By ELISSA GOOTMAN and AL BAKER
October 11, 2007
A day after a noose was found hanging on a black professor’s office door at Columbia University’s Teachers College, protesting students chanted “no diversity, no university” and confronted university officials at two emotional meetings. The police said that their hate crimes unit had mounted a full investigation, including testing the rope for DNA.
The professor, Madonna G. Constantine, whose specialty is race, racial identity and multiculturalism, stood before protesters at midday and thanked her supporters.
“I am upset that the Teachers College community has been exposed to such an unbelievably vile incident,” she said, “and I would like us to stay strong in the face of such a blatant act of racism.”
Baffled and anguished students and professors wondered how this could happen at Teachers College, which cherishes its image as a bastion of liberalism and multiculturalism.
“I think we are all pretty much mystified as to why it happened,” said George A. Bonanno, a professor of psychology. “This is an institution that prides itself on having open dialogue about race and fairly progressive ideas.”
At an afternoon news conference, Deputy Inspector Michael Osgood, commander of the New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force, said, “Right now we have no suspects, but we will go down all investigative pathways.” He ruled out any possibility that Professor Constantine had hung the rope herself.
“Our victim is a victim,” he said at police headquarters.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said yesterday, “I think the noose thing is despicable and disgraceful.” A white Queens woman was arrested recently for throwing a noose around a tree and threatening to hang her black neighbor’s children from it.
Dr. Constantine, a professor of psychology and education, counts as her scholarly interests topics that include mental health issues of people of color and immigrants. She is a director of a yearly conference that brings together leaders in education and psychology.
Those who know Dr. Constantine say that she has had a rivalry with another professor, and in May filed a lawsuit charging her with defamation.
The other professor said yesterday that she was on sabbatical, found the noose incident “utterly reprehensible,” and denied she had anything to do with it.
For Columbia students, the incident had particular resonance coming so soon after demonstrations against the Jena Six case in Louisiana, in which white students hung nooses outside a high school and were not prosecuted. A white student was later beaten and six black students were initially charged with attempted murder; thousands have protested the case.
Columbia was also the site recently of demonstrations against Jim Gilchrist, a founder of the Minuteman Project, a group opposed to illegal immigration, and an appearance by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that left students divided over the boundaries of free speech.
“It’s like throwing a match on a haystack,” said Christien Tompkins, 21, a senior who is co-chairman of the United Students of Color Council. “This obviously really touched a nerve for a lot of folks.”
Mr. Tompkins was one of about two dozen students who met with Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, to discuss the case yesterday afternoon.
At that meeting, Mr. Tompkins said, students have used the noose as a point of departure to talk about other issues, including Columbia’s plans to expand into adjacent neighborhoods.
“It’s the latest and maybe most visible and extreme case of a climate of racism that we face in our entire society but of course is manifested at Columbia as well,” he said.
Mr. Bollinger, in an e-mail message sent to students and faculty, wrote, “An attack on the dignity of any member of our community is an assault on all of us.”
At a separate meeting, 600 Teachers College students and faculty members gathered to air their own grievances before Susan H. Fuhrman, the president of Teachers College, and other administrators.
“I came here from Virginia,” said one black doctoral student, who did not identify herself. “I’ve been here since 2003 and there has been incident after incident. It’s not so different from the South.”
Earlier in the day, more than 100 students rallied outside Teachers College and marched in Professor Constantine’s support. Her colleagues said it seemed particularly jolting that this had happened to a professor whose work is devoted to issues of race.
Professor Derald Wing Sue, who has collaborated with Professor Constantine on such work as a book called “Addressing Racism,” said, “That’s her area of expertise, so in some sense I think it’s personally devastating and upsetting to her.”
“It could be a discontented student, it could be conflicts with colleagues, it could be the type of work that Professor Constantine does on racism that pushes buttons,” he said. “Teachers College is very devoted to a social justice agenda, but it’s a microcosm of a larger society when issues of race and racism are discussed.”
Dr. Fuhrman said yesterday that she would work to retain and recruit more minority faculty members, and offer students more scholarships.
“There’s nothing good about this incident, this is horrible,” she said. “But we should be doing this talking, and if it takes this thing to make us do this, so be it.”
Elizabeth Dwoskin and Elias E. Lopez contributed reporting