Re-negotiations in Posse Foundation scholarships prompt activism on campus

Starting in fall 2015, SU will reduce its number of Posse Foundation partner cities from three to one.

When Shelia Payton graduated Syracuse University in 1970, she left the campus she had called home for four years with mixed feelings.

“I had a great education. I learned a lot. It got me the career I wanted,” the 66-year-old alumna said. “But I never felt that I was part of the university.” 

Even when Payton came back for subsequent reunions, she said, she didn’t feel like a part of the SU family. Acquaintances from her college days — now all attorneys — would hear that Payton too was considering law school. Then they would advise her against the path they themselves had chosen, saying it was too much work.

“We’re grieving about the people who are starting the process.” -- Demarquez Grissom

“They did not look like me,” Payton said. “And it reminded me of the attitude that I had put up with for four years.” 

Payton returned to campus this weekend for Coming Back Together, the reunion SU has sponsored specifically for African American and Latino alumni every three years since 1983. In part, Payton said, Coming Back Together is an effort to recognize the minority student experience at SU. However, the campus climate the alumna returned to more than 40 years after her graduation was one of agitation — she was greeted by a “Rally for a Difference” staged on Friday at 4 p.m. outside the Life Sciences Complex.

While the rally’s location and late afternoon time were chosen to coincide with a Coming Back Together reception with Chancellor Kent Syverud, student organizers of the rally cited many of the same events that inspired the Twitter hashtag, #ITooAmSU, as more general catalysts. These events include the viral spread of an Instagram video in which an SU soccer player uses racial and homophobic slurs; the shuttering of the Advocacy Center in June; and recent cuts to the Posse Foundation’s scholarship program at SU. 

Posse grants full tuition scholarships at partner universities to each student in 10-student “posse” from a given city, with the idea that the students then go to a college with a support system already in place. Although it is not a minority scholarship, it has been credited with increasing diversity on campus.

SU has re-negotiated its contract with the Posse Foundation so that only posses from Miami will be accepted beginning in fall 2015. This means that posses from former partner cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles will no longer be accepted. The 91 Posse Scholars currently on campus will not be financially affected by the re-negotiation. 

The reduction in the number of partner cities is what the rally’s first speaker, David Jackson, described as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“The reasoning just didn’t make sense,” the history and secondary education sophomore told the crowd — a mix of students, faculty, alumni and press — from his makeshift pedestal on the stone beside the Life Sciences steps. 

Posse Scholars received an email this week stating that SU would re-focus its recruitment efforts solely on Miami, explaining that the change would “provide long-term sustainability for the Posse Scholar program at Syracuse.”

In an interview, Andria Costello Staniec, associate provost for academic programs and Posse liaison, added that the decision was not financially motivated. “This was a decision based on having some experience now,” she said, pointing out that most universities connect only with one city through Posse, and that SU had been relatively ambitious in launching three programs when the university started accepting Posse Scholars in 2012. “As we’ve gotten into it, we feel that to make the program sustainable here, it would be in the students’ best interest if we scaled back the program.” 

Long-term sustainability also becomes relevant when considering mentors for each posse, she said, noting that faculty mentors face an approximately 15-hour weekly commitment in meeting with scholars individually and as a group. 

Since the re-negotiation affects only future students, she emphasized that current Posse Scholars on campus will still receive all the resources promised to them. And future students from Atlanta and L.A. will still have the option of attending other universities through Posse Foundation scholarships, she said. 

But for Demarquez Grissom, a physical education sophomore and Posse Scholar from Atlanta, the change is upsetting regardless. He has friends and high school classmates in Atlanta going through Posse’s application process now, he said, holding an #ITooAmSU sign at the rally on Friday, and he even nominated some of these students himself.

“We’re grieving about the people who are starting the process,” Grissom said. 

Speakers at the rally —  who included students, alumni and Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric Spina — recognized several times that the rally’s focus was greater than simply re-negotiations with the Posse Foundation.

A list of demands, read aloud by Student African American Society President Anju Franklin and distributed to the crowd, called for the following: the creation of a Black and Latino Caucus to advocate for this demographics’ best interests on campus; the reinstatement of the Multicultural Spring Program; mandatory open dialogue courses for freshman to discuss issues such as race, ethnicity and diversity; an increase in scholarship for diverse students; an increase in funding for the African American studies department; and increase in the admittance of Black and Latino students. 

At a university forum scheduled for 3:30 – 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 2, these and other issues will be discussed, Spina told the crowd. The chancellor is expected to attend the forum.

“These dialogues are important for us to keep going forward,” Spina said after thanking everyone for attending the rally.

For alumni such as Payton, who saw the formation of campus organizations such as the Student African American Society during her time at SU in the late ‘60s, the activist spirit shown at Friday’s rally was heartening. 

“I’m very proud of the way they’re handling it,” Payton said of the current students. “They’re not doing it in a rowdy way. They’re just letting people know there’s a problem ... And that’s pretty much the way we did it too.”

Madysan Foltz contributed reporting to this article.

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