Zapata Tackles Diversity Disparities at Fordham

“All of us, all of us, have to engage in the work,” Chief Diversity Officer Rafael Zapata explained. (ANDREW BEECHER/THE OBSERVER)

Contributing Writer

Since arriving on campus in January, Fordham’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) Rafael Zapata has realized that drawing on “institutional memory” is crucial to progress, including the history of faculty advocacy and student organizing that led to his position’s creation.

In November 2015, the Faculty Senate invited six undergraduate students to speak regarding racism on campus after student organizers decried a white supremacist message and swastika found in an Lincoln Center bathroom and a racial slur carved onto a Rose Hill freshman’s door, and what they felt was an inadequate university response. With Fordham President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J. and Provost Stephen Freedman present, Eric Taylor, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ‘18, declared that “Fordham’s treatment of black and brown students can be called nothing other than violence. The trauma that accompanies living under such a racist institution is damaging to the soul and to the mind.”

After Taylor spoke, Chris Hennessy, FCLC ‘15, described an online survey asking Fordham students about their perceptions and experiences of racial bias at Fordham; five of the first twenty-two responses were racist and some were malicious. The 20th respondent listed their name as “Black Guy” and their university affiliation “Professional Complainer,” and wrote “a completely deranged and incredibly disturbing almost 300-word death threat.”

Only weeks later, the Faculty Senate’s Task Force on Gender and Race Equity and Faculty Diversity and Retention released a report reiterating recommendations from a 2012 Task Force report that “were never pursued by Fordham.” Both reports advocated the creation of an “Office of Diversity and Equity” in senior administration to prioritize diversity work at Fordham. That same week, McShane announced his own Diversity Task Force to survey Fordham’s climate across its nine schools.

That summer, the president’s Task Force completed its findings, reporting “a significant underrepresentation of racial minorities,” especially in the undergraduate student body, faculty and senior administrative offices. At the time of the report’s release, all 25 members of President McShane’s Advisory Council were white.

The report described a widespread “fear of speaking out” and “feelings of distrust throughout the University” that prevented people from sharing their concerns with the Task Force. It also noted that several “persons with responsible positions at the University consider it and themselves to be color-blind, which is a problematic stance, because it diverts attention from the persistence and dynamics of institutionalized racism.”

Napoleon Canete, FCLC ’17 and a Task Force member, sensed that “Fordham was stagnating” in comparison to other universities, especially in its representation. The Task Force recommended the University hire people of color to fill senior leadership positions.

Over two years after he spoke to the Faculty Senate, Taylor said “we are in a deepening crisis. I can count in the single digits the Black professors at Lincoln Center this semester.” This, Canete explained, is why the Task Force emphasized “not just inclusion but representation. That’s something we can track, with numbers.” To enact that Task Force recommendation, this spring Zapata is prioritizing “diversifying the administration, diversifying the faculty.” As CDO of Providence College, Zapata felt he was successful in recruiting a more diverse faculty, but faced obstacles in ensuring the university “unambiguously convey[ed]” that it valued its faculty. He recognized faculty retention is also a challenge at Fordham.

By this fall, Zapata, Vice President of Human Resources Kay Turner, and Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Juan Carlos-Matos plan to establish a standing committee on diversity and inclusion, another recommendation from both Task Force reports. Zapata described the committee as “action-oriented,” with student participation, which Sam Blackwood, FCLC ’19 and RHA Advocacy Coordinator, feels is necessary. Blackwood described being a student of color at Fordham as “isolating,” and wants to actively recruit more students of color, particularly New Yorkers. While Taylor also expressed frustration at “Fordham’s homogenizing nature,” he said, “I would not encourage any students of color to come to Fordham, because they would be a lot more successful going to a school that understands them.”

Fordham must “better understand who our students are… so that our lack of awareness doesn’t become an impediment,” according to Zapata. He described a poor student tuning out in a classroom because their professor taught as if all their students were upper middle class. Aamnah Khan, FCLC ’18 and a Diversity Peer Leader, was at first “in denial,” but said she has accepted she may be “the first hijabi that people have seen and interacted with” at Fordham, and it’s “frustrating that they don’t try to educate themselves.”

While the President’s Task Force focused on race and racism, the CDO’s mandate is to address all issues of diversity and inclusion at Fordham, including religion, gender, class, (dis)ability and sexual orientation.

The President’s Task Force also recommended the CDO be a senior Vice President, on the President’s Advisory Council at equal footing with other VPs. McShane’s office chose to designate Zapata’s position as Associate Vice President. Several professors, including the Faculty Senate’s Task Force, are concerned that the CDO is “fated to fail in the job as charged” without “the requisite authority, ranks and resources,” as Professor Amir Idris wrote in a letter to President McShane last fall.

The President’s Task Force also intended for the CDO to oversee Human Resources, ensuring that faculty retention and hiring practices were addressed with a lens attuned to Fordham’s historical exclusion of marginalized groups. President McShane justified restricting the CDO’s authority because “we could not leave our diversity initiatives in the hands of only one person.” But Blackwood worried that “the Chief Diversity Officer can’t succeed if the university handicaps him,” referencing the administration’s failure to communicate their current diversity initiatives and that it seemed that Zapata “has had to do most of the outreach” himself to pertinent groups since he arrived on campus, “without coordinated support.” Blackwood hoped the administration won’t “interfere with the CDO’s autonomy when the time comes” in making necessary changes.

Zapata said he understood where faculty concerns were coming from, and that “having [the CDO] position at the highest level is typically viewed as best practice.” That said, he emphasized diversity work as a collaborative effort, and that he needs the President, Provost and faculty’s participation. “All of us, all of us, have to engage in the work,” Zapata explained.

But how can the Fordham community seek accountability from the University in its work to improve access, inclusion and representation for students? Canete wanted to “see if there’s a timeline” to indicate administrative commitment to proposals. Zapata similarly emphasized that “we’ve got to ask, are we doing what we promised we’d do?” Because, he explained, “that accountability on whether or not things happen ultimately falls on the President.”

Taylor said that, for him, “there have been no changes that have been felt on the ground for poor students, for students of color, and queer students on this campus since I spoke to the Faculty Senate, and Father McShane would be wise to not be comfortable in the silence that Fordham is experiencing right now, because you shouldn’t confuse that as an absence of unrest.”