Long before racist graffiti appeared on Salem State University’s baseball field benches in late September, a student organization made a list of demands to make the campus feel more inclusive.
Salem State students with the unofficial club Black, Brown, and Proud said the school’s efforts to combat systemic racism have not been sufficient. Tuesday evening, the student group met with Salem State president John Keenan, where students shared their stories, expressed their concerns, and tried to develop steps to make sure such incidents don’t happen again.
“We feel when we walk through the dorm halls and academic halls that our presence isn’t felt,” the group Black, Brown, and Proud said in a statement. “We, at many times, feel like a fly on the wall at an institution we pay for. We want our presence felt; we will have our presence felt.”
A recent Inside Higher Ed article noted that September saw a volatile start to the academic year nationwide in terms of hate speech and racist graffiti on college campuses.
On Sept. 29, someone spray painted the words “Trump #1 Whites Only USA” and “Whites #1” on benches and a nearby fence at Salem State. Another bench said “DIE” with the n-word.
Two weeks prior over several days at Westfield State University, the words “n-words live here” were written on a name tag stuck to a black student’s door in a residence hall, and there was at least one other incident where the n-word was written inside an elevator.
In a statement e-mailed to the Globe Tuesday, Westfield State president Ramon S. Torrecilha said the school is in discussions with social justice organizations about how to improve the atmosphere on campus.
“We have been speaking with the Springfield NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League of New England to get their input and advice, and are now identifying other long-term resources to help us with the culture change that needs to occur,” Torrecilha said. “We are also hopeful that the investigation currently underway will identify those responsible and ensure that they are held accountable.”
Both Westfield State and Salem State are addressing the way they respond and report on incidents of bias to better address issues that sometimes fall outside of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. That federal law protects against discrimination but isn’t always applicable to subtle displays of prejudice such as a Jewish student having a mezuzah, or prayer scroll, taken off their doorway.
“We have had incidents that may not rise to the level of the incident a few weeks back,” said Lisa McBride, vice president of inclusive excellence at Salem State. “But whether it’s minor or something that causes a lot of attention, any incident of bias should be considered a serious offense.”
Salem State is the most diverse of the nine state universities outside the UMass system, with a third of its student body made up of students of color, McBride said. In line with demands made by Black, Brown, and Proud to recruit diverse full-time faculty, the school hired eight faculty members of color in the last year. The goal is to raise the percentage of diverse faculty to 23 percent by the year 2019. The percentage prior to the new hires was 18.8 percent as of the fall of 2016.
Among Black, Brown, and Proud’s other demands are for more student involvement in the hiring process, diversified hiring pools, and more diverse content in textbooks. The school has paid nearly $60,000 this year to conduct a campus climate survey, where students, faculty, and staff can give feedback anonymously, McBride said.
The results will be revealed Nov. 2.
On Oct. 5, Salem State canceled classes and closed university offices to hold a forum and discuss the racist incidents. Students with Black, Brown, and Proud staged a silent protest of the event called “Forward Together — We Can Do Better,” which they felt did not adequately address their concerns.
“We also felt that although our voices wouldn’t be heard at the forum, it was important that the administration know we were planning to host an event of our own that would actually spread change on campus,” the group said.
Keenan has been encouraged by student response.
“I can’t tell you how proud of them I am,” Keenan said. “They made their demonstration civilly and peacefully. It was appropriate what they did, and we welcome these difficult discussions on our campus.”
A new organization called Salem Students Against White Supremacy started a Change.org petition last week that now has nearly 2,000 signatures and organized a rally on Oct. 7. The petition denounces hate speech and takes issue with hiring decisions made by the board of trustees at Salem State, including the hiring of Keenan, who is white, serving as president of a university whose student body includes a large percentage of minorities and women.
Out of the 9,001 total students that enrolled in the fall of 2016, 34.8 percent were students of color, according to Salem State’s website.
Keenan wasn’t able to comment on the group and its petition due to a personnel matter.
“There’s a huge disconnect between administrative action and administrative statements,” said Bailey Ruth, 28, a graduate student in the school of social work who cofounded Salem Students Against White Supremacy. “The graffiti was the catalyst that tipped us over the edge to start mobilizing.”