Incident, Protest, Email, Repeat: The Exhausting Cycle of Racism at Colgate

Last fall, someone wrote the N-word on the whiteboard outside a woman of color’s dorm room. Just days earlier, a Twitter account posing as a Colgate employee attacked the student body with horrifyingly racist language. The community was angry and hurting, and we were the team of student journalists tasked with reporting on the events as they unfolded. In trying to capture our campus’ outrage, we realized this story was the culmination of so many other acts of hate at Colgate. We sat in front of a small whiteboard in our office and wrote out a list of previous hate crimes and racial violence, recalling from memory a cycle of racism, outrage, apologies and, always, silence. We knew there was a story to be told in this pattern of racism, and in the wake of current nationwide protests, we know we cannot wait any longer to help tell it. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Every student, alumni, professor and administrator is familiar with “the cycle.” It has become a staple of each semester: it begins with a heinous, racially-driven act of hate that permeates campus through a destructive rumor mill, promptly followed by community outrage, an organized speak-out, a University statement sent via email and then, silence. Over, and over, and over and over again. The cycle is marked by a trail of sit-ins, official University emails and colloquial titles tossed around in campus conversations: a professor’s hateful emails, racist graffiti after Obama’s first election, racist posts on Yik Yak, a club’s leaked GroupMe messages, the glue gun incident, the Chinese New Year graffiti incident, the “It’s Okay to Be White” posters, the Twitter incident, the whiteboard incident and a note slipped under a professor’s door. Students remember the images that circulated following each event, the conversations held in the days after and the initial anger seemingly felt by everyone, but forgotten quickly by most of the white student body in the weeks after. Silence persists and the cycle repeats in a gut-wrenching reassertion that Colgate has once again failed to see its students of color. 

We acknowledge that these are just the sensational events that grab campus and national attention; racist hate and violence is ubiquitous. Racism at Colgate goes far beyond this cycle of events and manifests through everyday aggressions that make people of color feel unsafe in Colgate’s spaces and contribute to campus divisions. Pervasive racism exists in a way that we, five white women, cannot pretend to understand or fully, personally document. 

But what we can do is put it on the record. Below, we’ve compiled a list of racist incidents and community responses on campus since 2001 and attached the appropriate related articles. Racism did not arrive at Colgate in 2001; it existed here when the first brick was laid with 13 men, 13 dollars and 13 prayers in 1819. However, 2001 marked the beginning of the 21st century at Colgate and the beginning of our contemporary conversation about race on campus; the same forms of violence, the same players, the same demands and the same silence. The influence and evidence of the 2001 protests can be seen and felt throughout the two decades of history that follow it. Recognizing the similarities in incidents, demands and responses from 2001 to now is frustrating and disheartening. The demands written by 2001 protestors could have been written yesterday. 

In the fall of 2001, a student emailed Professor of Political Science Barry Shain to ask him, and other professors, to appear on a CUTV show called “Race-ing Times” and participate in a panel discussion on race. In an email, Shain declined to join the panel citing a lack of knowledge on the subject-matter, adding that he thinks students are overly sensitive about race issues and furthermore, minority students receive “undeservedly high grades” and take less rigorous courses than they should. The email quickly made its way around the student body and a town hall meeting was held to discuss the comments made by Shain, which he did not attend. Around the same time, a group of Black male students were verbally assaulted with racist slurs and threats by a group of white males driving by in a car. A sit-in was held a few weeks later in the Admissions Office to address both events, the overall experiences of students of color at Colgate and a list of student demands, to which Shain responded in an interview with the Maroon-News. The full list of demands and corresponding interview with Shain can be found in our list below. Even as his words incited campus-wide controversy and protests large enough to receive attention from the New York Times, Shain doubled-down on his argument that race didn’t matter in Colgate’s educational setting. For example, one of the protest demands asked that the University cancel class on Martin Luther King day and schedule educational workshops instead, to which Shain responded: “Ask for things that matter. Things that shape you: a new writing center, more ancillary services for those who come to Colgate less academically prepared. The workshops on MLK Day were just a bunch of progressive faculty standing up for an hour telling you what you like to hear.” 

As we reported on the string of racist incidents in the fall of 2019, Shain’s discriminatory classroom behavior again became a topic of discussion at the whiteboard speak-out, and the day after, anonymous posters appeared on campus stating: “PROFESSOR SHAIN IS A RACIST GET HIM OFF THIS CAMPUS.” This drew our attention to one protest demand from 2001 that appeared tragically unaddressed when we returned to it in 2019: “Colgate University open another section of POSC 151, which is currently only being taught by Professor Barry Shain.” The demand spoke to the fact that this course was necessary for any Political Science concentrator to graduate. And although other professors taught the POSC 151 between 2001 and 2017, Shain again became the sole professor to offer the class in 2017. Shain will remain the only professor for this course in fall 2020. 

