“As a Jesuit Catholic University, our discussion welcomes socialists, capitalists, distributed libertarians, anti-racist and anti-anti-racist perspectives, and all points across the spectrum,” said Mark Nemec, the president of Fairfield University. He was speaking at A Community in Action, an event held on Feb. 28 to discuss the university’s new diversity and inclusion efforts.
During the event, more than 100 students, staff, and faculty held a silent protest. Participants wore all black and held Black Lives Matter flags, and intersectional pride flags. Several protestors also held signs with the hashtag, #nomoreneutrality. Once Nemec began speaking, protesters knelt and held their flags and signs higher, forming a rectangle around the perimeter of the event hall as the rest of the attendees remained standing, sipping from glasses of wine as they blocked the president’s view of protesters. As Nemec spoke, he began to raise his voice at students and faculty who silently and peacefully protested.
The meeting came just a few days after a Black Lives Matter flag was removed from a window of Fairfield University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) by the university administration, which told CPS staff that the flag “may make some people uncomfortable.” The Fairfield Mirror published a story that same week, exposing the flag’s removal. The incident prompted a backlash from students, faculty and staff, sparking further discussion about the lack of support for Black students on campus.
At the Community in Action event, Nemec said that the flag was removed mostly due to a building code violation. However, he went on to say that, “Staff were requested and acceded to a request to remove the banner based upon, yes, policies for our public spaces…. but most importantly, because of our principles of free expression.”
He went on, “speech, to be free, must be offered in the spirit of dialogue and inquiry. Anonymous speech is not protected… Neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage, nor out of indifference or insensitivity, it arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”
The Jesuit order promotes social justice as one of its core values. However, this Jesuit mission for social justice is not exemplified by the university administration by any means. Kris Sealey, Ph.D, the director of the Black Studies Department at Fairfield, attended the event and protest, and described what she saw as “beyond awful.”
“Fairfield University’s senior administration sets the tone on our campus. And the tone is, well, one that makes the experience of being a Black student on campus remarkably difficult,” she said. “What I heard from him was an inflated commitment to freedom of expression at the expense of the care our university is called to give for the well-being for those who are marginalized on campus. What I heard was, unequivocally, not Jesuit.”
This was far from the first time Fairfield University has cited neutrality in the midst of student protests. On Nov. 12, 1969, 20 Black students published a list of demands to combat systemic racism at the university and submitted them to then-President William C. McInnes, S.J. They later occupied Xavier Hall on campus, refusing to leave even when threatened with forceful removal by the campus police.
Their demands were not only reasonable but necessary to create a safe and welcoming environment for Black students, faculty, and staff. The students sought to enroll more Black students, faculty, and staff, and establish support systems for Black students. Their first demand was that Fairfield should increase the number of Black students by Sept. 1970 to a total of 240.
More than 50 years later, Fairfield has yet to address all of the demands. Only 69 Black students enrolled at Fairfield as full time undergraduates during the 2020-2021 academic year. Less than 2% of the class of 2025 is Black – just 12 students out of 1,256.
Recently Fairfield has revealed plans for creating a separate community college in Bridgeport, dubbed Bellarmine College, which, in Nemec’s words, would help students of color. “This initiative is designed to improve upward mobility and career trajectory for students not currently served by Fairfield University,” Dr. Nemec said in his official university statement released in Oct. of 2021.
But many students view this as a way for Fairfield to further exclude and segregate students of color. “Is every one of those students expected to matriculate to Fairfield? Absolutely not,” he said at the Community in Action event. Despite the Bellarmine College initiative, the university campus population remains more than 78% white and there is no sign of change on the horizon.
On Mar. 2, Stefan M. Bradley, Ph.D, gave a lecture at Fairfield titled, “Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League in Postwar America.” Before he began, Bradley addressed the recent student protest and the administration’s removal of the Black Lives Matter flag. “There is no neutrality on a moving train,” he said, harkening back to Nemec’s call for institutional neutrality. “Black people struggle for freedom wherever Black people breathe air.”
He called on students to spark change at Fairfield after speaking about Black student activism at Ivy League schools in the postwar era. “The timing cannot get any righter,” he said.
The university’s stance on institutional neutrality has inhibited the visibility and care of Black students. Fairfield University must finally state that Black Lives Matter. However, a statement is not enough. The university must act, not just speak empty words, to support Black students, faculty, and staff to create a safe and welcoming environment, allowing their voices to be heard and respected. Fairfield University must become an agent of change.
Danielle Sondgeroth, Aliyah Seenauth, and Kasey Santos are students at Fairfield University.