Writing Instructor Asks Chancellor Syverud: “Why Are You Here?”

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Open Letter to Chancellor Kent Syverud:

There has been a lot of change in these past thirty years since I arrived on campus as a graduate student, but one thing has not changed:

In one of my classes in 1986, I think it was, I was trying to get my students to see beyond the easy binary of black and white racism, not by acknowledging “shades of gray” as that only honors and maintains the original problematic binary, but by getting them to see a world comprised of people, people whose histories, whose day-to-day existences were nuanced and often, for many if not for all, needlessly encumbered by easy categories that hold them back as individuals. While this is true for all students, the particular consequences of these encumbrances could be very different in scale depending upon the color of one’s skin, the demarcations of gender, etc.. In essence, I required that my students engage in what I considered to be the most important question of our day—the question of how and why we can understand and should respect the ideas and lives of other individuals who may be marginalized and even victimized by collective habits and understandings?

As we began our inquiry on one day in particular, I posed the following question:

Why did you come to Syracuse University?

This was almost thirty years ago. The answer from one young man:

Because it’s a party school.

I know this must resonate. A party school.

When you first arrived, you walked among our students to “get a feel” for campus. I believed then that you really wanted to know what it was like to occupy that space, that intellectual space. But I wonder, did you ever try to reach out to a young woman who was a victim of sexual assault? Did you ever try to navigate the hills and social parameters of campus from the seat of a wheelchair? Did you think about the reasons buildings like Whitman and Newhouse (both 1 and II) secure the geographic and metaphoric spaces on the hill in relation to buildings that house African American Studies? Or Native American Studies? It’s not that you would change the geographies of our campus, but that you would understand them at the level necessary to make appropriate and democratic choices for all.

This summer I taught a course in academic writing and I asked students, as they were going to be working together in groups to name themselves. I was amused to find one group named themselves Deers and Bears. I thought of you, and the email I responded to with quite a bit of tongue wedged in my cheek. My response to you was “I’m from New York City so I don’t say Searacuse or Seeracuse. I pronounce it Sieracuse—as in sieve.” I’m sure there are many more pronunciations depending on the speaker and the purpose for the articulation or the geographic region from which the speaker emerges.

But the meaning of the term is more important. And, of course, there is no one thing Syracuse University will mean to all because language itself is a messy business. We will never really erase the “party” brand, nor would we necessarily want to. Syracuse University is, after all (we hope after) a place that promises fun in many forms. But what about that entry of yours into this community will you make serious?

We can use this moment in time, this moment in our common history as it is now being crafted of our students’ works and of our own responses to their work to add to that some nuanced meaning, to say, for example, that

We honor the best in them: their willingness to engage in democratic learning, their willingness to stand up (when they can) for their, for our beliefs, their willingness to show compassion for others who walk or sit among us, and to stand or sit for what they know to be just action.

So I wondered on Wednesday, when I left campus to travel downstate why you had not yet spoken, in your own truest voice, your own most critically alert, gravity packed with the certainty of your own office voice, to what is at the core of the grievances of THE General Body. Why would you not sit with them, roll up your sleeves and ask the more meaningful questions? And then you did. In a brief and dismissive email, you answered. You ended we will do better. And better we now see is to deploy DPS, the university’s legal team and public relations documents that simplify and erase the importance of this movement.

As I asked that student in 1986, I ask you now, Chancellor Syverud (is it Syv, like a sieve?):

Why are you here?

I am really trying to understand. And I know, because I read in their deep, critical descriptions of what it is like to be heard on this campus, that the students who are THE General Body want to know this as well.

In support of THE General Body and in solidarity with their mission, I remain,

Sincerely,

Donna L. Marsh

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