By: Ali Feldhausen
By now, a good portion of the student body has read the letter about the SIPASA president’s conduct during budget presentations. Many students have expressed dismay that an elected student would lack such a basic understanding of identity groups’ importance on our campus. They were amazed at how she failed to recognize that her actions replicated, on a small scale, how stringent budgetary measures have been for decades used as a “color-blind” methodology for discrimination. Many more students, unfortunately, were not.
Part of this lack of astonishment stems from the fact that her actions reflect the same misgivings of the institution we elected her to represent. We have framed these recent failings as the individual problems of one person, when she is the product of a system. A system that reverberates through the policies of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) through the faces of the staff (though, the school will be quick to point out that minorities make up 22% of tenured staff), the curriculum (Put “race,” “ethnicity,” or “diversity” in the search box. Alternatively, try “tech” or “finance.”), and a tuition so exorbitant it continues to exclude most of those that have no family support. In other words, if SIPA is the benchmark for understanding the nuances of race and diversity, the school falls remarkably short.
This criticism of the institution and the lack of student awareness is not a new discussion. Last year, Sarah Hong published an infographic looking at the results of a Race and SIPA Survey (see below for full results), and The Morningside Post hosted a panel event with SIPA Students of Color (SSOC) about the experiences of black students at SIPA. While it may seem like a longstanding organization at this point, the SIPA Diversity Coalition was only started a few years back. Last year, it expanded to include additional organizations when a group of dedicated students decided there was a real need to bring together more identity politics groups together in this.
Having known some of the students from ‘17 (and ‘16), I am sure the year before and the one before that were also engaged in this discussion. However, our student institutional memory only goes back so far, so we are kept in this continuous loop of realizing SIPA is problematic, expelling all this energy to fix it, and then graduating. This most recent incident with SIPASA and the student body reaction is one more piece along the timeline of a school which fails to meaningful address it has a race problem.
However, the SIPA administration is not a monolith. There are members of this body who have been working overtime to make these problems known and have tried to make institutional changes. Notably, Dean Shapses has worked hard to promote thoughtful discussions through the SIPA Diversity Committee (different from the Diversity Coalition) and developed identity workshops to be incorporated into orientation. Professor Christina Greer teaches the only course at SIPA dedicated to race, and professors, like Alan Yang among others, make a concerted effort to incorporate race, gender, sexuality, and income inequality into their lessons.
But this is the problem, this shouldn’t be addressed by just a few individuals working extra hard, and it should not be seen as just the fault of a specific person. It should also not be seen as something that minority students at SIPA or those that are experiencing discrimination should be called on to fix. This is an issue that the entire student body should be part of rectifying, because it is only through this kind of pressure that the SIPA administration as a whole will feel compelled to change. This is the only way to break the loop.
What would that look like? Well, first off, it could look like an email to the Office of Academic Affairs (firstname.lastname@example.org) explaining that you would like more classes on race and policy and that you want professors who understand the ways in which race and racism affect policy formation. You could point out the lack of diversity among professors; SIPA staff should reflect the same diversity that we would hope to have in the student body. You could also reach out to Dean Shapses (email@example.com) asking how you could best support her work. Lastly, you could call on more need based scholarships, so that SIPA can accept the best and brightest not the best and brightest *with money. If none of those suggestions are your thing, then do something different. Because in the end, inaction is also an expression of an opinion. It shows those in power that the status quo is acceptable, and that you are satisfied. By doing nothing, you are part of the problem.
To return to the letter, as a student body, we love to revel in other people’s flaws and point out how we are better. However, the reality is that unless we are actively taking steps to improve our community and change SIPA’s shameful lack of awareness around race and intersectionality than we can claim no moral high ground. This also includes what kind of behavior we accept from our student leadership. While I believe that providing space for growth is important, I also think that we must think critically about when we allow for certain actions to be forgivable and when we believe they are so egregious it shows the student body and the SIPASA government in a negative light. This is not an answer, but it is a serious a question.
Action or inaction about our current leadership, we are sending a message about our values. Let us not forget that we are part of something bigger, and furthermore, give us strength to recognize that although we are individuals, we are also part of a system and an institution that will not change until we demand it do so.