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Student group calls for sweeping reforms at HWS to address racism, including termination of Sodexo contract

The Rising Panthers promised a comprehensive list of demands for Hobart and William Smith Colleges to consider and delivered on that pledge before the start of the fall semester.

Now, as the school year is set to officially begin in less than one week, the new student group has been organizing throughout the summer months to redress systemic racism on-campus.

Sparking out of controversy, the Rising Panthers coalition had been created in response to President Joyce P. Jacobsen claiming that systemic racism does not exist on-campus or in Geneva during a Zoom session with parents, which she shortly after apologized for her comments on WXXI News’ Connections with Evan Dawson.

But at that time, Mercy Sherman ’22, a current junior at the Colleges sought to create sustainable change in her community, claiming that her campus can guide other institutions through America’s reckoning with race.

“We can be a role model too for other universities,” Sherman exclusively told

As a result, she and her fellow Rising Panthers had been crafting eight demands that pinpoint specific issues related with systemic racism at the Colleges.

Mirroring the Ten-Point Plan, which is also known as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was a proclamation of the Black Panther Party platform in 1956.

Students, parents, and community leaders outraged after HWS president says Geneva doesn’t have “direct issues with systemic racism”

In that document, their ideas were affirmed by having every point starting with the phrase “We want…”

In a similar vein, the Rising Panthers invoke words from the past by reshaping their contemporary call to action at the Colleges, all in effort to demand systemic structural changes.

Their goal is simple: “to get as many signatures” by no later than August 29th – the first day of classes.

On that date, the signatures and demands will be delivered to President Jacobsen as well as the Board of Trustees, according to the petition.

However, it had been difficult for Sherman and her peers to decipher the truest aims of some current students and alumni base of color, all of whom contributed in crafting and commenting upon the drafted demands.

Originally starting with upwards of 40 initial propositions, the outpouring of ideas eventually whittled down to eight concrete initiatives, which were outlined extensively by the Rising Panthers.

HWS President Jacobsen appears on WXXI’s Connections, discusses campus concerns after Zoom Q&A session

“We demand that the Colleges immediately end their contract with Sodexo to run Dining Services and Buildings and Grounds”

A deviation of the status quo, a major point of contention rests in the first demand, mandating that “the Colleges immediately end their contract with Sodexo to run Dining Services and Buildings and Grounds.”

Jacobsen, who only joined the campus community more than a year ago admitted on Connections that she been unfamiliar with the concerns raised about the company.

As a result, she even mentioned to Dawson in her apology that an independent taskforce had been created to explore the history behind the company ahead of the start of this fall semester.

In the past, students have been vocal by speaking and writing to the underlying issues about the institution’s partnership with Sodexo for several years, long before Jacobsen’s arrival, including Olivia Rowland ’21, a copy editor for The Herald, the Colleges’ newspaper in an editorial piece titled Sodexo: History and Concerns.

In their petition, organizers drafted a lengthy explanation behind their first demand, citing several lawsuits nationally and globally, the company’s complicity in the prison-industrial complex, and the expensive meal plans that some students have trouble paying through a tier system.

Organizers candidly asked, “Can we really say that the Colleges value and aim to build “global citizenship” in their students if they ignore the injustice that Sodexo perpetuates against workers everywhere and against imprisoned people abroad? What does it mean to say that Black Lives Matter when our institution supports a company that makes it clear through its actions that Black lives do not matter?”

Arguably the greatest structural change presented out of their eight demands, students substantiate their position, demanding that the institution should sever ties with Sodexo immediately like other institutions of higher education including: the University of Pittsburgh, University of Washington, Northeastern University, Emory University, and Pocoma College.

Despite insisting for an immediate departure from the food company, the Rising Panthers depicted an alternative worldview of how students can still be fed on-campus, citing a neighbor in Ithaca College – which also ended its contract with Sodexo in June of 2019.

Over the summer, the university had been able to offer new meal service “in house.”

“Ithaca College has decided not to renew its contract with Sodexo to operate the campus dining program, and will instead take those operations “in house.”

The change is being made with the intent to provide improved programming, simplified meal plans, and a lower cost to both the college and to students. The new meal plan structure will be designed to help address food insecurity on campus,” a press release stated on Ithaca College’s website in March of 2019.

Ithaca College’s Sodexo contract came to an end on June 3rd, 2019.

