CUNY Believe It Or Not : Putting Things into Context— Statement by Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez on the Jury Conviction (April 23) of Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the Torture Murder of George Floyd

“The jury’s decision today (April 23) )to hold a police officer criminally liable for the murder* of George Floyd has brought a collective sigh of relief. The guilty verdict for Police Officer Derek Chauvin is an outcome that has been previously elusive in court proceedings involving the death of a Black man at the hands of police. It affirms the integrity of our nation’s judicial system and the importance of our rule of law.

“That said, today’s conviction does not of itself spell an outcome that is fully remedial or just. The officer’s conviction on felony charges of murder and manslaughter, even if it withstands the likely appeal process, will not return George Floyd to his family.

“In the 11 months since George Floyd’s death jarred the consciousness of our nation and precipitated one of the largest, most sustained social outcries in our history, there have been widespread calls to rethink and reform the institution of policing. If they are to be consequential and lasting, such sweeping changes are not swiftly conceived. It is important that we keep the conversation going and continue to advocate for the equity and justice we seek.

“As I have said before, higher education can play a role in the conception and provocation of this change. As members of a vibrant, reflective university community, we have both the privilege and duty to wrestle with the difficult questions of our criminal-legal system, and to continue driving the discussion in meaningful ways.”

CUNY Believe It Or Not — Open Letter to CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez (First published March 23, 2021)

By Caroline Ash

Dear Chancellor Félix V. Matos-Rodríguez,

I am sharing with you my story of 30 years of service to Hunter/CUNY. I retired because I could no longer tolerate the racist working conditions on my campus.

My last day was May 20, 2020, as an Administrative Assistant with a master’s degree in Urban Affairs, a graduate degree in Advance Public Administration, Level 1, and I am a candidate for a master’s degree in Museum Studies at CUNY SPS, City University School of Professional Services.

My situation is the norm not the exception at my campus. I am hoping that you, Chancellor Felix V. Matos, can make changes that can bring back humanity, empathy, and respect to all Hunter/CUNY staff members no matter what race they are. Implied racism, institutional racism, and systemic racism are all choking the longtime Black staff at Hunter. They desperately need your intervention to heal and make Hunter/CUNY healthy for all members of the Hunter/CUNY community.

They desperately need your intervention. If only Hunter actually lived up to its image crafted through publicity and marketing strategies that make it appear stellar when it actually is in need of your guidance. I am hoping this letter will start a public conversation that will lead to healing and positive change.

Qualified Black staff members serving the College 10 to 30 years speak discreetly of being told that such things as attendance, budget constraints and other mishmash are the reasons for them not being promoted. Yet, new White staff have been hired to higher titles with significant salary increases and become supervisors of the Black staffers. This practice is the norm at Hunter.

Fear is the umbrella under which most black staff members walk on this campus, and those who choose to speak out suffer consequences, like having supervisors make their work-time hell. Shirley Chisholm, Brooklyn College, CUNY, ’46, wrote, “Racism is so universal in this country, so widespread, and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.” That’s the situation here. There are very few Black staff in positions of leadership at Hunter. Nevertheless, the President of the College continuously writes that Hunter will not tolerate racial injustice.

This facade has a ring of truth because of marketing-publicity-promotion techniques and strategies that shape Hunter’s public image but for Black staff who have worked here for many years and have not experienced any professional growth, it is a warning to keep their mouths shut if they want to keep their jobs.

Award winning chef savant and literary writer Nicole Taylor writes in a June 23, 2020 New York Times article headlined, “Black Employees, Don’t Sign Away Your Right to Speak Out, about racial prejudice in the workplace. “Now that racial prejudice is finally being scrutinized on a wilder scale, we must also recognize the role separation agreements might play in silencing people of color, who likewise fear retribution and blacklisting for speaking out against unfair treatment.”

Qualified Black staff at Hunter who suffer and endure mistreatment by White supervisors dare not confront them. Taylor also writes in her New York Times article, “In 2020, black professionals are up against a different kind of white supremacy. More often than not, this racism isn’t hooded or carrying a burning cross, it’s dressed as wage disparity. Saying your truth isn’t ‘cancel culture,’ it’s changing the culture. Workplace ills rooted in racism are a disease; we need a vaccine.”

Wage disparity is wide spread

My salary was based on the contract negotiated by my union, DC 37, which fought for all supporting staff to have a decent wage, and its policy kept clerical staff from going under while management paid itself excessive salaries. This information can be found in the monthly Chancellor’s Report.

It was very depressing to see that new staff under HE titles earned double what the support staff was making while performing half the work. Wage disparity is widespread.

The new office, I was told, had no space or place for me to work in, and my supervisor at that time asked me, “If I could find somewhere to work while the office was being renovated?”

She said, “Can you work in someone else’s office?” I was shocked and very upset. When I got home that night, I spoke to my sister, who is a DC 37 Union Representative, and she told me by law that Hunter has to supply me with a workspace. I went back the next day and informed my supervisor what was told to me. The director and my supervisor set me up in an office on the floor below them.

