Written by SM Dipali
As the push for increased diversity and inclusion at universities gains momentum nationwide, students are feeling its direct effects on day-to-day campus life at Stern.
Stern Student Council’s annual pageant-style competition, “Mr. and Mrs. Stern”, slated to be held on March 29th, was cancelled just days before the scheduled date, amid discussions regarding its alleged exclusivity.
“There is a very important conversation going on in the whole of NYU about diversity – yet there’s a competition like this in Stern that goes directly against those types of conversations,” said Thomas Pence, a senior in Stern studying Marketing. Pence was one of four Stern seniors who approached members of Student Council and the Dean’s Office to discuss problems with the event and how it could be made more inclusive.
The coalition of students outlined three major issues with the event.
“Firstly, the competition was queerphobic, in that it reinforces the male / female binary by requiring candidates to be either a Mr. or Mrs. Secondly, it’s homophobic, because the terms “Mr. and Mrs.” reinforce the traditional, heteronormative view of marriage, between a man and woman. Thirdly, it’s sexist, because the term “Mrs.” implies that the woman would have to be married to a man, reinforcing the idea that a woman is ‘owned’ by a man,” said Pence.
In a series of conversations with Student Council members and administrators from the Dean’s Office, the students discussed how to best approach the issue in a way that included all members of the Stern community.
“This was the first time I had ever received formal pushback on this program. It was a new type of issue for everyone involved, and we wanted to make sure we were respectful of everyone’s opinion and open to new ideas. Ultimately though, because there was very little time to re-program the event, we decided to cancel it all together,” said Shahryar Bachani, Stern Student Council President. Bachani also sits on the NYU University Senate.
The controversy over “Mr. and Mrs. Stern” takes place against the backdrop of nationwide initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion on university campuses. A wave of racially motivated activism began late last year, when students at the University of Missouri, including members of the school’s football team, protested for the ousting of the university president, Tim Wolfe. Students accused Wolfe of not addressing racist and bigoted incidents that occurred during the academic year, including when a swastika was drawn on a university building wall with human feces. Wolfe resigned amid protests.
The racist episodes that shook the Missouri campus set administrators around the country on frantic course correction efforts. Universities like Princeton and Syracuse have held town halls to hear student and faculty complaints, adjusted recruiting strategies, and created new administrative positions focused on diversity and inclusion.
At NYU, former President John Sexton hosted a town hall listening event last November to gather feedback and input from the NYU community on diversity and inclusion. When current President Andrew Hamilton assumed office in March, this topic was one of his top priorities.
In addition to these conversations, the Stern administration also looked to create tailored initiatives at the school level. In mid- April, Dean Peter Henry announced the formation of the Stern Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which aims to “(a) assess what Stern is doing and how well it is doing with respect to supporting diversity and fostering inclusion, (b) formulate actionable recommendations for improvement, and (c) create mechanisms for tracking progress.” The Task Force includes Deans, students, and faculty from both the undergraduate and graduate college.
Because the Task Force was not formally announced until after the discussions over Mr. and Mrs. Stern unfolded, they were not consulted on the matter. However, the need for such an organization was highlighted in the issues that cropped up when students discussed rebranding the event.
The competition, which was held in the spring semester for the last 13 years, historically included four parts: a talent portion, a costume contest, best pick-up line, and best date. Every year, a male student won Mr. Stern and a female student won Mrs. Stern.
In searching for alternative structuring and names for the event, Student Council members, Bachani and Fahad Jamal, looked to their collective experience sitting on the NYU Student Senate and working with student leaders across all NYU schools.
“We wanted to learn from other councils and we noted that CAS hosts a similar pageant-style competition, but instead calls it ‘CAS Royals.’ While the context is still a pageant and it is still competitive, it is less gendered,” said Bachani.
From this example sprung the idea of rebranding the “Mr. and Mrs. Stern” event as “Stern Royals,” and restructuring it accordingly. However, the coalition of students who opposed the original event found the proposed rebranding equally inadequate.
“Royalty implies that there will be a queen or king, which raises the same issues of gender binaries. Secondly, there is already a sense of royalty at Stern – with people in fraternities, clubs, and those who hang out in the 3rd floor lounge. This is fine and it happens naturally, but calling the event ‘Stern Royals’ actively promotes and reinforces this idea. The way these two aspects interplay made the idea of ‘Stern Royals’ exclusionary,” said Pence.
Some members of Student Council have latched onto Pence’s second claim regarding the existing sense of “royalty” at Stern.
“I understand the concern, but that isn’t something we can control or change with an event like this. I think we run these pageant competitions fairly, because all candidates are nominated. The candidates who are chosen to participate are simply those that receive the most nominations. Of course we often see that student leaders get nominated most frequently, probably because they are well known on campus. That’s not something we can control. But at the end of the day, anyone can be nominated, not just student leaders,” said Jamal.
In the end, the group involved in discussing the issue agreed that canceling the event this year was the soundest course of action given time constraints. However, in thinking about the future of the event, Student Council is now planning on restructuring the event to be superlative-based. Candidates would still be nominated, and the competition would include categories such as most charming, most professional, and most Stern pride.
“Both sides of the discussion showed professionalism and mindfulness in finding a way forward. It really gave us the opportunity to reassess traditions and be more observant. And that’s really what being an ally is – actively reassessing traditions,” said Ashish Bhatia, Dean of Student Life at the Undergraduate College, referencing the now commonly-used term “ally.”
Known to many students through the NYU and Stern “Ally Week,” allyship is the “active and consistent practice of unlearning and re-evaluating beliefs and actions, in which a person seeks to work in solidarity with a marginalized individual or group of people.” Allies are challenged to actively reassess norms and traditions, and ask questions when they are unsure of how to act or what to say in certain situations.
Many students who identify as an ally believe that canceling the event was indeed the best approach to ensure inclusivity.
“I identify as a heterosexual, cisgender woman and while I will never be able to understand [the LGBTQ] experience, and would never want to speak for them, I couldn’t support something that actively hurt others in our Stern community — because that’s not something I could ever stand behind, as a student leader or ally,” said Priya Kamdar, a senior in Stern who was a part the coalition of students who first approached Student Council and the Dean’s Office about the event.
Others saw the cancellation as misguided and unnecessary. “I’m huge supporter of diversity and inclusion, but I think attacking fun events that aren’t meant to discriminate doesn’t help push forward the cause,” said a junior in Stern, who preferred to remain anonymous on the issue.
Ultimately, the controversy brought about important questions of inclusivity and political correctness within the Stern community. But as the national spotlight on diversity and inclusion brightens and students become emboldened to speak out, it is clear that the Stern community must actively address these questions. Moving forward, Student Council and the Office of Student Engagement hope to collaborate with different student groups in Stern to ensure more inclusive programming.