Like the Rising Panther’s proposal for the Colleges, all current Sodexo staff who possessed interest in continuing their employment at Ithaca College were allowed to stay in partnership with their new initiative.

Even after a monumental grassroots shift, Cornell University partnered with Ithaca College to adjust with their transition into the new dining services before the start of the 2019-20 school year.

Cornell Dining, the university’s own dining supplier, agreed to license thousands of recipes, operation manuals, and even training materials to the management staff at Ithaca College for their usage while creating a framework for their own food dining services.

Ithaca College’s President Shirley M. Collado considered the partnership “a bold, smart and local collaboration that will help us continue to provide an outstanding student experience.”

Similarly, Sherman and the Rising Panthers are charging the Colleges to consider following in the footsteps of their neighboring institutions along the shores of Cayuga Lake at Cornell University and Ithaca College.

“An alternative to Sodexo’s management and services could resemble a community-centered plan, in which the Colleges allocate food and services from the Geneva community. The Colleges could receive food from local farms contingent on seasons. We recognize that not all of the food can directly come from Geneva providers; however, it is the Colleges’ moral responsibility to provide students with affordable and ethically sourced food,” organizers also wrote.

Regardless of whether the Colleges would decide to choose a new food service provider or create one on their own, students call for all current Sodexo employees to “be able to retain their positions during the transition and be paid a living wage from now on.”

“We demand changing the first-year seminar program so that all FSEMs address racism, power, struggle, and resistance”

Another challenge to the Colleges lies in diversifying their first-year seminar program by requiring all courses to “address racism, power, struggle, and resistance.”

“First Year Seminars provide a foundation for our students’ intellectual lives both inside and outside the classroom by helping them to develop critical thinking and communication skills and practices; to enculturate themselves with the Colleges’ intellectual and ethical values and practices; and to establish a strong network of relationships with peers and mentors on campus,” their website reads.

Admittedly, organizers believe that “most FSEMs already deal with topics that can be directly tied to racism, power, struggle, and resistance,” but it’s still not enough in their eyes.

The Rising Panthers contend with their opinion in that “by prioritizing discussions about race and power during students’ first semester, we teach them that these topics are not optional to talk about, but something that everyone needs to partake in.”

“We demand the Board of Trustees begins a capital-fundraising campaign to hire five new Black or Hispanic/Latino faculty”

The third demand seeks for the Board of Trustees to initiate a “capital-fundraising campaign to hire five new Black or Hispanic/Latino faculty.”

Calling for more diversity on-campus, one of the only tenured Black professors in the Colleges’ history, Marilyn Jimenez just recently retired from her roles with the Media and Society and Africana Studies departments after her 36-years of service to the institution.

Aside from Jimenez, she is also joined by the former the Senior Associate Provost DeWayne Lucas, who now has returned to the Political Science department as a professor with his tenure status at the Colleges.

Still, the Rising Panthers desire to have two of the new-hires be placed into the Africana Studies department with the remaining three dispersed among any other department in an attempt to heighten visibility on-campus.

“It is very important for students of color to see POC faculty in other departments because believe it or not we are not all AFS majors,” organizers stated.

“We demand a capital fundraising campaign for a New Intercultural Affairs Office and another social space on campus POC students to hold an alumni discussion series. The IC building should be named after a black activist and the new building should as well”

Aside from asking for a capital-fundraising campaign to hire diverse professors, the Rising Panthers are seeking renovations at the Intercultural Affairs house as well as the creation of a new social space exclusively for students of color to “hold an alumni discussion series.”

The Office of Intercultural Affairs has been considered a safe haven by students who have congregated there since its inception and the physical structure itself “stands as an important emblem to students of color’s academic advancement,” according to the Rising Panthers.

“The IC operates as an extended home for students. But it is aging, decrepit and small. Students have continuously organized and pleaded with the administration to care about the building that is so important to the academic growth of students of color. We’ve been giving empty promises, we’ve watched the building take the backseat while we sit in the crowded game room discussing issues of race both on and off campus. We walk past the million-dollar performing art center, using its bathroom facility because the IC only has two. We compare the IC to other buildings on campus and regardless that it stands in the front of the colleges, it has been neglected,” organizers admitted.

With this demand, Sherman later explained that the Rising Panthers seek to erect a new Intercultural Affairs office, one that is not located near the Campus Safety building.

“The only space for students of color is across from the Campus Safety. That is problematic,” Sherman said.