The location has a long hallway that led to my new workspace, and all the office doors along the hall were closed. For a while, I was the only person working there for a year or so. I eventually asked facilities to install a mirror on the top of the door across the hall from my new office so that when I opened my door, I could see if anyone was lurking in the hallway.

They moved me, thinking it would break me

My supervisor and those above him separated me from my Hunter family and left me to protect myself. They moved me, thinking it would break me, but my sister told me, if they give you lemons, you make lemon aid. I did just that by keeping a smile on my face and traveling three to four times a day up to the 11th floor to pick up my work and drop it off for filing.

Many times, physically, I could not take a walk up the stairs and just waited for an elevator or held on to my work until the next day. As a single person who has worked for the college for over 30 years, I was not ready to leave my Hunter family. Many staff I have known for a very long time and felt connected to them for emotional support and love. We were a family because we cared about each other’s welfare and Hunter’s.

I learned that I had become a threat because of my education

But I could not see continuing to work for people who do don’t like and don’t respect Black people; who see my color through prejudiced and biased eyes and refuse to recognize my work ethic and loyalty to students’ health and wellbeing as well as the department I worked in.

Nevertheless, I am very thankful that I was still able to serve Hunter for all these years even though my contributions were ignored. I was able to explore and improve my artistic talents and leadership skills even though I had no department support.

I had the opportunity to become president of the Art Club for three years, the president of the Music Club for one year and travel to Europe three times with the Art Dept and the Classical and Oriental Studies Department. I was also the coordinator of my own testing company for ACT Testing for 15 years with a staff of 45 Hunter staff members who worked with me on the weekends. My Hunter family!

So, after 30 years of service to Hunter– I am reiterating to make a point — I retired as an Administrative Assistant with a master’s degree in Urban Affairs, a graduate degree in Advance Public Administration, Level 1 and am currently a candidate for a master’s degree in Museum Studies at CUNY SPS, City University School of Professional Services. I had believed that the higher my degree, the better my chances were for my moving up the professional education work ladder.

I also believe that more education can be spiritually enhancing. I love to learn, formally and informally. I had this hope that I would one day be a director in Hunter. Advancement never happened. Where were the employment opportunities for promotions when I completed my masters? There were none.

Instead of receiving support and encouragement from my superiors to move forward as a professional, I was met with racial prejudice and the hostile indifference that accompanies it. I learned that I had become a threat because of my education. I recall in 2009 when I was in my last month of graduate school — while I was out on Family Medical Leave — I was informed that it did not look good for me to attend my graduation since I was out on sick leave. I had to get a letter from my counselor stating it would benefit my health to be there. I was there. And it did help.

Betrayed

One day I met with my supervisor to go over my annual work evaluation and was told that my work was incompetent. My supervisor said my work evaluation was based on my work performance six months earlier. This comment was said to me on my birthday and as I was grieving the lost of my loved one. I was shocked beyond belief that my supervisor, whom I knew for over 15 years could put me down and discredit my work all in the same breath. She was an advisor before being promoted to my supervisor.

Because of this meeting, I had a mental breakdown and ended up on a Family Medical leave for one month. After being evaluated by a mental health counselor, it was recommended that I take a medical leave and finish up my masters in Urban Affairs. I later found out that my bosses were trying to break me down, so that I would leave on my own accord.

On the day of my annual evaluation, after receiving the filled-out-form from my supervisor, I walked into the director’s office in tears and asked him why was I being singled out. He just shrugged his shoulders. In tears, I left his office and went up to the HR Office. I spoke with the benefits director, who recommend I talk with my union representative about what had happened.

I cared deeply for all the department staff and saw them as my family. I felt betrayed that is why I had an emotional breakdown. Hunter has changed much over the years since I started back in 1993, so much that no one of color is safe from malicious attacks on their work ethic if they try to pursue a higher level administration level. At that time, my supervisor, who was later pushed out of her job, told me that the bosses had kept a secret file to justify firing me.

Why was I a threat to anyone? Earning my master’s degree, I believed, was also a way of contributing to the college I love, to give back to the continuing health of the college as a staff member, to continue the legacy of former Vice President and Dean of Students, Sylvia Fishman who hired me.

“You are joining a family,” Dean Fishman told me. Her words have stayed with me throughout my tenure at the college: To be a role model for all people of color and women; to show that if you follow your natural instincts and take steps to improve, you can grow within an institution and make a difference benefiting everyone.

Respectfully yours,

Caroline Ash

44cell69@gmail.com

*Editor’s Note: The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ‘Being a Black Academic in America … No One Escapes Without Scars’ was written by 11 African-American Academics. Black Graduate Students, junior professors and senior scholars were interviewed. No Black staff were interviewed.

Regarding a cursory review of a Google search [about 22,100,000 results (0.43 seconds)] of “treatment of black staff at predominantly white college campuses,” only two articles.

October 26, 2020, Inside Higher Education article About Black Administrators: ‘There Are So Few That Have Made Their Way’

Award Winning Assistant J-Professor, Hunter College/CUNY. Author, Writer. Blogs at blog.hunterword.com. Using Medium.com to test drive writing projects.

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