On Monday, May 7, a black student at Yale University fell asleep in her dorm’s common room. Soon after, a white dorm resident called the police, who woke up the sleeping student and questioned her to “make sure she belonged there,” according to accounts supplied by The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, and others.
In a matter of hours, a national debate was brewing—the prevailing opinion being anger, largely at the white student who called the police on her classmate, graduate student Lolade Siyonbola. Others, like some members of the Yale administration, came to the defense of the campus officers who interrogated Siyonbola for more than 15 minutes, saying that they were only doing their job, and doing it well (Yale later reported that their officers “admonished” the student who called them). Yes, it may be true that Sarah Braasch, the student who called the police on Siyonbola at Yale had done it before—and, of course, some have suggested that this proves Yale is having a “Sarah” problem, and not a “Yale” problem. But it’s these kinds of justifications that allow these behaviors to continue unchecked in the long term.
At this point, this “string of recent episodes” (blame that hollow wording on The Times) barely comes off as news. On April 12, Starbucks had its own embarrassment in Philadelphia, where employees called the police on two men awaiting another member of their party before placing an order. In California last week, three black Airbnb guests found the police at their door after a neighbor mistook them for burglars when they didn’t wave back to her on the street.
Yale, though, despite its self-proclaimed “quest to promote cultural understanding [and] improve the human condition,” was different. A student, in her own liberally, socially and culturally aware home, found herself under attack by a fearful neighbor. The near-universal indignation at this event, though, is misplaced—because these incidents of profiling aren’t news to the people so frequently on the receiving end of them. And we at Stern don’t reserve the right to be outraged—we’d have to clean up our own house first, to earn that right.
Stern has had its own share of disconcerting moments in 2018; on issues of sexuality, religion, and race, we have shown the shaky foundations of our liberal elitism.
On March 30, undergraduate Stern student Essma Bengabsia reached out to The Opportunity with a request to publish an open letter to Stern’s leadership about being a Muslim student at our school. Because the Oppy charter requires that we publish pieces written only by members of the MBA student community at Stern, the Oppy editorial board suggested that Bengabsia reach out to the undergraduate student publication at NYU, Washington Square News. Less than a month later, the undergrad paper published a story about religion-based discrimination that Bengabsia faced in January within our walls.
On January 24, Bengabsia and a few classmates were tabling for an Islamic Finance Group event at Stern. A fellow Stern student walked up to them and asked if they were recruiting for ISIS.
The school’s response? As can often be the canned response in higher education, it was a public town hall, attended by NYU President Andy Hamilton. According to Washington Square News, Bengabsia and others have “spoken on several occasions to administrators in Stern on many different levels and the responses we’ve gotten are things along the lines of ‘don’t take it too emotionally,’ ‘don’t take it personally,’ ‘it’s your job to educate people.’”
Hamilton’s response, recorded during the town hall, wasn’t revolutionary.
“The incidents you described are completely unacceptable,” he said. “I had been made aware of some of the concern and growing student unhappiness about the situation there. This is an opportunity and indeed Stern must take these concerns seriously.” According to Stern’s Office of Student Engagement, a tangible course of action to do so has been sent to the student government of the undergraduate college.
It doesn’t stop there. At Stern’s 2018 Follies, an annual, multi-media comedy event dedicated to satirizing the MBA experience, a pre-recorded video aired at the event was met with anger by some members of the audience, who viewed it as homophobic.
As the administration has opted to not share the video despite requests for its release, and no members of the Oppy Senior Editorial Board were in attendance to view the video, I cannot report firsthand the specifics of the content. The Follies team reached out to attendees of the event in the hopes of addressing conflicting opinions on the content; their message, due to follow-up by members of the audience, escalated into a message from Dean Raghu Sundaram sent to the MBA student community.
“We will not make excuses and will only pledge that today our commitment to the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion has only been strengthened,” he said. “You will see that in action as we move forward.”
In an open letter to Follies attendees, organizers apologized for the skit in question.
“The spirit of Follies is playful parody. However, parody can go awry and, in this case, it did.” They continued on to justify why the skit made it into the actual performance, saying that “the decision to include the video was made knowing the intent and attitude of the creators, who meant no disrespect.” They also addressed the fact that offended members of the audience were silenced when they expressed their displeasure, saying “we would also like to address some of the responses to a student who voiced his concern about the content during the show. Unfortunately, we heard attempts to silence him, which is contrary to the spirit we intended to celebrate.”
In an article published by The Oppy in April, before the event, the heads of content for Stern Follies placed particular emphasis on how much Stern avoided the usual, hateful tropes that can work their way into b-school Follies satire. Quoted below:
“Follies at some other schools can be downright dirty,” co-head of content Ben Broderick said in the April article. “They can be brutal and mean-spirited. It can feel more like a roast and can get pretty risqué and controversial.”
“Our goal is not to put anybody down—the people, the school, or the b-school experience,” co-head of content Rourke Willner added. “The easy humor is making fun of other people. It’s harder to come up with fresh ideas that aren’t making fun of someone or some other institution.”
“The easiest jokes are often the mean ones,” Broderick said. “And there’s a satisfaction in getting the jokes right without resorting to that.”