Additionally, Shain was the only professor teaching the Political Science Honors Seminar for the 2019-2020 academic year, the course required if a student wished to graduate with honors in Political Science. He has effectively served as a gatekeeper to the Department of Political Science for nearly twenty years. Any student of color hoping to study Political Science in 2001 had to survive his classroom; in 2020, students of color hoping to seek honors had to measure it against the potential harm of being in that same classroom. Students and alumni reported some of his more recent behavior to justify these claims in interviews on and off record with us. 

We do not mean to imply that Shain and the Department of Political Science are solely responsible for impeding progress on campus or the success of students of color. Shain rather symbolically represents the systems at Colgate impeding true change and the persisting failure of administration to meaningfully respond to the cycle of racist incidents and the needs of students of color.

The Equity Grievance Policy (EGP) exists to hold Colgate community members accountable for discrimination, acts of prejudice or insult or hurt to an individual. It is an unfortunate truth that few incidents of racial harassment and violence get reported for what they are through the EGP process or other avenues, as evidenced in the legally-mandated Annual Security and Fire Safety Report published by the University. The report includes hate crime statistics and information on the EGP complaint process. With only two incidents that meet the university’s classifications for a hate crime reported in the last 10 years (through October 1, 2019, the date of the last public report release and prior to the whiteboard incident that fall), a non-consensual sex act in 2014 and the Chinese New Year graffiti incident, the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report falls short of accurately portraying the reality of racism beyond hate crimes on campus. 

Though Colgate was actually reported to have a comparatively good EGP process in a third-party evaluation of Colgate’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in 2017, the evaluation found that the large community distrust in the EGP process deemed it ineffective. Our interviews have shown a similar skepticism in the EGP process. While the EGP process may be systematically effective, this skepticism represents a lack of faith in the ability to make change in the face of everyday prejudice, reflecting more on how a culture of silence can negate such measures. 

We plotted out the evidence of the cycle back in November 2019. We knew there was a story in it, but we lost it in the following weeks and months, participating in the code of silence essential to the cycle. We feared not having accurate sourcing, incomplete fact-checking and skeptical readership, feared students wouldn’t speak with us on record and above all feared that we would chase the story and never quite catch it. But underlying our ability to stop chasing this story is our own white privilege. We fully acknowledge that our lived experiences don’t include the racism people of color face on our campus every day, and that, as five white women on a predominantly white staff, we have failed the community in not highlighting those experiences more frequently and honestly. 

We will do better. 

We believe there is immense value in documenting conversations about the cycle of racism on Colgate’s campus. Our intention is not to reignite the tense and painful conversations that followed each incident listed, but rather to encourage discussion of the larger pattern. Institutional memory is shortfour years, actuallyand as journalists, we hold a special responsibility to lengthen that memory and disallow the institution from treading water by treating every four years as unique. 

As Colgate students, we cannot disentangle the racist reality of America from the racist reality of our own university. As the nation mourns the brutal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee and countless others, and works to address pervasive systemic racism through improved allyship and activism, we must understand how racism persists in our immediate communities. We must honestly address the Colgate cycle of racism and erasure.

As white women and journalists, we understand that our role is to learn, to listen, to advocate and to work tirelessly to do better. We have access to a platform that allows us to help tell the stories in our community. Going forward, we will better use the Colgate Maroon-News as a platform to do that, and work to make this platform more accessible for you, reader, to tell the stories of your own experiences. 

Resourced timeline of racist incidents and campus responses

2001: Discussion about discriminatory emails from Professor Shain

  • Students, faculty and administrators discuss an email from Professor of Political Science Barry Shain that implies minority students are overly sensitive about race issues, receive “undeservedly high grades” and take less rigorous courses than their white counterparts.

2001: Sit-in regarding Shain’s email and discrimination on campus attracts national attention

  • More than 70 students participate in a sit-in at the Office of Admissions for more than seven hours.
  • Protesters released the following set of demands in the Maroon-News Volume 136 issue 10 on November 9, 2001:
  1. Colgate University open another section of POSC 151 (one of the requirements for Political Science majors), which is currently only being taught by Professor Barry Shain.
  2. Colgate University implement extensive mandatory cultural sensitivity workshops for all professors.
  3. Colgate University implement mandatory cultural sensitivity workshops/classes for all Colgate students.
  4. Colgate University conduct a re-evaluation of those professors on tenure track.
  5. a) Colgate University become more aggressive in recruiting professors of color that will likely be [placed] on tenure track. b) Colgate University make Colgate more appealing to prospective professors of color.
  6. a) Colgate University diversify the student body socioeconomically and racially. b) Colgate University keep us informed of what actions it is taking to actively pursue a more diverse Colgate population.
  7. Colgate University address the racial incidents that have occurred at Colgate in a written and oral apology to the entire campus (and not just students of color). 
  8. Colgate University acknowledge Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by cancelling classes and making the planned workshops mandatory for all Colgate students.
  9. Colgate University actively recruit non-athlete males of color.

