Italian-American activists are demanding that the City University of New York reaffirm its decades-old pledge to give the group preferential treatment in staff recruitment, hiring and promotions.
The Italian American Legal Defense and Higher Education Fund is accusing CUNY officials of failing to honor a settlement that treats Italian-Americans as a disadvantaged group — and grants them affirmative action status in staff hiring and promotion decisions.
CUNY is believed to be the only higher education institution in the country giving special consideration to Italian-Americans for employment purposes.
“CUNY is not a welcoming institution to Italian-Americans,” said Joseph Scelsa, president of the Italian-American legal group, founder and president of the Italian-American Museum and former head of CUNY’s John Calandra Italian-American Institute.
In a Dec. 29 letter to CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez, the secretary of the group, claimed the number of Italian-Americans at CUNY was already “unacceptably low.”
“We expect equal treatment with other affirmative action categories,” Santi Buscemi wrote.
In the letter, Buscemi asks Matos Rodriguez to issue a pledge reaffirming CUNY and its college presidents’ support of “affirmative action for Italian-Americans.”
The group said the CUNY chancellor has still not responded to their letter.
But a CUNY insider who requested anonymity insisted officials there have been abiding by the affirmative-action order.
Controversy erupted after CUNY’s Brooklyn College eliminated its Italian studies program last year, which is the subject of an employment discrimination suit brought by one of its Italian professors.
“This action led to negative effects on faculty teaching Italian Studies at CUNY college located in the borough renowned for Italian-American culture. Brooklyn is the heart of Italian-America,” Buscemi said.
An Italian-American ex-security chief at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn also filed a discrimination suit last year after getting the boot.
The civil rights dispute regarding Italian-Americans and CUNY spans decades.
Former CUNY Chancellor Robert Kibbee first granted Italian-Americans affirmative action status in 1976, and the directive was reaffirmed a decade later by Chancellor Joseph Murphy. He directed CUNY’s affirmative action office to include data about Italian-Americans for affirmative action purposes.
At that time, there were powerful Italian-American lawmakers in the state Legislature — which controls the purse strings for CUNY’s budget — who complaining about alleged discrimination against Italians at the public university.
The issue came to a head in 1992 when federal Judge Constance Baker Motley granted a preliminary injunction in a suit brought by Scelsa, then the director of CUNY’s Calandra Italian-American Institute, who alleged CUNY engaged in discrimination after demoting him and attempting to transfer the institute to the College of Staten Island.
“Defendant CUNY undertook an obligation to increase the numbers of Italian-Americans employed in its workforce, an obligation it has failed to discharge,” Judge Motley wrote.
CUNY, under pressure from the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, New York’s first Italian-American governor and father of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo — as well as Italian-American legislators — settled the case before trial and agreed to provide affirmative-action status to Italian-Americans, Scelsa and others said.
But Italian-American education activists claim their amici are still getting the short end of the stick.
“It has been reported to us that some administrators do no believe in affirmative action for Italian Americans at CUNY. Whether or not CUNY administrators believe in affirmative action for Italian Americans is irrelevant,” Buscemi said in the letter to Matos Rodriguez.
“That fact is that affirmative action at CUNY exists and is legal. Therefore, it’s legality must be observed,” Buscemi said.
Now the nation’s largest umbrella group representing Italian-Americans, the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian-American Organizations, is threatening to sue CUNY if the chancellor refuses to provide a new affirmative-action pledge.
“This letter is to further put you on notice that if CUNY’s bias toward the Italian American community’s Affirmative Action program is not timely and appropriately addressed, the Conference of Presidents will join with the Italian American Legal Defense and Higher Education Fund, Inc. in pursuing all legal and political options available to our community to rectify this situation,” the group’s president, Basil Russo, said in a Jan. 14 letter to Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez.
One black civil rights activist said she was shocked when told that white Italian-Americans are considered a protected minority class at CUNY.
“I never heard of that,” said Hazel Dukes, president of the New York state chapter of the NAACP.
“When I look at CUNY, I’d don’t see enough African-Americans in college leadership positions,” Dukes said.
CUNY spokesman Frank Sobrino responded, “Diversity and inclusion are core CUNY values, which we believe create an environment that best allows our students, faculty, and staff to learn, work, and succeed, and we are reviewing the letter.”
Gov. Cuomo’s office had no immediate comment.