Prabhu Rajkumar, chair of finance at the University of Massachusetts’ Student Government Association, held a meeting Tuesday to discuss how to move forward after his racially charged tweets resurfaced in October, sparking outcry from concerned students and SGA members.
The meeting, held via Zoom, lasted about an hour and a half and was attended by a small group of SGA members and students.
Among other issues, the tweets addressed the topic of undocumented immigrants. In one tweet, Rajkumar responded to President-elect Joe Biden’s tweet that said, “Americans are Dreamers. Period.”
“No, they’re not,” said Rajkumar, who is an immigrant, in a tweet. “They broke the law to enter and are an insult to those who legally entered, like myself.”
Rajkumar began the meeting by stating that he hoped to learn from input from the attendees about how he should move forward in holding himself and the SGA accountable.
“The best thing for me to do is to listen rather than talk,” he said.
Zach Steward, a junior African-American studies and legal studies major who was one of the first people to call attention to the tweets, said he wanted to see Rajkumar take responsibility.
“My goal at the end of this meeting is to see what you personally come up with to hold yourself accountable,” said Steward. “You seem to be great at talking about actively undoing [the harm caused by the tweets], but I’m not seeing any actual active steps to actually undo it.”
Steward said holding the SGA accountable is a separate issue from holding Rajkumar accountable. “While there are systemic issues in SGA as a whole, this is about you.”
About a month ago, Steward created a petition calling for Rajkumar’s resignation, as well as the resignation of Speaker Julia Fox and Kyle Kendall, the chair of the administrative affairs committee.
“The SGA cannot truly do everything it can to make BIPOC and other minorities safe on campus with individuals such as these within it,” reads the petition, which has accumulated 211 signatures.
According to Steward’s comments during the meeting, however, he never expected the petition to accomplish its goal.
“Honestly, in the back of my mind, I did not believe that [Rajkumar], Speaker Fox and Chair Kendall would step down,” he said. “But I created that petition in order to show you all that there are folks on this campus that believe that this situation could have been handled much better than it has been thus far.”
Rajkumar went on to ask Steward to elaborate on the harm his tweets caused, so that he can understand the issue “from the side of someone who felt wronged.”
“I have friends who are under the DACA program,” Steward answered, referencing Rajkumar’s tweet about Dreamers. “I’m going to be honest, I took that at face value and I was like, ‘Alright, he hates illegal immigrants.’”
Micky Cox, a senior anthropology and English major, agreed with Steward.
“That tweet was really jarring to read, especially since the reason that people integrate to this country is not always cut and dry,” he said.
Steward then questioned Rajkumar about a previous comment he made about the tweets being taken out of context, asking him to explain what he meant.
“With something like a tweet, where you have a limited number of characters, there really isn’t enough room for something like a nuanced conversation,” Rajkumar said. “If you know me personally and we’ve had a conversation about immigration, for example, you would have seen that it’s not necessarily a black and white issue, there’s much more shades of gray.”
Rajkumar went on to say that he doesn’t “necessarily have anything against people who immigrated” illegally because “a lot of people come here for a better life.” However, he said he does have a problem with the seeming “prioritization of people who came here illegally.”
The discussion moved to Rajkumar’s statement, which he in an email chain that has been used to discuss the issue over the past few months.
In the statement, Rajkumar apologized for “the way that the statements on my social media were perceived.” He also noted that he was not in a leadership position when he posted the tweets and that he “merely wrote them to be read by my five Twitter followers.”
In his statement, Rajkumar also critiqued the priorities of President Sonya Epstein, Vice President Jennie Chang and former President Timmy Sullivan.
“Is the average UMass student truly as horrified and distressed on a daily basis by the existence of Coca Cola in our campus vending machines as President Sullivan and Epstein make it seem?” he wrote. “Does the average UMass student truly feel that too many students are being allowed back on campus this Spring? President Epstein sure seemed to assume so in their letter to the Chancellor about the Spring reopening plan. Does the average UMass Student believe that ‘professionalism is a tool of white supremacy’ as vice president Chang does?”
Steward suggested that this critique took away from the sincerity of Rajkumar’s statement.
“It was petty,” he said. “I think another apology without all that would be nice.”
Rajkumar responded that he felt that his statement was genuine.
Steward also expressed concerns about Rajkumar’s position as chair of finance and how his biases could affect his work. Rajkumar said that the finance committee is in charge of allocating emergency funding to RSOs and explained how he attempts to keep biases out of his work.
“From day one, I’ve been stressing the importance of equal neutrality and the importance of recusing yourself from a vote if you feel that you hold strong views one way or the other about the organization that is coming up petitioning for emergency funding,” Rajkumar said. He also noted that chairs don’t vote unless there is a tie.
He also explained that the finance committee and the ways and means committee are bound by viewpoint neutrality, which means that the committees are supposed to treat “every organization that comes to us in an equal manner.”
Carla Montilla, secretary of diversity, said the ways and means committee is also adopting a racial bias training in addition to the viewpoint neutrality training.
“While viewpoint neutrality is crucial to our process, this training does not address the underlying biases members of the committee may have that can affect their voting on [established student organization’s] budget requests,” she said in the meeting.
Rajkumar said he is planning on further reviewing this training before he decides whether to incorporate it into the finance committee.
He also said he plans to reach out to cultural centers and help to teach them “how to apply for RSO start-up grants, how to apply for loans and grants from the finance committee,” in order to begin his committee’s anti-racist work.
Steward again said that the issue pertains to Rajkumar personally.
“I would say, do some soul searching because inadvertently whether you like it or not, you are the face of the finance committee,” Steward said. “At the end of the day, whatever happens under your committee falls to you. It does eventually end up falling to the rest of the SGA, but first it stops with you.”
Steward went on to ask, “if you’re not doing your job correctly, why are you even in the position in the first place?”
Rajkumar responded, “I have been doing this job perfectly correctly . . . so no, I will not be stepping down.”
Earlier in the month, both Fox and Kendall sent apologies related to how they responded during the controversy.
Kendall apologized for how he spoke at an “open dialogue” meeting on Nov. 17, which was held to discuss the same issue, as well as two other meetings.
“My words were poorly chosen and were not intended as racially motivated. I will not attempt to deny that I made the comments, nor will I attempt to justify my actions,” he wrote. “It is important to be educated on the differences of the many types of discrimination even more so in a society where the word ‘racist’ is used as a synonym to describe microaggressions, biases and many other categories of potentially harmful expressions.”
Fox’s apology addressed her response to the situation, as well.
“What has come of this is a disappointing, upsetting and unwelcoming student environment, worsened by the harms created by my actions and inactions.”
Fox apologized for not addressing Kendall’s comments directly.
“In an advisor’s meeting held on November 17, 2020, I caused harm through my inaction to assertively call out the unprofessional behavior of Chair Kyle Kendall.”
She also apologized for her own behavior: “During the November 18, 2020 Senate meeting, I failed to address this situation publicly or produce a necessary timeline for ensuring accountability of the SGA.”
She also announced that individual leaders in both branches of the SGA would be creating publicly available “concrete action plans for racial justice.”
The draft of Montilla’s anti-racist plan can be found here. The draft of Rajkumar’s can be found here. These plans have yet to be finalized.
Sophia Gardner can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @sophieegardnerr.