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Why Syracuse Students Are Protesting

It's not just about proposed scholarship cuts. It's about belonging.

On a recent Friday afternoon, about 100 Syracuse University students gathered outside a science building on campus. They carried hand-drawn signs. They listened to speeches from students and alumni. They tweeted and Instagrammed. David Jackson, a sophomore, organized the rally after learning the university wanted to cut the number of students it brings to campus through a partnership with the Posse Foundation. The nonprofit identifies students from urban areas who are likely to succeed at top schools, and partner universities commit to awarding them full scholarships.

But Jackson's protest wasn't just about Posse, the program that catapulted him from Miami's projects to an elite private university. It was about whether students like him truly belong at Syracuse. A change in university leadership has raised concerns about the school's commitment to enrolling underrepresented students. And a racially charged incident in the first early weeks of this school year has brought frustrations to the surface.

On Sept. 6, a 12-second video clip began circulating online featuring Hanna Strong, a senior on the Syracuse soccer team. The blurry footage catches Strong outside the night before, in the middle of an argument. As she stumbles into view, Strong starts to swear at the person filming her. "Faggot" and "nigger" roll off her tongue as easily as "bullshit."

Ronald Taylor, a senior from Long Island, was doing his homework when he spotted the clip on Twitter. "As you can imagine, it got around like wildfire," he says. Some people reacted by posting Strong's photo and her address. Others defended her. Hoping to channel students' anger in a positive direction, Taylor quickly brought together a group of student leaders.

The 65 students Taylor convened were from underrepresented groups on campus, both in terms of ethnicity and sexual identity. They were angry about the slurs; they didn't want Syracuse to be a place where such words were casually tossed off. (Strong has since issued an apology and been suspended from the soccer team.) But they also had larger concerns. One of them was the university's new chancellor.

From 2004 until 2013, then-Chancellor Nancy Cantor led an aggressive effort to bring a more diverse student body to Syracuse. A decade ago, nearly 70 percent of the university's more than 15,000 undergraduates identified as white; that percentage is now down to just 55 percent. One-quarter of Syracuse students have low enough incomes to qualify for federal Pell grants.

During the same period, however, Syracuse's U.S. News and World Report ranking among national universities also fell—from No. 40 in the last 1990s to No. 58 this year. The university had been admitting a larger percentage of applicants and attracting fewer federal research dollars. In 2011, the school withdrew its membership from the prestigious Association of American Universities when it became clear that it would have a hard time continuing to meet membership criteria.

(Courtesy of Syracuse NAACP)

Under Chancellor Kent Syverud, who took office in January 2014, the university is reevaluating its direction, and rumors have been swirling. "We need to clear up what's fact, and what's speculation, and what's emotion, you know?" says Elen Marie Pease, a sophomore and social-media director of the Renegade, a campus magazine for African-American students.

Whispers includes the rumor that a reunion for African-American and Latino alumni will be canceled (it won't be, administrators say), or that a financial aid program called the Higher Education Opportunity Program will be cut (there are no plans to do so, administrators say), or that funding for the Office of Multicultural Affairs will be reduced (there are no plans to do that, either, administrators say).

There is a proposal, however, to cut back on the number of Posse scholars arriving as freshmen next year. "We're considering putting more money into need-based financial aid, as well as potentially merit scholarships," says Ryan Williams, associate vice president for enrollment management and director of scholarships and student aid. "We are not at all changing our commitment to a diverse student body, students of diversity, students of color, socioeconomic diversity, geographic diversity," he says. "That is still a very high priority of ours."

Still, the proposed cuts have students asking painful questions. "They're saying that the reason that they want it to be cut is to lower the amount of people they let into the university, and increase the level of people they let in, or whatever," Jackson says. "If you read between the lines, what I took it as, well—you're saying Posse students don't perform to the level of rigor that you want us to perform to."

Which brings us to the second concern students raised at Taylor's meeting. They wanted to draw attention to the everyday incidents that can make someone feel like an outsider, or boxed in by a stereotype—at Syracuse, or anywhere. "Yes, I'm African-American and I can speak well. That doesn't make me 'white,' that doesn't make me somehow lucky that I got into Syracuse, that's just the way that I am," says Taylor.

+ (Courtesy of Syracuse NAACP) Syracuse does provide venues for students to talk about race, class, and identity—from dorm rooms to classrooms. But not everyone participates. "Syracuse University is a diverse school, but it's very segregated within itself," says Stephanie Conn, president of the campus NAACP chapter. It's not intentional, per se; it's just that students tend to befriend similar people.

So, inspired by efforts at Harvard and the University of Michigan, the NAACP has started encouraging students to share their reflections on identity on social media, with the tag #itooamSU. "My hair is not 'interesting'," reads one statement. "The color of my skin does not determine my major," reads another.

This week, the university will host an open forum on diversity and inclusion. Taylor says this is a step in the right direction, but he and the student leaders he convened would like the university to take a step further, by requiring freshmen to take a class on the topic. After all, students are going to graduate into a diverse society.

Pease says that when she first came to Syracuse, she was struck by how welcoming the campus felt, and by the level of school spirit. "Just, like, oozing school spirit," she says. She thinks that students are naturally inclined to be activists, and in this case, they're are taking action because they care.

"This is your home, and you want to do what's the best for your home, because you care about it," Pease says. "At least, that's how I feel. Very strongly. Syracuse is such a great university."

UPDATE: Syracuse University has announced plans to continue to support a group of ten Posse scholars from Miami, and to support ten Posse scholars from Atlanta for one additional year. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated eligibility requirements for a Posse scholarship.