Unfortunately, Stern’s outrage at the Follies incident would be misguided—because this isn’t really new for us, either.
The incident was brought to The Oppy’s attention by a recent Stern MBA alumnus, Eliot Glenn. In a message to Dean Sundaram and dozens of others, Glenn noted the ways in which the video was indicative of a larger problem at Stern.
“During my time at Stern, I dealt with serious and persistent homophobia,” Glenn said via email. “Despite complaints by myself and other gay students, the university did nothing to assist us […] I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to find out that this kind of homophobia is still widespread at the school, and I expect that you will take prompt and decisive action.”
But what does it mean to “take prompt and decisive action?” In the same email sent to notify the Dean’s Office about the Follies video, Glenn offered multiple suggestions for improving Stern’s environment of inclusion: hire a Dean of Diversity, create coursework related to diversity and inclusion, create guidelines that the school can adhere to when incidents occur, and train faculty. These four suggested action items can do a lot of good:
1) Making it tangible through language will guide our behavior as an organization.
If we create language to clearly indicate what behavior and practices are unacceptable within our walls, we can ground these otherwise lofty concepts in a way that gives us guidance in times of crisis. If this takes the form of guidelines, a detailed addition to student bylaws, etc., leading by example is easier to do when that example is clearly explained. Speaking of leading by example:
2) Making a real effort to integrate education on diversity and inclusion into the coursework can break the narrative of avoidance.
If Stern’s dedication to the concept of professional responsibility—boiling down the ethical implications of our coursework into a 1.5-credit afterthought—is any indication, the school has thus far been more interested in fulfilling a requirement to address these complicated, entrenched problems in business and educational culture, rather than making awareness of these problems a core component of the business school paradigm. In other words, if the coursework tackles these problems all the time, they will be top-of-mind all the time; as it currently stands, most of us aren’t challenged to think through these problems until we “get through” our Professional Responsibility course during a one-off, three-day weekend. But, in order to get all coursework to reflect our dedication to these solutions, we must:
3) Make training for faculty mandatory.
In the days following the Follies incident, NYU did make training mandatory: in a May 1 email, Sundaram notified faculty, staff, and administration about NYU’s new required policy. According to Sundaram’s message, “by June 30th, 2018, all NYU employees (including adjunct faculty) across NYU campuses and sites are required to review and understand the NYU policies regarding sexual misconduct, discrimination, harassment and retaliation including reporting requirements and the resources available for NYU students and employees.” This a start, but it should also be considered more than a one-off requirement to meet and then never think about again (again, our current Professional Responsibility course isn’t really a framework for creating a long-term paradigm shift). And, all told:
4) Hiring a Dean of Diversity can consolidate efforts on all of the above, and signal genuine accountability where it doesn’t seem to currently exist. Like the requirement for universities to employ a Title IX coordinator to ensure that incidents of gender-based discrimination and misconduct are correctly investigated, a Dean of Diversity can be the students’ line of defense when they feel like Stern misses the mark. For example, when the administration decided not to share the Follies video with other members of Stern nor with the news outlets also in the conversation, a Dean of Diversity could have been an impartial set of eyes auditing the legitimacy of the complaint and of the administration’s response.
But in order to make these changes, we would need to acknowledge that they are necessary—we would need to acknowledge that we haven’t achieved genuine awareness of diversity and inclusion at Stern. On February 20, 2014, The Oppy published an open letter from then-MBA student Glenn, laying bare an in-classroom incident of homophobia that was indicative of a bigger problem at Stern. Over four years later, the story’s pretty much the same. We address incidents of discrimination with the indignation of a pot that isn’t calling the kettle black.
It comes down to the fact that students at liberal institutions of higher learning—no matter their race, religion, or sexuality—think that this is happening somewhere else.
But it isn’t.
The Full-Time MBA Class of 2017 was 34 percent female-identifying, 26 percent minority-identifying, and 9 percent underrepresented minority-identifying. As a straight, white woman, I fall into the demographic majority at Stern in all but gender—and I’ve noticed how easy it is to feel like the ease of my experience reflects the ease of others’ experience. I haven’t had a classmate call the cops on me because they were worried I “didn’t belong” in that study lounge, dorm, or library. I haven’t felt ostracized because of, for example, my religious affiliations, my sexuality, or my race. But the personal distance that people like me have from these living, breathing failures of our culture doesn’t mean that we can pretend they don’t happen to people all around us—no matter the “elevated” nature of our surroundings. And for us to leave it to those experiencing this discrimination and alienation to perpetually sound the alarm on it is an exhausting, unfair onus for us to place through our inaction. Rather, we need to use our platform as Stern students to stand up for others, instead of perpetuating discrimination—no matter whether we meant to—in our own house.
It is important to recognize that our self-proclaimed intellectualism at Stern does not absolve us of the need to audit our preconceptions, our behavior and, without hesitation, our privilege. It’s important to remember that, no matter how hard each of us has worked to close out this academic year or this degree program, we haven’t had to work nearly as hard as some of the people around us to get to this point. We need to check our privilege—or, at least, think twice about how much we trust the sanctity of our own backyard, without first giving the soil a good tilling.
Editors’ Note: the preceding article is the sole opinion of the author, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of The Opportunity Editorial Board.