University Politics

Syracuse University will terminate the Cold Case Justice Initiative, frustrating its directors

Renee Zhou | Staff Photographer

SU's College of Law, housed in Dineen Hall, has served as the home for the Cold Case Justice Initiative. But soon the CCJI will be eliminated.

When North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R) took to the Senate floor in July 2016 to push a bill seeking justice for victims of racially motivated crimes, he pointed to Syracuse University’s Cold Case Justice Initiative as evidence the bill was necessary.

The bill, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act, was ultimately signed into law in December and reopened unsolved cases of racially motivated murders from the Civil Rights Era. That came after the CCJI submitted almost 200 names of possible victims of such crimes to the Department of Justice in 2012, which Burr referenced.

Burr’s Senate speech gave national prominence to the CCJI, a program in SU’s College of Law that works to identify and advocate for victims of unsolved racist crimes. It was seemingly a breakthrough moment for the program and evidence it could influence change on a national level.

But now, less than a year after Burr’s speech, SU and the College of Law are planning to terminate the CCJI, leaving some to call into question the university’s attitude toward racial issues. To the directors of the program, the move also represents university leadership’s disinterest in the CCJI – disinterest they say has been growing since Chancellor Kent Syverud arrived three years ago.

SU officials have claimed that the program doesn’t have the necessary funding to continue and that the directors, Professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald, need to return to full-time teaching roles. But Johnson and McDonald deny that those are valid reasons to close the program, saying they’re capable of funding the CCJI without SU’s help and have the capacity to teach courses while also running the program.

In an interview this week, the two professors instead challenged the university’s priorities and whether it values issues of racial and social justice. They questioned the message shutting down the program might send, particularly during a time of tense race relations in the country.

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As evidence of the CCJI’s value to the college, Johnson and McDonald also pointed to the hands-on experience that law students receive by volunteering with the program.

They added that, in recent months, they haven’t been part of discussions regarding the future of the program.

“We haven’t been included in any of the conversations between the chancellor and the dean about it,” McDonald said. “They’ve evidently been talking for a couple of months. They just informed us, that’s all.”

“If they were interested in reaching a solution and if there was a perceived problem for why we couldn’t go forward, then you would think that you’d bring the interested parties around the table,” Johnson added. “… That conversation hasn’t happened yet.”

Members of leadership within the university and College of Law were not made available for interviews for this story. Instead, the College of Law provided The Daily Orange with a statement from Dean Craig Boise.

In the statement, Boise said he has evaluated the college’s programs since becoming dean in July 2016. He added that, as part of that process, “we learned that funding commitments to the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) expired in June of 2016.”

“The University and the College of Law have invested $3 million in the program anticipating that additional funding to sustain it would be obtained; however, such funding never materialized,” Boise said. “… Meanwhile, I am looking forward to Professors Johnson and McDonald returning to their full-time teaching responsibilities to provide our law students with the specific knowledge and skills required to be successful graduates in pursuit of legal careers.”

But Johnson and McDonald contend that neither funding nor teaching is an issue.

McDonald said that she and Johnson have accepted that they would need to raise money independent of the university for the program to continue, something she said they have communicated to leadership. Additionally, both professors are teaching this semester and are on the schedule to teach next semester, they said.

“It’s not about money and it’s not about teaching,” McDonald said. “So what is it about? Is it about social justice on the campus?”

In recent years, the program has grown in both scope and recognition. In addition to Burr citing the CCJI on the Senate floor, the program submitted a report to the United Nations Office at Geneva two years ago, when the UN was reviewing the United States’ human rights record, Johnson said.

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Johnson and McDonald have also met and worked with high-ranking members in both the FBI and the Department of Justice in recent years.

But as the program has expanded its reach to national and international levels, it has simultaneously received virtually no interest from Syverud since he assumed his role about three years ago, they said.

The university did spend $30,000 during the third quarter of 2016 for the CCJI to push for the passage of the Emmett Till Reauthorization Act, according to lobbying reports.

But whereas the previous chancellor, Nancy Cantor, supported the program and enabled them to devote significant time to the project, Syverud hasn’t had any involvement with the CCJI “except messages delivered by somebody else,” McDonald said.

“It’s been since that time that we’ve kind of been adjusting and just trying to survive,” she added.

McDonald also pointed to the university cutting funds in September 2014 for the Posse Foundation, which supports high school students from underrepresented backgrounds with scholarships.

The university has called for increased diversity in recent years, but given the incidents with the Posse Foundation and CCJI, McDonald questioned whether diversity is actually improving at SU.

“I don’t know the answer. I’m not making those accusations,” she said. “… But we want to know is this important or is this not important.”

Johnson added that it’s particularly concerning to see the university cut the CCJI during a period of poor race relations in the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported almost 1,100 bias-related incidents in the month after President Donald Trump’s election, and police killings of black people have often made national headlines in recent years.

Those incidents have continued at high rates this year, with police so far having shot and killed 69 black people in 2017 as of Wednesday evening, according to The Washington Post.

“At this particular time is not a message for any major institution in our society to cut back on this as opposed to planting ourselves in that place where we say we’re firmly committed to doing racial and social justice,” Johnson said.

Johnson also pointed out that SU’s Academic Strategic Plan, one part of Syverud’s three-pronged Fast Forward Syracuse initiative, calls for and encourages experiential learning — something she said is at the heart of the CCJI.

Mark O’Brien, a College of Law alumnus who graduated in 2014, volunteered with the CCJI while he was a student. He said it was his first opportunity to put legal theories and legal ideas into action.

“This was my chance to kind of take things we were learning in the classroom and apply them to literally real world scenarios,” he said. “… Students work really hard on this, and I think it would be a shame if the program ceased to exist under the banner that it currently does.”

Soon, though, the program likely will cease to exist in its current form. And that’s something that Johnson said makes her worry that there’s a changing landscape at the university, where everything is secondary to issues that Syverud values most, such as veterans affairs.

“Is this university willing to stand for racial justice, social justice and innovative, experiential work, or not?” she said. “That isn’t about one dean’s decision. That’s about the university as a whole.”

Graphic by Emma Comtois | Digital Designer

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