A simple piece of rope—looped, knotted, and left on a office door in Teachers College two days ago—sat at the center of a firestorm Wednesday as members of Columbia's community sought to make sense of its chilling symbolism.
Many students and administrators, both from within and beyond Teachers College, voiced outrage and called for change in the school's culture at pair of official gatherings. A TC town hall, scheduled before the incident, featured a panel of college administrators and a student senator in a crowded Cowin Auditorium, while University President Lee Bollinger led a heated meeting with student leaders in Lerner Hall.
Others turned to rally on 120th Street, where students wearing black shirts cheered for Constantine as she made her first public appearance since the discovery of the noose.
"I'm upset that our community was exposed to such an overwhelmingly blatant act of racism." Constantine said. "Hanging a noose on my door reeks of cowardice on many, many levels."
The rally also featured a moment of silence, prayer, chanting, and appearances by Fuhrman, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and New York State Senator Bill Perkins, D-Morningside Heights and West Harlem.
Stringer said he would support the victim. "You will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law because your poison can be infectious," he said.
"I share your shock and outrage. This is an abhorrent act," Fuhrman told the assembled crowd. She added, "We will have the first chance as a family ... to share our feelings. ... It won't be just talk, but actions. This has to stop."
Protesters walked through the campus and around 119th Street chanting "No more nooses" and "Hey hey, ho ho, racism has gotta go," drawing the attention of many onlookers. They continued chanting as they made their way toward Cowin Auditorium for the town hall meeting.
At the forum, about 600 members of the Teachers College community gathered to hear Fuhrman and Provost Thomas James speak.
Fuhrman called the incident "so incongruous with what we want to believe about ourselves." She said that students and faculty should be accessible and helpful to police, express their feelings openly, and take action.
"I am in pain. I am in anger," said Janice Robinson, director of the Committee for Community and Diversity who sat on the panel with Fuhrman and James. "We have to use this moment to galvanize us."
Fuhrman said the incident occurred as TC was trying to increase diversity and awareness, especially by bolstering the accessibility of financial aid. And last spring, Fuhrman appointed James in an effort to increase diversity among faculty. Still, as a professor pointed out at a TC town hall meeting, there are few tenured full-time African-American professors at the school.
Many students complained about a pervasive feeling of racism at Teachers College. "I totally was not surprised, shocked, when it happened," TC student Nicole Woodard, who is black, said. "It's scary when I go into a lecture, I can count on my fingers how many people look like me. ... Why could this person feel comfortable putting a noose on the door? He should have been shaking."
Some said they were uncomfortable speaking about race in class, saying there is little diversity, and they expressed concerns that professors whom they may challenge control their grades. "Race is the white elephant in the classroom," TC student Shawn Maxam said.
"I want to thank the person who put the noose up," said Dawn Arno, director of TC EdZone Partnership, a group of students who teach in Harlem. "If the soil is not fertile, the seed cannot grow," referring to the event's potential to raise awareness.
Many students lined up to express emotions and suggested changes, such as creating an open space for students to voice concerns about diversity. Jonathan Jungblut, TC, received applause when he suggested that Teachers College create a post for a "special master who deals with race, sex, and gender who ... advocates for issues."
Teachers College administrators discussed TC's programs and curriculum, and the possibility of making institutional changes. The school is currently undergoing a self-study to examine how race can be addressed across the institution.
"The administration is supportive in bigger ways than you probably realize," Robinson responded after the Town Hall.
While the forum gave students a chance to discuss their emotions, many continued to feel shaken after the event. "I'm still crying every time I think about the physicality of what it must have felt like for her [Constantine]," Alyson Vogel, a program development specialist who works with Constantine, said after the town hall.
While some said they were pleased that the school dedicated time for the event, others were disappointed by the one-hour length and shortage of concrete initiatives.
"They cut it off prematurely as people were still lined up," Nick O'Mahony, TC, said. "What does this say?"
James said it was cut off because the space was already reserved for other meetings and forums, and Fuhrman had to leave to speak with the media.
Some students were upset that the administration did not use the time to create policy. "I want some hope. They left me high and dry," Lisa Robinson, TC, said.
"There are things underway that we're extending, but we're not today making policy decisions now," James said in an interview. "We're trying to support Madonna Constantine."
The students who organized the rally met again in the TC dining room with Robinson last night. At the meeting, students deemed the event a success, and discussed plans for the future. They want to form a coalition that will last after they graduate, and make fighting racism a priority for the school.
"People are already over it, but we have some momentum," Jasmine Alvarez, TC senate representative, said.
On Wednesday, students will have another opportunity to voice their concerns and discuss solutions with administrators at the state of the college address.
Joy Resmovits can be reached at email@example.com.