As for the current Intercultural Affairs building, the Rising Panthers desire for that property to undergo much-needed renovations and become repurposed as the new social space that is being envisioned.

Even the renaming the pair of buildings has been put on the table.

Sherman acknowledged a name that kept popping-up in connection to the new social space: Rev. Dr. Alger L. Adams ‘32, the first Black Hobart College graduate.

After being granted a full scholarship in 1928, Adams took advantage of every opportunity graduating magna cum laude with degrees in Greek, English, and psychology as well as a Phi Beta Kappa inductee into the national honor society.

Adams, a journalist and the manager of the Westchester County Press, novelist and lifetime member of the NAACP even had his own difficulties finding his footing on-campus, paving a path forward for future students of color.

“Honestly it should be the first Black student to ever step foot on campus,” Sherman suggested.

“We demand there must always be more than two therapists that are POC on staff”

For the fifth demand, Sherman explained that the Colleges should strengthen their commitment to expanding services for students of color through the on-campus Counseling Center.

Aside from Tasha Propser, the associate director for the Counseling Center, she’s the only staffer of color and the Rising Panthers aim at diversifying their office further by having at least two persons of color on-staff.

In addition to Propser, their collective presence of more diverse staff can encourage more students of color to gain the confidence to engage with their office more regularly.

“Let’s be more realistic about the logistics of therapy and that it’s not just telling a person how you feel but a person that is qualified in all aspects to helping you make an adjustment to healing and care that takes time. Therapy is an investment. The Colleges should invest in students of color’s mental health the same way we invest in all art programs, sports, education, on-campus jobs, culture, and the Genevan community overall,” organizers insisted.

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

“We demand a true dedication to recruiting more students of color/Black students outside of sports”

Although a plan of action hasn’t been devised, their concerns are still deemed valid in their eyes behind the reasons why students of color are recruited to attend the Colleges, which prompted the sixth demand.

Student organizers from the Rising Panther coalition claim that these specific bodies are being prioritized as athletes on the field rather than as academics in the classroom.

“It’s always sports-related,” Sherman insisted.

Their demand aims at bringing balance to the Colleges’ current admissions recruitment processes that seem skewed to organizers.

“We demand more advanced Levels of AFS and to establish a Harriet Tubman Chair”

The Rising Panthers are dissatisfied that a limited number of Africana Studies courses are being offered at any one time.

This imbalance has been a concern on-campus and restoked with the Rising Panthers bringing attention to the underfunding of the department itself, which led to their seventh demand for a designated chairperson named in honor of Harriet Tubman.

“The Harriet Tubman chair is an endowed professorship named after Harriet Tubman,” Sherman explained.

This specific position and title would grant support for a full-time professor on the faculty in the Africana Studies department, who would essentially espouse the same values that Tubman stood for as an abolitionist and advocate of human rights and equality.

“We demand open forums with the Board of Trustees twice a semester”

Lastly, for the eighth and final demand, the Rising Panthers seek to open dialogues with their Board of Trustees, especially now amid the pandemic when virtual meetings are more feasible than ever before and the new norm.

Sherman even believes that the Board of Trustees should in-fact be hosting sessions on-campus.

“I think that’s something the Board of Trustees should be already doing,” she added.

Although students may speak directly to student-elected trustees who sit on the board, there are limitations to connecting with those representatives.

Last spring, the Colleges even hosted a lunch in the Vandervort Room where current students would sit and chat with members from the Board of Trustees.

The first-ever event had been hailed as a success by students, but it’s not simply enough for Sherman and other organizers.

Following the Demands: The Future of the Rising Panthers

Speaking with alumni from as far back as the graduating Class of 1998, Sherman mentioned that these former students “were asking for the same things” as the Rising Panthers are now.

Even though the propositions have been posted, these demands are not exhaustive in nature and far from over.

Sherman informed that the Rising Panthers are planning to protest even on the first day of classes and throughout that entire week until the demands are formally submitted to Jacobsen on August 29th.

But even after the demands and signed petitions are sent-off, the protesting does not seem to stop, according to Sherman.

Still, details surrounding their next efforts are spotty after Sherman admitted that the future remains at this time.

From a financial standpoint, funding five more teaching positions, the renovation of the Intercultural Affairs office, and even the construction of a new building are expenses that the Colleges may not be willing to saddle until recent news aired in late May that the annual fundraising period for 2020 ended, exceeding $27 million in the process.

