At forum, UMass students demand faster responses to institutional racism

Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

AMHERST — University of Massachusetts Amherst students demanded faster responses by administration officials to examples of institutional racism on campus at a listening forum called by Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy.

Subbaswamy created the session in response to recent student protests at the University of Missouri of racist acts and poor response by university administration.

Also on Friday, student protesters at Amherst College met with Amherst President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin to discuss demands for equity among marginalized populations on campus as well as to replace unofficial school mascot “Lord Jeff,” named for historical figure Jeffrey Amherst, who advocated spreading small pox among Native Americans.

Subbaswamy opened the session citing recent advances in the university’s effort to increase diversity and support, including establishing a new position of assistant provost for diversity, hiring 26 new faculty of color for fall of 2015, increased support for need-based scholarships by more than $1 million, expanded recruitment for doctoral candidates for underrepresented students and hired a trans clinician and three clinicians of color at the campus counseling and psychological center.

Many students at the session said these efforts were not enough.

Lining up at microphones on both sides of the room, students called for less listening and more action.

Chantal Lima Barbosa, vice president of the student government association, said students already shared stories in a listening session the previous year and she said she has noticed no changes.

“We’ve been waiting a long time,” she said at the session. “I understand there is some improvement, but there hasn’t been improvement for students here today.”

Robert Williams, a graduate student in the African American studies department, said he believes first year students should be required to take a course on critical race theory and that racial inclusion training should not be voluntary but mandatory for faculty members.

Sheena Jeune, vice president of the Black Student Union, said she had an issue with the timing of the listening session and that it was held on a Friday afternoon when many could not attend. She thought the session was an attempt at the administration to stop minority students from uprising.

“You guys are not getting away with it,” she said. “We are intellectual and educated, so if you think this is going to stop black students or allies from making sure we are heard, you are very wrong.”

Rob Sailer, a freshman political science major, said the problem is usually among white students who are ignorant of racial insensitivities.

“We need to bring in people who aren’t oppressed and make them feel uncomfortable,” he said. “As a white guy, I can go to the university and never have to be uncomfortable. Discomfort is really good.”

Subbaswamy said the sense he got from the session with students is frustration over the fact that institutional racism is not changing quickly enough.

“I think that the youth who are here for just a short period of time, four years, have a certain time scale in mind in which I think we need to try to make some tangible changes in their day-to-day life,” he said following the session. “That’s where increasing the safe spaces and additional investment in recruitment so they see more students of color and so forth will have immediate impact, and they are beginning to have an impact.”

White-majority institutions, including UMass, have an issue of apathy among primarily white students, and drawing those students into the process is the challenge, Subbaswamy said.

A diversity steering committee will take into account the comments collected Friday, and more listening sessions and university actions will come in the future, he said.

Martin Jones, 46, a former UMass student who said he helped form the Black Student Union and advocated for the same issues when he was a student 22 years ago, said institutionalized racism is a long struggle, but he does see progress getting made.

“Based upon the changes I’ve seen between now and when I was a student here, the university has progressed by leaps and bounds,” he said. “That’s not going to be apparent to the students who have only been here in recent years, but it is apparent to me.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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