On Thursday, Feb. 26, students led by the newly-formed Student Organizing Team (SOT) of the Student/Labor Dialogue (SLD) held a short demonstration during a Student Affairs Committee dinner held in MidC of the All College Dining Center.
The dinner, attended by members of the Board of Trustees, administrators, the Vassar Student Association (VSA) Executive Board and other community members, was organized for those who had taken part in the National Coalition Building Institute training, which was intended to promote dialogue and inclusion surrounding diversity on campus.
Half an hour into the dinner, over 30 students, holding signs saying “Reinstate Kemar” and “Kemar spoke, now listen,” walked onto the balconies of UpC surrounding MidC in silent protest while one of the students at the dinner, Bailey Miller ’17, spoke about Williams’s situation.
The demonstration was held in protest of what many community members have called the unjust, and possibly racially-motivated, termination of Safety and Security officer Kemar Williams last Thursday. Upon hearing of Williams’ termination and speaking to Williams directly, members of the SOT went about planning the banquet dinner’s protest to demand that he be reinstated.
Although Safety and Security management reportedly told Williams that he was being fired because many believed he did not work well with others and because he did not take constructive criticism well, many students have expressed skepticism of the validity of those claims, as well as whether they would, if true, be reasonable grounds for termination.
According to SOT member Alexandra Deane ’15, Williams had been the target of a racist comment made within his earshot by another security guard in November, and, despite Director of Safety and Security Kim Squillace’s alleged desire to keep the matter within the department, soon after sought to voice his concerns to the College’s Title IX officer, Julian Williams, who is of no relation to him.
After meeting with Julian Williams about the incident, Kemar Williams was reportedly told to watch out, and that his actions were garnering negative attention from his superiors, despite the fact that his coworker was found guilty of having made a racially discriminatory comment to him.
Several weeks later, Deane reported, an evaluation of Williams was written by one of the same supervisors who had been involved in the handling of the incident. Although previous reports had supposedly had few critical things to say about his job performance, this, however, allegedly described Williams as having a bad attitude, being unable to take direction well and failing to get along with his coworkers.
Deane, among others, question the motives of such an assessment. She commented, “[Williams’s] fellow officers, who were involved in training him and who had worked with him for that six-month period, were not consulted for that evaluation, and upon [the SLD] consulting them, have said that these claims are outrageous, that Kemar is a good officer who is professional and hardworking and has always demonstrated willingness to improve.”
Williams, who had reached the last week of the six-month probationary period of employment with Safety and Security, during which time recently-hired officers have no union protection, was fired late last Thursday night. That day, the head of Safety and Security’s union Zakiyyah Salahuddin, who has been known to rally workers around such things as unjust terminations, was out of town on vacation, a fact many members have called attention to as not coincidental.
Deane, speaking for the SLD, posited that Williams’s only offenses were two missed days of work, for one of which he had a doctor’s note, and an instance of tardiness, when he had simply overslept. The SLD argues that the Safety and Security’s claims about his ability to work with others were, according to some of Williams’s trainers and coworkers, with whom SLD members had been in contact, unfounded.
The students involved in the protest assert that the firing was instead the result of Williams’s readiness to speak up about racial issues within the Department of Safety and Security, and is thus itself a racial issue. A flyer distributed by the SLD wrote, “We’ve been told that this campus is a place where we can speak out for justice and against violence, and that we will be supported. But when Kemar spoke out against the racism he experienced on campus, he was punished. The firing of Kemar is an injustice that the College cannot let go unchecked.”
Deane commented, “Kemar used these official legal channels to stand up for himself and then was fired in the middle of the night when the person who would be most likely to stand with him was out of town. Something feels really fishy there, and ultimately he was punished for standing up for himself in his workplace, and for standing up against the kind of everyday racist stuff that happens when you’re a Black person working in a primarily white workplace.”
Some within the Administration, despite staunch criticism from students on the issue, have generally reacted positively to Thursday’s protest. At a VSA Council meeting on Mar. 1, Vice President for Finance and Administration Robert Walton said, “I think the overwhelming reaction of the whole board was that they were very impressed with the protest. It was respective [sic] and well-intentioned. Many members were moved by the speeches that were made. It was the best of what Vassar does.”
Kim Squillace, however, declined to comment on the subject.
The Board of Trustees even opted to respond directly to the SLD and the student protesters. Their response, published on The Miscellany News website on Mar. 2, however, reaffirmed their confidence in the Administration’s decision regarding Williams’s employment status.
“We would like to thank you [the SOT] for your respectful and passionate expressions of concern to members of the Board of Trustees regarding the recent termination of employment of a member of the campus Safety and Security Department following his probationary period, and for your deep concern for how individual members of Vassar’s staff are treated,” the letter read. “[I]n order to assure ourselves and our community that respect, fairness, and justice were all part of this personnel decision, we have looked into the decision and discussed it with members of the senior administration of the college, including the Director of the college’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.”
The message continued, “Based on our inquiries and review of the individual’s 90-day probationary period, we confirm that this termination was based on performance issues only, was not retaliatory in nature, and that the administration acted with respect, fairness, judiciousness, and without bias of any kind.”
The Board’s response did not come as a surprise to many students view it as a typical move from the College’s leadership to try to shy from responsibility for administrative decisions of which students are critical. “What we are saying is that it’s very clear that the Administration, the Department of Safety and Security is not handling this in a just way,” Deane asserted.
As of now, the fate of Williams’s future at Vassar remains unclear, although the College has announced no intentions of reviewing the matter further. The SLD, however, will continue to press for his reinstatement as an issue of the rights of employees on campus to fair, equitable treatment.