October 23, 2021

Acts of racism alleged

2 food service staffers at SUNY leave amid claims

Catherine Wilde/contributing photographer

Christina Christie, left, treasurer of SUNY Cortland’s Black Student Union, and Shaneya Simmelkjaer, secretary of the club, stand inside the cafeteria at Neubig Hall. The Auxiliary Services Corp. runs SUNY Cortland’s food services, like the one pictured here, and two managers left after allegations of allowing racist behavior.

Two top employees of the food service company that supplies SUNY Cortland — Auxiliary Services Corp. — have left the organization amid claims the company allowed employees to engage in racist behavior.

Michelle Brackin, formerly assistant executive director of ASC, was terminated March 28 and Executive Director Pierre Gagnon resigned, said Jena Nicols Curtis, president of the ASC board of directors and a SUNY Cortland professor.

Human resources officials at ASC could not be reached, nor could Brackin.

Auxiliary Services Corp. is a nonprofit corporation run by a volunteer board that makes personnel decisions, Curtis said. The company employs 600 people servicing dining halls, the campus store, vending machines and student ID cards.

Allegations that some ASC employees were discriminating against employees of color had come to light in months, said Black Student Union Secretary Shaneya Simmelkjaer. The student employees didn’t feel comfortable bringing their concerns up internally, Simmelkjaer said, because they said when they had they weren’t taken seriously — a problem Curtis said an internal investigation confirmed.

The Black Student Union had a panel discussion on campus Feb. 25 to discuss diversity across campus — and more students came forward with stories of being treated unfairly, Simmelkjaer said.

Curtis verified that, too, saying there were examples of inappropriate treatment of employees of color.

One incident in particular, Curtis said, involved a student employee, a racial minority, being called a slave by a fellow employee, who was not a student.

On March 8, after the February panel discussion, Brackin sent a memo to ASC staff in which she listed racially charged words and phrases, offering alternatives people could use. The memo lists words like “slave” or “slave driver” while also mentioning phrases like “hip hip hooray” and “long time no see.”

“When I look at that memo, the biggest thing that strikes me is that it really demonstrates a lack of understanding of what racism is,” Curtis said.

“Sending out a memo with really obscure racist phrases, saying ‘don’t use these,’ is not a solution,” she said. “It is not only not helpful, it hurts the conversation and what we’re trying to do.”

The board found out about the memo a day after its release, Curtis said.

“As a board, we investigated what happened and also started looking at the larger issue of what is happening in the workplace and workplaces modeling the sort of inclusion and equity we expect everywhere on campus,” she said. “There were behaviors going on that management was tolerating or permitting that were just not acceptable to us.”

The board terminated Brackin, who had been employed by ASC for more than 20 years, she said. Gagnon, an employee for a decade, resigned immediately.

This action is good, say Black Student Union members Simmelkjaer and Christina Christie, treasurer, but they want more. They want diversity training to be mandated for all students and employees on campus.

“If you work with a student of color, you have to know we come from different backgrounds, that not everyone is raised the same,” Christie said.

SUNY Cortland requires diversity training for new faculty and staff, but it is optional for existing faculty and staff, said Jennifer Wilson, associate director of communications at SUNY Cortland.

Diversity training is also recommended, though not always available, for COR 101 students, a one-credit course required of freshmen.

“There is not opposition to doing other things to embrace diversity,” Wilson said. “We are trying to move through it in an orderly way. We will make progress. A change in administration of ASC is a start.”

Curtis said the ASC board is examining how to fill the positions or restructure the organization so employees feel comfortable coming forward with concerns.

“The overwhelming majority of our 600 employees are really fabulous people who do an incredible job,” Curtis said. “Going forward, it’s clear that management needs to reflect the values of our campus and values of our employees — that this is a safe and equitable place for everyone.”