Tag Archives: SUNY

Your Territorial Acknowledgment Is Not Enough

My college does a territorial acknowledgment before many public events on campus. We are not alone in doing this. We acknowledge that SUNY-Geneseo stands in the historic homeland of the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. It is an important first step, but one for which my feelings are ambivalent. We do this acknowledgment in rooms where no Native American students are present. We do it for ourselves.

            During our commencement ceremony, a Haudenosaunee flag stands on stage and another flies in our student union, beside the flags of all our foreign students’ nations. Only a tiny number of Native American students have walked the stage at commencement, or ambled through the Union. We consulted with no Indigenous peoples when we began acknowledging our location at the Western Door of the Iroquois Longhouse.

            A just-announced diversity initiative will lead to a more public celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, something we so quietly recognized several years back that it is as if we do not want anyone to know. And we will not raise the Haudenosaunee flag on the college flagpole, unlike some of our sister institutions in SUNY.

            So let’s get serious for a second.  During a troubling year when the college has dedicated itself to exploring the difficult question of how we might become an anti-racist campus, what we have done with and for Indigenous peoples is simply not enough.  We are quiet crusaders on the cheap.  Our gestures, and that is all they are—have been tiny and few and they cost us nothing.  We talk a good game, but that’s it. To say that we acknowledge that our college stands on what was once Indigenous land at a college that makes little effort to recruit, support, and retain Indigenous students is about as hollow a thing as I can imagine. And believe me, there are many schools—in SUNY and beyond– that do even less than us

            GENESEO, more than many colleges across North America, stands directly on Native American land.  “Chenussio” appears in New York’s colonial records and in the writings of French Jesuit missionaries in the middle of the seventeenth century.  The Genesee Valley, the beauty of which we sing in our college’s song, was a hub of indigenous activity for many centuries.  Geneseo stands directly at the Western Door of the Haudenosaunee longhouse and critical events in Seneca history took place near and on the very ground the campus occupies. The Big Tree Treaty of 1797, for instance, was negotiated in one of our parking lots.  The Senecas there signed away all their lands in western New York, from that gorgeous Genesee river valley to Lake Erie, eleven small reservations excepted. The town’s white founding fathers all were involved in dispossessing the Senecas. We occupy what was a major Seneca town site in a state that could not have taken the shape it now holds without a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. It can be argued that no SUNY school stands on ground so closely linked to that history of dispossession.

            I am completely familiar with the arguments that will be thrown back at me. I have heard them many times.  Indigenous peoples comprise approximately 1% of New York’s population.  It is not worth the trouble to devote our scarce resources to trying to attract these students to campus and make them feel welcome once they arrive. Our dedication to diversity is highly qualified, indeed.  We cannot fly the Haudenosaunee flag on the campus flag pole and we certainly cannot invite our Haudenosaunee neighbors to campus, because that will anger anti-Indian politicians in Albany and thus jeopardize the funding needed to fix a college that has significant construction and maintenance needs. We will not look down at the ground upon which we stand. We can’t. Because. We can’t. Because. We just can’t. We won’t.

            Several years ago I organized a meeting on campus. I invited a number of Haudenosaunee scholars from other SUNY campuses in the western part of the state.  They came to Geneseo to talk about bringing Indigenous students to SUNY.  The four of us agreed that it was simply a choice.  If our colleges wanted to do it, they could.  If SUNY as a system wants to do it, it can.   And despite invitations sent to the entire administration and admissions staff, we spoke to an empty room. It was difficult to escape the conclusion that our leaders at that time had voted with their feet.

            Don’t get me wrong. I love my colleagues and I love my students. I have good friends across the campus. But I’ve been at Geneseo for a while now, and I think I see many things clearly. We do not do enough.  We choose not to do enough. We are not interested in doing enough.  It pains me to write these words.

            What would I have the college do? I have been asked that. I am a professor. I am a very good teacher. I have been successful as a scholar and I continue to try to produce. I write more than most historians in SUNY.  And I do a lot of service, both on and off the campus. This service work is time consuming and tiring, as it forces me to be on the road at least every other week. At one level, then, my response to questions like this—to those in admissions, student services, in recruitment and retention who pose it— is to tell them to figure it out for yourselves. You get paid more than I do. You are the experts.  Do the work. I am already too busy.  Hire someone with some expertise in recruiting Native American students. 

            But that isn’t how it works, is it.

            If you are a BIPOC professor, of course you know this. Even if you are a white guy like me who stumbled into this work long ago and was lucky enough to be welcomed into the communities about which I teach and write, you are asked to do nothing less than come up with solutions to the problems you clearly see, and to do so without any additional compensation.  It is demoralizing. So we are asked for solutions. We propose solutions. And those solutions are shot down. We can’t. Because. We can’t. Because. We just can’t.

We won’t.

            It is a choice.  It is really that simple. But the least we can do is try. We can redirect funds. It is the moral and ethical thing to do.  Hire Haudenosaunee faculty and staff. Create a safe and welcoming environment on campus with student services staff experienced in the needs and concerns of Indigenous students.  Grant free tuition, room, and board to Haudenosaunee students. That might be a start. We could do this easily for the cost of SUNY’s football programs. We send no one to meet with Native Nations. We have no one in student services to help support those students should they arrive. We could divert resources towards this goal if we wanted to. We could acknowledge our college’s historic location with something more than a few lines tossed out at the beginning of college functions. We are well-intentioned but ineffective.

