How a Fight Over a Black Lives Matter Statement Transformed an Academic Association | #students | #parents

Like many academic associations, the Puerto Rican Studies Association is pretty small — fewer than 300 members, and that’s in a good year. But the group erupted in outsize controversy this summer when its entire executive committee resigned after allegations of sexism and misogyny against some members went public.

In a contentious email exchange, a member of the association’s board, Harry Franqui-Rivera, an associate professor of history at Bloomfield College, in New Jersey, accused five women on the board of appropriating his ideas. He attacked their scholarship and accused them of trying to steer the association’s agenda for their own benefit. In one of several Facebook posts describing the situation, Franqui-Rivera, who until recently served as the association’s treasurer, referred to the women as “a clique of abusers and cyber bullies.”

The women who were the subjects of Franqui-Rivera’s outburst — two untenured faculty members and three graduate students — responded with an open letter of resignation charging that there was “a climate of sexism, infantilization, gaslighting, and racism” on the executive council, “which certain Board members have perpetuated with little consequence.”

The dispute might be dismissed by some academics. But the work of groups like the Puerto Rican Studies Association is a key building block in many scholars’ careers. And the meltdown and subsequent remaking of the association shows how one of the academy’s key units can be transformed by academics’ evolving political consciousness.

In this case, a group of senior scholars stepped in and spoke up for the five women, circulating an open letter that was signed by nearly 300 faculty members across the country. The incident has spurred a wave of new and former members to join the association, with many saying they had stayed away because of what they saw as the group’s unwelcoming climate.

“Puerto Rican studies are having a moment of recognition,” said Yarimar Bonilla, one of four academics who wrote the letter of support and a professor in the department of Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies at Hunter College and of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Many of the new members had never felt welcome in the association, she said, “because of their gender, sexuality, or their area of study.”

As protests grew over the killing of George Floyd in May and June, the executive committee of the Puerto Rican Studies Association began to draft a statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

But the discussions broke down over a number of points, including who was or wasn’t getting credit for the idea, whether the statement should include the idea that Black transgender women are disproportionately affected by violence, and whether the association could commit to recruiting more members who identify as Afro-Puerto Rican or LGBTQ.

“I felt like they were appropriating my response,” said Franqui-Rivera, who made the initial recommendation for a statement but lashed out after others joined the effort without specifically crediting him. He also questioned the suggestion that those who bear the brunt of the violence are transgender. “I thought it would be divisive,” he said, “and I don’t think it’s true.”

A 2013 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 72 percent of the victims of hate-related homicides were transgender women, overwhelmingly women of color. The same report found that “transgender people were 3.7 times more likely to experience police violence compared to cisgender survivors and victims.”

Sarah Molinari, a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at CUNY and a member of the association’s board, said the idea of specifying the disproportionate harm done to transgender persons “catalyzed the barrage of disrespect we got on email.”

“Our opinions on the statements were undermined and turned into personal attacks,” she said.

Then things got uglier. Franqui-Rivera compared an email sent by one of the five women to President Trump’s divisive tweets, and told the women that the sexism and misogyny they alleged was “all in their head,” he said.

Courtesy of Harry Franqui-Rivera

Harry Franqui-Rivera, an associate professor of history at Bloomfield College, accused five women on the board of the Puerto Rican Studies Association of appropriating his ideas.

“I know I could have said it differently,” said Franqui-Rivera. “What they’re doing is putting on a pathological performance. “It’s become the worst kind of identity politics. I’m not going to perform for white liberals. I would rather have people judge me by my scholarship and how I interact with colleagues.”

The disputes over the contents of the statement were only a part of the problem, said several of the women who eventually resigned. “The part that was more disappointing was the lack of immediate reaction from the president and vice president,” said Joanna M. Camacho Escobar, a coordinator of advisement in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of New Mexico and an adjunct instructor at Texas Southmost College, in Brownsville.

In the middle of June, the group of women wrote an internal memo to the rest of the board, asking for members to be more respectful of one another and more welcoming to diverse perspectives: “We, especially as junior womxn (and mostly grad students) on the Board, should not be the only ones expected to address this kind of behavior when it arises.”

“It is everyone’s responsibility, but especially the executive leadership’s, to work towards maintaining a climate of mutual respect,” they wrote.

The five women also asked the board to remove Franqui-Rivera from the board. The association’spresident and vice president at the time responded with a letter saying, essentially, that both sides were to blame: Because others had engaged in personal attacks in the past without being removed from the board, Franqui-Rivera should not now be penalized for his words.

“I reject the idea that the executive council was a place where a handful of men were oppressing a majority of women, Charles Venator-Santiago, the former vice president, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “The problem is that the clowns who are framing this debacle generally relied on a narrative of strategic victimhood.” Venator-Santiago is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.

The former president, Salvador Mercado, an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Denver, did not respond to a request for comment.

Alessandra Rosa, a board member and a postdoctoral scholar in sociology at the University of South Florida, said that she understood both sides of the conflict, and that she and other board members felt caught in the middle.

“I know Harry is not sexist,” she said, “but I respect these young scholars, and they are fighting for the things that I say I am fighting for. I can’t agree with either side completely.”

But Lisa Figueroa-Jahn, a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at CUNY’s Graduate Center, said the board’s response was patronizing. “The response to our letter felt like a wag of the finger, like a parent scolding their child,” she said.

