views of racism.” He stopped short of agreeing to the demand, however, saying that he is having housing experts look into it.

[RELATED: “Syracuse University opens $5 million social justice center”]

“I am trying to learn about how the roommate process works at Syracuse and how it can work better. I haven’t had much time to work on this one so I don’t know,” Syverud responded. “All I can do at this point on this one [demand] is say I’ve heard the concern and I validate it. It seems to me, we could improve the process on roommate selection. We need the experts on it to also work on the details so there aren’t unintended consequences.”

Syracuse University students increased their list of demands after racist graffiti was found in a student dormitory on Nov. 7. The following week, more racist graffiti was found in the campus physics building, along with two swastikas found elsewhere, and an anonymous email sent to Student Association members justifying the incidents.

The university also recently announced their suspension of all social activities within Greek Life for the rest of the semester, after some members of a fraternity hurled a “verbal racial epithet” at an African American Student. Other reports have surfaced of people using racist slurs against individual students. 

Among the additional demands is the insistence that the university change its anti-harassment policy to a zero-tolerance policy for “hate speech.” Syverud told the crowd of protestors that he has spoken with people who believe there is a “hazy, unclear line between free speech and hate speech,” and that he is not going to take a position on this policy at the moment. 

Students are also demanding that the university spend $1 million on the creation of a “unified, required curriculum that educates students on diversity issues, specifically anti-racism.” Syverud has already agreed to this demand, stating his belief is that “required staffers and planning are not going to be under $1million.”

The university already spent $5 million on a social justice center in 2018. 

The protesters are also calling on the university to institute a clause in all new contracts with faculty and staff that mandates diversity training with “new diversity hires,” and for a student-led reform of an existing mandatory diversity course for first-year students.

“When I received this one, I asked a lot of questions about the status of SEM 100 reform,” Syverud said. 

He plans to discuss this demand with the university senate next week and says he is “committed to making those conversations happen.”

[RELATED: “Syracuse U Mandatory diversity course ‘didn’t hit the mark”]

The student representative who spoke about allowing Black students the option of selecting their roommates by race offered an explanation of the reasoning behind the demand.

“We want to advocate for this portal … and people have the option to, whether you self identify as whatever you self identify with, you have the option to pick someone who could be the same ethnicity, has the same interests as you, has the same race as you. We want it to be an option. So changing that rhetoric, we don’t advocate for same race, we’re advocating for a safer environment for Black students to feel like they are safe to be Black,” he said.

The “#NotAgainSU” organizers recently added yet another demand, this one insisting that the university grant immunity for all students participating in the campus sit-in protest. “We are referring to possible sanctions for violation of conduct,” a representative of the group said. “We were told that certain sanctions were going to be carried out...There’s a threat of it possibly being carried out if we stay here.” 

The students have occupied Syracuse University’s Barns Center since Nov. 13. They plan to remain in the building all day and night until Wednesday. 

“Participation in a peaceful protest given the events that have happened and the dialogue that needs to continue should not be subject to any discipline,” said Chancellor Syverud. 

The protestors enjoyed a visit from an emotional support dog and were provided with pizza by the university. Someone even brought toy blocks for students to play with. Protesters continue to shout-down university administrators when they try to field their questions. 

“Let’s talk about spending $23,000 to have Sean Spicer come here,” one student yelled, referring to the university funding the College Republicans’ hosting Sean Spicer this coming spring. “That’s gonna make me uncomfortable.” 

“This university has stolen my mental health,” she added. “You want me to pay full tuition that those white students are paying, for what? For a university that stole my mental health? I hate it here.” 

Another student yelled “I hate it here,” and protesters joined him in chanting these words.

“My girlfriend could tell you how many times I sat down and cried in her f*cking arms,” he shouted. 

A third student sitting in the crowd complained that she was supposed to be taught a course on “Critical Whiteness,” but that “all [her] white professor did was make microaggressions to [her].” 

Numerous public officials visited the campus sit-in, including Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, New York State Senator Rachel May, NYS Assemblyman William Magnarelli and NY-24 Democratic Congressional Candidate Dana Balter, who is also a professor at the university. Different musical groups on campus are performing dances and sing-alongs at the protest, and a Black Lives Matter group came to host a teach-in.

The university’s Student Association issued a statement encouraging the sit-in.

“Once our demands have been met, our protest will cease. Until then, our protest will proceed indefinitely.” 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Justine_Brooke