But now, the Rising Panthers anticipate that the Colleges can afford to invest in their demands, or at least partially following the largest fundraising year on-record in the history of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Editor’s Note: Read the full-letter of demands from Mercy Sherman below.

Dear HWS Community,

I have learned racism is a socially constructed phenomenon in the United States due to colonialism. Racism is an idea that is accepted in society, creating norms, discourses, and institutions that reinforce the idea of racism. Hobart and William Smith Colleges are not exempt. The institution of Hobart and William Smith Colleges continues to project such norms and practices that do not reflect diversity nor does the institution make any real efforts to achieve a space where every member of the campus community feels free to maneuver and express their identity within the space. Not only are certain individuals prevented from some spaces, but they also have to erase or give up portions of their identity that do not mirror the “superior traits”, to be within these spaces. It is very obvious that Hobart and William Smith Colleges are made for such “superior” traits, based on its representation. HWS is a predominantly white institution; it was not made for students, faculty, and staff of color, so it is no surprise that students of color encounter racism here. On Friday, April 26, 2019, the Herald published a 14-page section on the viewpoints of the marginalized ( Yes, over time legislation was passed to address discrimination but this legislation left the basic structure of institutions intact. Consequently, because the identity of students of color is socially constructed, their reality is also socially constructed. My identity of being a black female in the United States only has the meaning it does because we have socially constructed categories of race and gender. Since we stratify these categories, my life experience is very different than others. From my life experiences, I have learned that the way we present ourselves and see others is a combination of our interactions and past experiences. My reality as a black female will also make it harder for me to get a job, easier for me to go to jail, and more difficult for me to live on campus like Hobart and William Smith Colleges. This happens because it is socially acceptable and the norm for others to treat me as a second-class citizen based solely on my appearance. Because this is the norm, I will continue to be oppressed by society until the systematic institutions supporting this norm change.
We are seeing that for the first time, many institutions are acknowledging racism is prevalent and acting to create systematic change. The president of Cornell University sent the following email:

“Dear Cornellians, a little more than a month ago, I announced a set of actions to enhance our existing programs to promote racial justice. While it was important to take immediate steps in the wake of the racialized violence in our nation, we realize that there is much more to do.
I have heard from many of you over these past weeks, sharing ideas, advocating for change, and offering opinions on ways to counter systemic racism. It is clear that we must think and act holistically to change structures and systems that inherently privilege some more than others. We have not arrived recently at this place in history. Real change will require substantial effort and long-term, ongoing commitment.”

Although President Jacobson made a mistake when she stated that racism is not an issue for Geneva, I, and other members of the HWS community, called her out and demanded that she publicly apologize which she did. This shows that our institution has grown and acknowledges that systematic racism is a problem that needs to be addressed. At the same time, by publicly apologizing on the Evan Dawson radio show, President Jacobsen demonstrated a willingness to change and set an example for the HWS community that racism is an issue and needs to be addressed. She stated “I want to acknowledge systemic racism exists as a whole, especially at HWS as a campus. When I spoke on a Zoom call with parents, I did not say that and I’m sorry. It may not have been my intention, but words have power beyond our intention. It took the collective effort of our campus community to draw my attention to this and looking ahead, I want to expand my work with our students and welcome feedback.” Her apology is important for two main reasons. First, it allows for an environment where mistakes can happen and show that it is okay to acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and learn. Secondly, it allows for systemic change to occur. I have heard that some members of our community are calling for her resignation. I want to be clear this is not what I, nor the Rising Panthers want. Calling for President Jacobsen’s resignation isn’t going to help deconstruct institutional racism, but instead, hinders lasting changes from happening. Right now, during a pandemic, we cannot afford to lose President Jacobsen. We must remember that she is not the only one the pressure needs to be on for systemic changes; the Board of Trustees also needs to be pressured to acknowledge systemic racism at HWS and be willing to implement changes. If HWS is serious about systemic changes, the Board of Trustees must be 100% in agreement. There is only so much that President Jacobson can do alone without the support of other stakeholders, particularly the Board of Trustees.

After consulting with faculty, alumni, students, and researching what other colleges and universities are doing to deconstruct institutional racism, the Rising Panthers have constructed their demands. Before listing our demands, I want the administration to research different ways that other colleges/ universities are doing to combat systemic racism. The administration should implement the changes that Cornell is implementing if applicable. If Cornell and other universities can create systematic changes, we can as well.

Mercy Sherman ’22