           OUR ENROLLMENT is down significantly this year, which has made an already desperate financial situation even worse. The pandemic and widespread economic dislocation is responsible, but some of our administrators fear that those students are not coming back.  Meanwhile, we continue to promote the image, with some small justification, that we are the poor person’s Swarthmore, an elite liberal arts college at a public school price. Sadly, I do not see us casting our net in new waters to try to bring students to Geneseo who we have not brought before. I see no evidence that we are interested in recruiting kids from the inner-city and I see no effort to reach out systematically to the state’s indigenous population. Indeed, we had a recent alum from the Tuscarora Reservation who wanted nothing more than to recruit and mentor Haudenosaunee students for Geneseo, and he would have been good at it.  Nobody in Admissions at that time was interested. (Most of those people have since moved on to other colleges). Geneseo is well known as a demanding school that offers difficult courses. Yet our retention rate—the number of students who come to Geneseo and return—is low. Clearly many of us need to change the way that we teach.  But we also need to think about who our students are, and where we are going to look for new ones.  This is difficult work that will not yield results immediately. It will take resources that are in short supply.  But how we expend our resources is a choice and we really ought to choose differently, as a college and as a massive University system. As employees of the State of New York, we ought to recognize how complicated the State’s relations have been with Native Nations, and how complicit our employer has been in the historic dispossession and marginalization of the state’s Indigenous population.  With regard to our native neighbors, the state’s hands are dirty, and that dirt will not be washed away by a few lines thrown out at the beginning of campus functions.

What If I Don’t Like Chipotle? Jerry Brown and Higher Education

Jerry Brown, the governor of my home state, recently aired some complaints about college professors and higher education.

“What I like about Chipotle,” he told a meeting of the California Chamber of Commerce, “is the limited menu. You stand in the line, get either brown rice or white rice, black beans or pinto beans,” Brown said. “You put a little cheese, a little this, a little that, and you’re out of there. I think that’s a model some of our universities need to follow.”  Brown was especially critical of the California State University system, which in his view needs to improve its four-year graduation rates.

I have some thoughts about this.  For two years I attended Ventura College, one of California’s many community colleges. It was a short walk from my house.  Then I earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in history from Cal State Long Beach.  It has been a while, but I have some experience with the system.  And now I teach at an institution that in many ways is analogous to Cal State, the State University of New York College at Geneseo.

I do not know the current graduation rates in the Cal State system, nor whether they have declined dramatically or whether programs are so badly impacted that students struggle to find the courses they need to graduate. Certainly Governor Brown thinks so. And the fault lies with the professors.

“They have so damn many courses because all these professors want to teach one of their pet little projects, but then you get thousands and thousands of courses, and then the basic courses aren’t available. It takes kids six years instead of four years,” Brown said.

“I know that’s not politically correct, or intellectually correct, because there’s so much to learn,” he added. “But you don’t learn it all in college. You learn most of it after you leave. So, get a good basic education in whatever field you try to do it in and get out of there.”

I can only speak to history departments, of course.  Certainly there are professors who are intensely specialized and narrowly focused, who teach nothing but what is in their tightly bound field of interest. But some of these courses, I would argue, provide students with a powerful educational experience.  Governor Brown is right, in the sense that you learn much after you leave college, but there are skills that students obtain and experiences students have in these narrowly focused courses that can be life-changing.  Sometimes narrowly focused faculty are a problem. But in my experience not only are they a minority, but they are viewed as a problem in their department. Far more common are professors who work hard, run themselves ragged teaching courses that cover a vast chronological or geographic range, sometimes far outside their research areas.  And I would point out to Governor Brown that I can count the number of historians who have complained about this reality on one hand, and I have been at this for nearly a quarter-century.

At Geneseo, I teach six courses a year.  Of those, two are what we call service courses, taught for the purpose of fulfilling my department’s commitment to helping students complete their general education requirements.  I teach a Humanities course that covers the great works in the western tradition from Classical Athens to Shakespeare, or a freshman writing seminar known as INTD 105.  I teach two survey courses, one in Native American History and one on American Indian Law and Public Policy, both of which fulfill general education requirements in a number of categories that students need in order to graduate, and 2 other courses in the department of History. Of the six courses I teach every year, at most two of those are specialized courses directed toward the interests of history majors.

My point is that I think Governor Brown has diagnosed the problem improperly. It is important to help students succeed. It is important to  ensure that they have access to the courses they need to graduate on time.  When I attended Cal State Long Beach, the vast, vast majority of students were commuters. I never knew anyone who did not work part time. I knew many “non-traditional” students–veterans, people coming back after a couple of years, people who bounced around from college to college and found themselves in Long Beach.  Some of them were ill-prepared for college, and needed remedial help, which was available. Although Geneseo’s student population is overwhelmingly white and between the ages of 18 and 22, there are schools in the SUNY system with more diversity, both in terms of ethnicity, race, ability and experience.  Sometimes students do not have the financial means to make it through school in four years.  Things happen. Problems arise.  When I attended Cal State, it cost me around 400 dollars a semester.  I could work and easily pay my bills.  It is not like that anymore.  Students may have trouble finding the classes they need, then, because economic necessity might require that they work when classes are offered.  And meanwhile, faculty lines go unfilled.

There are many problems afflicting higher education, most of them caused by a steady decline in funding.  Governor Brown, I know, is humane and interested enough to recognize the value of the liberal arts, of how liberating a college education can be.  But if we want our states to offer world class educations, we have to be willing to pay for it.  We cannot expect increasingly indebted students to foot the bill.  Indeed, it is a good investment for citizens and legislators.  You fund the colleges.  More students can attend.  More classes are available for them.  They graduate, earn higher paying jobs than they would if they did not go to college and, voila, they pay more in taxes over the course of their careers than if they did not attend college.  Return on investment, right?  The current leadership of the GOP, and many Democratic leaders who seemingly want to sound like Republicans on matters of higher education, want to view colleges as elite institution.  The truth about state institutions like SUNY and CSU, in my experience, is that they are nothing of the sort: if adequately funded they can become engines of democracy, equality, and opportunity.