Photo: Brian Zahn/Hearst Connecticut Media
NEW HAVEN — Southern Connecticut State University President Joe Bertolino has repeated his intention to commit the university to the principles and tenets of social justice since being hired about two years ago.
Following an incident at the university last week where Eric Triffin, a white adjunct faculty member allegedly sang an anti-black racial slur in class, the framework of that social justice university is being tested prominently for the first time in Bertolino’s tenure.
Student leaders with SCSU’s Black Student Union held a rally Wednesday afternoon, with about 150 students, faculty and administration marching about half the length of the campus before giving the community a space to air their thoughts, grievances and concerns individually.
“Our students feel comfortable enough to speak up and confront issues head-on,” Bertolino said. “It allows truth to be expressed, and we have all come together to say this is not OK.”
Bertolino reemphasized that the cavalier use of a racial slur is impermissible.
SCSU spokesman Patrick Dilger said the incident remains under investigation and Triffin on paid suspension.
Although Triffin’s alleged use of a racial slur made headlines, locally and nationally, students used the rally to share unseen stories of an often hostile racial campus climate.
Katia Bagwell, a sophomore and vice president of the BSU, said in the year since she transferred from the University of New Haven, she’s encountered three racial incidents, including her work supervisor remarking on the number of black students employed by the school’s library.
“We are all aware a lot of people are unaware of what’s going on,” she said.
Eric Clinton, president of the BSU, said the theme of the march would be solidarity.
“If it happened to you, it happened to me,” he said.
Several individuals who spoke did so representing other campus groups and communities, including Zain Seyan, president of the Muslim Student Association.
“I’m proud of our diversity,” he said, but the communication skills on campus could use work. “We need to do more face-to-face conversations.”
Julie Gagliardi, president of the student government, told the faculty that students need help and support.
Some members of the faculty also spoke on the issue following the march, supporting with students and their safety.
Assistant Professor of History and co-advisor to the BSU Siobhan Carter-David said she knows the black faculty supports students.
“We do not think you should pay for the right of being insulted in class. We have your backs 100 percent,” she said.
Another recurring theme through about one hour of speakers was the need for conversation, no matter how uncomfortable they are.
Justin Farmer, a Hamden city councilman and a part time student at SCSU, said a traditional “jail and bail” fundraiser at the school for several campus organizations was quietly discarded, but there had not been any campus-wide discussion on the reason for its disappearance: its uncomfortable parallels with the prison industrial complex and its intersection with racist policing.
Farmer also said any movement needed to be “intentional” with its work, and the focus during Black History Month should be on the history of radical movements but also the future.
Before the march, Steven White, the student who confronted Triffin on his discomfort with his use of a racial slur, called the rally “a beautiful thing,” acknowledging that the ensuing conversations would be uncomfortable, but necessary.
White said he chose to apologize to Triffin because he felt he did not express himself in the right way, although he was resolute that there were problems on campus in need of addressing.
For the majority of the march, Clinton led a chant of “no justice, no peace.” When asked by a student what justice and peace would look like, Clinton said it would involve making demands of the administration and not relenting until those demands are met.
Bertolino said he expected no less of the students.
“Just because we have degrees and are in charge of stuff, it doesn’t mean we’re all smart. We have to keep learning,” he said. “Keep our feet to the fire, but don’t burn down the house.”
“Ashe,” the crowd said, affirming his presence.