2002: Interview with Shain

  • In an interview with the Maroon-News in 2002, Shain explained his life story, which included multiple inflammatory comments about the LGBTQ+ community, women and the student body. He also said the students protesting asked for the wrong things and that the annual MLK celebrations and workshops were a place for professors to hear themselves talk.

2008: Racist graffiti found around campus after Former President Barack Obama’s election:

  • Custodians found racist messages around campus in the days following Obama’s 2008 election. Campus Safety investigated incidents and community members responded with an open Senate meeting that drew more than 100 community members.

2012: ALANA Affairs Board Report makes suggestions to the President

  • The board proposes short and long-term goals to promote diversity and inclusion on campus, resulting in a new policy, the appointment of an Associate Provost for Equity and Diversity and the creation of an equity and diversity leadership team on campus. 

2014: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest

  • Community members participate in the national “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protests in response to the police murder of Michael Brown.

2014: “Colgate for All” sit-in and subsequent Racist Yik Yak Posts receive national attention

2016: Racist messages in the Colgate College Republicans GroupMe circulate around campus

  • Following President Donald Trump’s election, derogatory messages from the Colgate College Republicans’ GroupMe leak and circulate on social media. The messages discuss ways to antagonize women on campus. 

2016: 24 articles titled “Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community” published in the Maroon-News 

  • Black Colgate community members discuss their personal experiences with law enforcement and other community members respond to police brutality in a series of Commentary articles in the Maroon-News.
  • Article 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 

2017: Glue gun incident receives national attention

2016-2017: Torches removed from Torchlight ceremony after Charlottesville violence

2016-2017: DEI Study results

  • Colgate hires a third-party firm, IBIS Consulting Group and Creative Diversity Solutions, to generate qualitative data about the status of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Colgate.
  • The study found, among other things, that the hiring, supporting and retention of faculty of color needs improvement, DEI initiatives need more accountability, the tenure process is inequitable, and recruitment, support and social spaces for students of color need improvement.
  • The study proposes a three-year plan for DEI improvement, recommending an “integrated, sustained, proactive and centralized approach to DEI, strategically initiated by leadership.”

2018: It’s Okay to be White posters

  • Anonymous posters reading “It’s Okay to Be White,” a slogan adopted by white supremacists, appear in campus buildings and are torn down by community members.
  • The same posters appear around the same time on numerous other campuses as part of a trolling campaign to “trigger the left.”

2018: Inclusive Colgate Blueprints 

  • Inclusive Colgate, a student-run initiative, outlines its recommendations for faculty, staff, students and administrators presented at an open forum and opens an anonymous survey for feedback.
  • Blueprint includes EGP improvements, student, faculty and staff training, academic changes and building support for students, faculty and staff of color.

2018: Chinese New year decoration graffitti

  • A racist message written on a decoration for Chinese New Year is found on two students’ door, launching a Campus Safety investigation launched and prompting a University response.

2019: Twitter incident

  • A Twitter account posing as a Case Library staff member posted derogatory messages including racial slurs. 

2019: 100 Colgate Students of Color Video Project

  • A student video project highlighting the campus experience of students of color circulates around the student body.

2019: Whiteboard Incident and speakout

  • Russell House suite residents find a racial slur directed at one of the residents of color written on their whiteboard outside their door. A photo of the whiteboard’s message and the targeted student’s response circulates on social media.
  • The Student Government Association hosts a speakout for community members to voice their frustration and respond to the incident.
  • A campus safety investigation later found a potential suspect in the wake of the incident. Penalty or conclusion to the investigation are not communicated to the community. 
  • University emails in response to the incident, both detailing the investigation and responding to the event itself.  (Second and third on document)

2019: Colgate releases DEI plan:

  • The University releases its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan as part of its Third-Century plan. The plan outlines the short-term initiatives that will be taken, including creating DEI staff and infrastructure and annually evaluating every department for their DEI efforts. 
  • The Maroon-News’s coverage of the plan’s release.

2020: Note to professor:

  • Faculty member finds a note slipped under her office door with a racial slur targeting her research work in Central Africa.
  • The University email sent to the Colgate community in response to the incident (first on document).

Non-dated, large-scale articles, testimonials, etc:

Discussion on sit-ins “then and now” comparing Colgate activism of 2014 and 1968: 

  • Response to the lecture from an organizer, addressing student concerns that the alumni had belittled recent protest efforts. 

Website with testimonials about Greek life at Colgate:

Colgate demographics, as reported by the school:

  • The most recent statistics on the website are from the 2016-2017 school year.
  • The undergraduate student body is 67.8 percent white and 5.2 percent Black/African American.
  • Full-time faculty members are 74.7 percent white and 5.7 percent Black/African American.

Admissions called out in Huffington Post article:

  • Article from The Huffington Post calls out Colgate one of the 38 colleges that admits more students from the top one percent than the bottom 60 percent over the last two decades.  
  • Maroon-News coverage of the article. 

University responses to incidents of racism and racial bias

  • This document contains the university email communications to the Colgate community responding to incidents since the fall of 2016