A digital media and journalism professor has been placed on administrative leave following an incident in his class last month when two of his students left early to attend a rally against President-elect Donald Trump.
On Friday, Nov. 11, Nia Nelson, a fourth-year digital media production major and Jasmine Bailey, a fourth-year digital media management major, both left their field production class taught by Thomas Cznarty, a digital media management lecturer, to attend the rally. Student organizers encouraged those interested in participating to attend, even if it was in the middle of a class.
Ultimately, Cznarty filed a complaint of disruptive behavior with the Dean of Students, Robin Cohen-Lavelle. According to the 2016-17 SUNY New Paltz faculty handbook, disruptive behavior is defined as “behavior that the faculty member deems to interfere with or prevent normal classroom functions or activities.” Nelson and Bailey, who are both black, believe they were singled out by Cznarty due to their race.
Prior to filing the complaint, Cznarty addressed his class in an email sent at 3:18 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13. Cznarty wrote:
Leaving class without permission is not permissible unless by permission of your professor. Those that left early this past Friday are not to return to class. They must see me prior to the start of class on Tuesday or they will be permanently removed from class and may be subject to further disciplinary actions.
Cznarty, a full time faculty member since 2012, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
According to the students, prior to his email, Cznarty approached the digital media and journalism department chair, E. Jerry Persaud, with concerns about Nelson and Bailey’s attendance and academic standing in the class. The students both stated that they were in good academic standing and had missed only a few classes. Persaud was not available for comment on this story.
The day after Cznarty sent his class the email, Nelson and Bailey received an alert from Cohen-Lavelle that a complaint of disruptive behavior had been filed against them. The students both spoke to their respective advisors who urged them to still attend class. However, according to Bailey, she was warned by her advisor that Cznarty might call the police on them.
On Tuesday, Nov. 15, Bailey attended class, with Nelson arriving late after meeting with her advisor. According to them, Cznarty did not mention his email during the first hour of class. However, in passing their desks, Cznarty allegedly remarked that they were both failing and should consider dropping out of the course.
Nelson said she tried to ignore Cznarty, but Bailey asked, “When were you going to tell us?” According to Nelson and Bailey, Cznarty didn’t address the question and said he would speak to them after class. Bailey objected to his comments during class time, which prompted Cznarty to say that she and Nelson should leave class.
Nelson refused and asked why they had to leave, to which Cznarty responded that he would call University Police Department, (UPD). Cznarty then left class to go to the digital media and journalism office and called UPD. Two UPD officers then arrived at the classroom and asked to speak with Nelson and Bailey in the hallway. Cznarty allegedly told the officers that Nelson and Bailey were acting aggressively.
Nelson had a meeting immediately following the incident with the Dean of Liberal Arts, Laura Barrett. Both Nelson and Bailey expressed that they felt Cznarty’s actions were racially-motivated.
On Wednesday, Nov. 16, Nelson and Bailey had separate meetings with both Cohen-Lavelle and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Emma Morcone. Neither Cohen-Lavelle nor Morcone were available for comment on this story.
According to Bailey, Cohen-Lavelle addressed her use of profanity when engaging Cznarty, though Bailey said it was meant to express frustration with the situation and was not directed at him. Nelson arrived at her meeting with printouts of her assignments and attendance record from Cznarty’s class. Both Nelson and Bailey reiterated that the administration did not appear to have a defined course of action.
On Thursday, Nov. 17, Nelson and Bailey received an update from Morcone that the administration was “still working with appropriate parties regarding the issues we discussed yesterday.” Morcone also informed them that they did not have to attend class on Friday, Nov. 18, which neither did though Cznarty was present for class.
On Tuesday, Nov. 22, Nelson and Bailey were informed by Persaud that Cznarty had been placed on administrative leave. Melissa Kaczmerak, SUNY New Paltz’s Media Relations Manager, confirmed that Cznarty was placed on administrative leave but declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Nelson and Bailey both emphasized that neither asked for Cznarty to be placed on administrative leave, but insisted in their meetings with administration officials that they wanted Cznarty to apologize to the class.
“Putting him on administrative leave doesn’t mean that he was approached about what he said, what he did,” Nelson said. “He might not even know why he is on administrative leave. The issue lies in the administration’s handling of this situation.”
Additionally, Bailey suggested that the administration should have placed Cznarty in counselling.
“The institution acts like racism isn’t an issue,” Bailey said. “It’s not a personal issue, it’s not an issue between [Cznarty] and myself. But it’s a problem for people who look like us.”