Saturday, October 21, 2006
From The New York Times…
Bias Episodes Rattle a University’s Diverse Student Body
By KAREN W. ARENSON
For many Muslim students, Pace University had seemed to be a comfortable haven with a diverse student body that included hundreds of Muslims and offered an easy give and take among students of all races and ethnicities.
“It’s an awesome school, absolutely amazing,” said Naida Jakirlic, 20, last year’s president of Pace’s Muslim Students Association, who is a refugee from Bosnia.
Faiza Ali, 21, a political science major in her senior year who has also been active with the students association, said that even though she commutes to her home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, from the campus in Lower Manhattan, she spends all her time at the university, and it is like her second home.
That was until late September, when a student discovered a library copy of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, tossed in a men’s room toilet at the downtown campus. And last week, a second Koran was found in a toilet there.
In the days since, a slur aimed at African-Americans was found scrawled in the dew on a car window at Pace’s campus in Briarcliff Manor, in Westchester County, and a swastika and other slurs were found on a bathroom wall at the Manhattan campus.
The events, now being investigated by the police, have rattled Pace, a comprehensive university with 14,000 students and six campuses, the largest one near City Hall. “What is most scary is that no one knows who the perpetrator is,” said Rakshan Khateeb, 19, a freshman from New Jersey, who is secretary of the Muslim Students Association.
Ms. Khateeb, who wears a traditional head scarf, added: “The perpetrator could decide to do something to a person next. And especially for women, it is obvious we’re Muslims.”
That sense of insecurity is not limited to Pace’s Muslim students.
“When one minority is the victim of a hate crime, it certainly provokes fear in other groups, because you cannot help but think, ‘Am I next?’ ” said Ashley Marinaccio, a senior majoring in sociology-anthropology and theater, who founded an AIDS awareness group. “I’ve had discussions with quite a number of people who are worried and do not feel safe because of these incidents.”
David A. Caputo, Pace’s president, said he was shocked when the first Koran was found, but believed it was an aberration in a community that was “not only tolerant, but accepting.” But when the second Koran was desecrated and the slurs were discovered, “it was a clarion call,” he said.
Dr. Caputo estimated that more than 5 percent of Pace’s students were Muslim. He has issued numerous statements condemning the events. At a town hall meeting this month, he called them “despicable” and asked people to be vigilant. And Thursday evening, he announced an anti-hate campaign that will include sensitivity training for students and senior administrators, a program to train people in the proper protocols for handling bias incidents, public forums to discuss the hate crimes that have taken place, and the issuing of wallet cards with phone numbers for people to call in emergencies.
Yesterday, Lisa Miles, a Pace affirmative action officer who has been appointed to lead the anti-hate campaign, met with student leaders on the Pleasantville campus in Westchester. She said she hoped the campaign would become “the core of what we do, not just a matter of responding to this.”
Whether the efforts will be enough to regain students’ trust remains to be seen. Muslim students and others have criticized Pace, saying it initially underplayed the seriousness when the first Koran was found, did not file a formal complaint with the police about the matter and did not respond forcefully enough in general.
“If it had been any other group, any other religious text, it wouldn’t have happened this way,” said Ms. Jakirlic, the former students association president.
Pace officials say they initially decided not to file a report after talks with the police led them to conclude that the first finding of a Koran had been an act of vandalism rather than a hate crime, thus making a formal complaint discretionary. They say they hope the training they are providing on the handling of bias will help. And they note that Dr. Caputo has now directed that any incidents involving race, ethnicity or sexual orientation be formally reported.
Ms. Ali, for one, would like to see Pace do more, like hiring a campus chaplain; it now calls on a group of clergy members on an ad hoc basis. She also wants a world religions course to be required for all students. Both are suggestions Pace officials say they will consider.
“We have science, computers, public speaking as requirements,” Ms. Ali said. “Especially in New York, you are exposed to so many people. A world religions course would be a great way to prepare students for what they’re in store for.”