The conflict over the statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement was the latest of many incidents that point to problems of toxic masculinity within the association’s leadership, said Marisol Lebrón, an assistant professor of Mexican American and Latina/o studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

A year ago, Lebrón, an at-large member of the board, had been organizing a symposium panel for the association at her university. When she got no response from other board members for recommendations of panelists, she invited Bonilla, the Hunter College professor, to give a keynote address.

That decision did not sit well with the vice president, Venator-Santiago, who accused Lebrón of making an executive decision without input from the rest of the board. He called the choice of a single speaker “elitist” and undemocratic.

He also disliked Bonilla’s scholarship, he said, because it did not focus specifically on Puerto Rico, and he found it shallow. “The association should be a place where even shoddy scholars should have a platform,” Santiago said, “but I didn’t want to position her as an expert on Puerto Rico.

Bonilla said Venator-Santiago’s comments “shows why so many people have felt that the organization had no space for them.”

“Although my work has been vetted by countless peer reviewers, editorial boards, tenure committees, and grant-and-fellowship panels,” she said, “it remains illegible to them because it is not part of their narrow definitions of the field.”

The women on the board, Lebrón said, came together to support her recommendation as keynote speaker, and the event was a relative success financially, she added. “The symposium is usually perfunctory, but we got 80 young, energetic scholars.”

The leadership was very dominated by men who did not seem sympathetic or open to different perspectives.

Venator-Santiago and others have also been accused of seeking to dissuade some women from seeking the office of vice president — a position that automatically leads to the presidency after two years.

Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel was nominated to run for vice president in 2012, she said. But a few weeks before that election, Santiago, who was serving as vice president, called her to talk about the organization’s financial problems. Martinez-San Miguel changed her mind about running. “In retrospect, I think he was trying to convince me not to run,” said Martinez-San Miguel, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Miami.

Venator-Santiago said that he was not trying to discourage San Miguel from seeking the office, and that in any case the association has a policy since 2010 of alternating men and women in the leadership positions. A woman, Arlene Torres, ran successfully for vice president in 2012.

In 2018, Adriana Garriga-Lopez, an associate professor of anthropology at Kalamazoo College, said she’d received a similar call after she accepted a nomination to run for the vice presidency. Mercado, who was vice president at the time, asked her if she was prepared to take on the association’s financial problems.

Garriga-Lopez said “she refused to back down.” But after the election, the association announced that because of a technical glitch, the vote had to be retaken. This time Garriga-Lopez lost by one vote to Venator-Santiago.

“I had to compete with her because other members of the board who knew her personally refused to work with her and would have resigned if I did not run against her,” Santiago said in his email to The Chronicle.

This year’s elections for the association’s leadership took place several weeks before originally scheduled, and under a cloud of scandal and a sense of crisis.

When the association’s leaders refused to force Franqui-Rivera from the executive council, the five women board members released their public statement. “It has become clear to us that the current leadership structure is not taking our concerns seriously and does not intend to implement the urgent and necessary steps that we have recommended, including the removal of a condescending and hostile individual from the Board,” they wrote.

That effort could have backfired and caused professional difficulties for all five women. “There is definitely a position of vulnerability in academe, and especially as graduate students there is a fear of calling things out because of the possibility of retaliation,” said Aurora Santiago-Ortiz, a Ph.D. candidate in social-justice education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a graduate-student representative on the association’s board. “We felt that things weren’t going to change if we didn’t come forward,” she said.

But three days later, on August 13, the group of senior scholars wrote in support of the women and called for the association to hold new elections “monitored by an independent organization in order to elect a new leadership that is prepared to address the current needs of the field of Puerto Rican Studies: one that foregrounds Black, feminist, and queer perspectives.”

That letter spurred many in the discipline to join the association for the first time or to renew membership after letting it lapse.

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a professor of Spanish at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a former member of the association, was one of four academics who wrote that letter. La Fountain-Stokes, whose research includes LGBTQ culture in the Hispanic Caribbean, noted taht he had begun to attend association events in 1996, when he was a graduate student, and that the organization became a big part of his intellectual and professional development.

After serving two terms on the executive council from 2013 to 2016, he said, he felt that its climate was not inclusive. Several colleagues had stopped attending the association’s annual conference, he added. “The leadership was very dominated by men who did not seem sympathetic or open to different perspectives,” he said.

Tomás Urayoán Noel, an associate professor of English and of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University, is another former board member who signed the letter of support. In addition to the issues of climate and diversity, the association has struggled with financial and organizational problems common to many small nonprofit groups.

The challenges ahead seem nearly as great. After the the entire executive council resigned, Venator-Santiago has run the association’s headquarters from his office at the University of Connecticut and is now in the process of transferring the legal and financial structure to the newly elected board.

The transition has been made more difficult by those who campaigned to oust him,Venator-Santiago said. He feels unappreciated for the many years of hard work and sacrifice he made to try to keep the association alive, he added.

“Senior faculty keep calling me to save the association,” Venator-Santiago said in an email. There was even a plan for this current election to have “a senior faculty member to run for president, apologize to me, and ask me to run” the headquarters. “But the plan fell through.”

The newly elected board, which includes the University of Texas’ Marisol Lebrón as vice president, is reform-minded and trying to set a new tone for the association, said the new president, Joaquin Villanueva, an associate professor of geography and peace studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, in Minnesota..

“There’s no agenda,” he said. “I come here in good spirits to help an organization that needs a transition.”

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