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VORBACH: School of Environmental and Biological Sciences must be held accountable for insensitive social media post

The School of Environmental and Biological Sciences must do more to address the racism behind its Black History Month post, especially if it claims to support diversity and inclusivity.  – Photo by Googlemaps.com

Hey, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. We need to talk. 

On Feb. 16, the official School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Instagram posted a photograph of Agriculture and Natural Resources Program associate Kate Brown smiling in a field with the caption “#BlackHistoryMonth.” While I mention it here, the post itself did not explain her position or give her name.

It did not celebrate her recently acquired Masters in Horticulture from Cornell University, or explain that the photograph shows her conducting a study as an undergraduate. It also did not include a link to the interview she conducted with the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences to celebrate Black History Month, where she spoke about her experiences and accomplishments as a Rutgers undergraduate and alumna.

What followers, the Rutgers Community and the public saw was a photograph and caption that left much to be desired. 

The implication of a Black woman standing in a field alongside the caption “#BlackHistoryMonth” was clear to all. Students flooded the Instagram post with outrage, demanding that the social media team take down the picture and be held accountable for their actions. For its part, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences social media team tried to apologize, but even that response felt half-baked.

Alongside a professional photograph of Brown was an apology that emphasized how the original picture had “no context,” but as students aptly pointed out–if the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences team already had a professional photograph and article written about Brown, why not post that instead? Why share a post that was so easily identified as problematic?  

By the time the picture was shared, the caption “#BlackHistoryMonth” had been used three times on the @RutgersSEBS page. Each time, it showcased a member of the Black community at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, whether they were a staff member, student or alumnus, and included a quote about the importance of Black History Month from the perspective of the person being photographed.

Juxtapose these posts against the post with Brown, and the mistake becomes more jarring: Why not include a similar quote, or reference her Black History Month interview, which is where the picture came from?  

This particular instance becomes even more troubling when you look at the content and statements made by the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in the past month.

The same Instagram account that posted the now-deleted post has also shared similar interviews with the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences staff in honor of Black History Month, essays from Rutgers faculty about the importance of Black History Month, Black History Month events hosted by the University and a statement on behalf of the administration detailing what steps the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences has taken to create a more diverse and inclusive community on campus.

Considering all of the content that the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences social media team has created and shared in honor of Black History Month, it seems hard to believe that it is really “committed to making (their) communications more inclusive,” or even their school. 

Students are still angry. Before the picture had been taken down, @RutgersSEBS continued to post on its Instagram, and students commented asking for them to remove the post. Even after the apology was issued, many have been left dismayed and frustrated — no actions have been taken since, despite outcries that greater accountability is needed. 

Was the post really just a mistake, or was it another representation of how far away the University is from being an inclusive and uplifting environment for its students? It feels odd to call such an obvious error just a mistake, because it is so clear that whoever was responsible for that post never realized what they did was wrong (if they ever did) until long after they had been called out on it, and therein lies the problem. 

Either way, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and Rutgers, you need to seriously consider the type of institutions that you aim to be for your students and University community. Diversity and inclusion statements mean nothing if you cannot educate your staff or hold them accountable for their actions. 

Glad we talked. 

I urge and encourage you to listen and learn from the Rutgers United Black Council, other student groups and students as they make their voices heard and demand action from the University. 

Laura Vorbach is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science and criminal justice and minoring in international and global studies and economics. Her column, "We Need to Talk" runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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