After racist incidents, UConn students rally for changes

Photo of Liz Teitz

STORRS — Several hundred University of Connecticut students marched on campus Monday afternoon, calling on the university and community to take action against racism and respond to recent racist incidents.

Carrying signs that read “We stand against racism,” “Black lives matter,” “There comes a time where silence is betrayal,” and “I don’t pay 30K a year to be disrespected for free,” the students chanted and shared personal experiences of racism on campus.

Racism “is an all too frequent, if not a daily, experience,” organizer Shelby Felix said as students gathered outside the Student Union before marching.

Monday’s rally was sparked by an Oct. 11 incident, when three students were filmed outside the Charter Oak Apartments, a UConn student residence, shouting the N-word. Students also spoke about the use of a racial slur at a Delta Epsilon Psi fraternity party, and criticized President Thomas Katsouleas and the university administration for failing to respond to the racist acts.

Two students have been arrested and charged with ridicule on the basis of race, color and creed, UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said Monday night.

Jarred Mitchell Karal, 21, of Plainville, and Ryan Gilman Mucaj, 21, of Granby, were identified as two of the three students filmed outside the campus apartments; the third student in the video did not participate, the UConn Police report said. Karal and Mucaj “played a game in which they yelled vulgar words,” and “switched to saying a racial epithet” as they walked through the parking lot, the report said. The university has said it is investigating the incidents, both of which were recorded and widely circulated.

Standing in a circle around the UConn seal outside the campus library, the students said the most recent incidents are part of a broader campus culture that makes people of color feel unsafe, uncomfortable, unseen and unheard by the administration, faculty and peers.

“It impacts the very essence of our campus culture, and directly impacts many of our marginalized groups,” said Tiyah Thompson, Assistant Treasurer of UConn’s NAACP. “Eliminating all hate speech throughout our academic environment, inside and outside the classroom, throughout residence halls, and anywhere else for that matter, will require effort from all community members.”

African-American students make up 6 percent of the nearly 20,000 undergraduates at UConn’s Storrs campus, according to federal data. About 11 percent of the student body is Hispanic or Latino, and another 11 percent are Asian. Fifty-six percent of students are white, and 10 percent are international students.

“Many of us faculty, staff and students of color have nightmares we can share about the racism that we have experienced here,” said sociology professor Noël A. Cazenave, who has been at the university for nearly 30 years.

Cazenave read aloud a letter he sent to Katsouleas last week, and said that by responding to the incidents in an email announcing the search for a new Chief Diversity Officer, the new president showed that he is delegating the task rather than taking it on himself. “We need you to understand, that when it comes to speaking out against racism on campus, you must be the university’s chief anti-racism officer,” he said.

“How you respond to UConn’s current racial crisis, and its long-simmering problems of overt and institutionalized racism, will define not only your legacy as president, but its future as one of the nations premier institutions,” Cazenave said.

Katsouleas spoke briefly during the event, telling students that he was “really here to listen and learn from you.”

“If you’re not for equality and respect, then I’m not for you,” he said, telling him that he would “have more to say” at an event on Friday. After he spoke, some students yelled “what about sorry,” and asked him for a public apology and a public statement about the intolerance of racism.

Students spoke about experiences including unequal treatment from professors and advisers because of their race, having racist slurs yelled at them or said to them, feeling isolated in environments where they are the only black or minority students, and being mocked and humiliated by classmates and peers. People need to be held accountable for racist actions and behavior, they said.

“The university has to undertake a conscious effort to shift the culture on this campus, one that actively and proudly celebrates its black students and its students of color,” Nia Samuels said.

She also called on the university and students to study the history of racism on campus. “This is not the first time something like this has happened on our campus. This is not the first time we’ve all gotten together and rallied, this is not the first time we’ve marched on grounds,” she said.