A group of about 30 St. John’s University students and Queens residents rallied at the university’s main campus on Wednesday, July 15, calling for a tuition freeze and for administration to answer a list of demands regarding what they say are institutional issues within the private university.
While the calls were sparked by the university increasing tuition by 3 percent for the upcoming academic year, students also united to demand the administration meet with them in order to address systemic issues within the Catholic Vincentian institution.
“Since my very first semester at this school there has been multiple protests and demonstrations each year against the injustices students face at the hands of faculty, staff and administration,” Lexie Wingfield, one the rally’s organizers, told QNS. “As COVID-19 puts a magnifying glass on all of the problems with our government and country, it also is exposing the long history of injustice of schools like St. John’s, which is only heightened by the current circumstances.”
The list of demands includes a tuition freeze; an extension to the tuition payment deadline for another two weeks and for more payment plans to be made available; a budget breakdown of the $12.5 million CARES Act the university received; a cutting of ties and contracts with the NYPD, FDNY and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection; no furloughs of staff, adjuncts and professors who represent minority communities; a new and mandated anti-oppressive class similar to online courses everyone must take before joining the St. John’s community; and a response to a letter sent to administration by the university’s Student Government Inc. (SGI) signed by 119 student leaders regarding specific questions about the university’s statement on its plans to take steps to become an anti-racist institution.
At the rally, students met at the Queens campus’ main gate (Gate 1) before marching down Utopia Parkway toward Gate 6 on 172nd Street. They then marched down Grand Central Parkway until they reached the corner of Union Turnpike and 170th Street, where the march ended.
Back at Gate 1 before the march began, they were met by three police officers, including one in an unmarked vehicle, asking who the protest leader was — they responded that it was a collective effort.
Farudh Majid, a masters student at St. John’s and one of the organizers of the rally, told QNS police followed them throughout their march.
“We got more response from the NYPD than SJU’s administration,” he said.
Many students have been calling for administrators to address the increase in tuition since June, questioning the decision due to the impact the pandemic has placed on students and their guardians.
Many students say administration still hasn’t addressed their concerns.
This prompted Majid to call on Councilman Rory Lancman for help. After students spoke with the Jamaica representative, the lawmaker sent a letter to St. John’s Spokesperson Brian Browne ahead of the rally.
“I write to request a meeting with the University officials and the organizers of tomorrow’s planned rally concerning, among other things, diversity and inclusion at SJU, and the organizer’s dissatisfaction with SJU’s current efforts and structures,” Lancman’s letter, posted on Instagram, read. “Many of these students are my constituents, and they contacted my office for support and assistance, particularly since they believe their efforts to speak with administration officials about these concerns, and to establish a meaningful and collaborative dialogue, have been unsuccessful.”
Lancman’s office spokesperson Sam Goldsmith told QNS they have not received a response for a meeting yet.
When asked about the letter, Browne said, “We acknowledge receiving NYC Council member Lancman’s letter on behalf of the students.”
The national Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests have resurfaced issues of systemic racism and institutional transparency within the university that students have called out in the past.
“The issues that we are currently confronted with are not new to the administration — but a recurring fight against the issues that have not been fixed; but we will be the last generation of St. John’s students who deal with racist, bias, and discriminatory actions within our classes and in our campus,” said Shaeleigh Severino, one of the rally’s main organizers.
St. John’s is known for its diverse student body and values. According to the university’s 2020 enrollment numbers, 48 percent of students are white, with about 40 percent of its student population made up of diverse backgrounds, including about 12 percent who identified as Black or African-American, 14 percent Asian, and 13 percent Hispanic or Latino. Four percent of it’s student body are listed as “non-residents,” or international students.
In contrast, 70 percent of faculty and administrators are white.
The university created a task force two years ago in order to respond to students’ calls for faculty and administration to reflect the student body. But students want to see proof of what these actions have resulted in.
“St John’s University, a school that prides itself with diversity, inclusivity and charity, has continuously shown that their priority is not to institutionalize these beliefs but to propagate that these are their ideology,” said Ashley Narine, one of the organizers.
When asked about the rally and demands of the students, Browne said, “The university respects the right of students to express their concerns publicly.”
“As you know the rally was held while the campus is still closed due to COVID-19 public health guidelines and restrictions,” Browne added. “Students who have concerns are encouraged to share them with the Student Government, Inc., the duly elected and official representatives of undergraduate students who are in regular communication with the university administration. St. John’s University continues its ongoing commitment to antiracism and ensuring student success. The university’s Catholic and Vincentian mission of helping those most in need guides its decisions in allocating its limited resources to meet the institution’s strategic priorities.”
However, students have pointed out that their calls for meetings as well as letters by SGI dated July 3 have gone unanswered.
QNS did not receive a response regarding SGI’s letters to the administration from the university.
On July 15, almost two hours after the rally was scheduled to take place at 2 p.m., students received an internal email — obtained and reviewed by QNS — stating the tuition deadline was extended another two weeks from July 22 to Aug. 5.
Students maintain they still have a ways to go.
Majid said that while the rally’s organizers were brought together by SJU Rally, an “anonymous entity” on social media, he has co-founded a new, “non-university related” organization called SJU Radicals to continue “fighting against systemic injustice on campus.”
“Until our needs are met — each and every one of them — we will not be silenced,” said a student organizer, who asked to remain unnamed. “I want everyone who decides to go here to feel as safe as I do when I am with the people in the student body that I love so much.”