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Columbus Day Bill Tabled by Manhattan College Senate After Tense Debate

by Jeremy Loffredo

Staff Writer

Robert M. Geraci, Ph.D., chair of the religious studies department, recently brought a motion before the Manhattan College Senate proposing that the college no longer recognize Columbus Day as a campus-wide holiday, replacing it with Election Day.

The proposal, which was brought before the Senate at its first meeting of the semester on Sept. 19, was met with a fervent opposition that tested the boundaries of the Senate’s decorum.                       

After concluding its routine business, including the approval of the previous session’s minutes and an address by College President Brennan P. O’Donnell, Ph.D., on the state of the college, the Senate’s agenda turned its attention to Geraci’s proposal.

Michael McEneney ’53, the sole alumni representative on the Senate, motioned for the delay of the topic’s debate to the October meeting.                                                         

Student Senator Chris Cacciavillani, who attended the senate meeting, said that “[Senator McEneney] was basically trying to kibosh [Geraci’s proposal], before the conversation had even taken place.”

Regarding the issue, Geraci revealed his personal belief that the motion countering his proposal was an attempt to postpone debate of the subject indefinitely. It was at this moment that the meeting’s overall mood, as described by Caccaivillani, became “tense.”

McEneney was overruled by Senate Speaker Nuwan Jayawickreme, Ph.D., of the psychology department, who had brought Geraci’s proposal to the floor.

Geraci then read from his proposal.

According to a later email from Geraci, his motives for this proposal include simplifying the academic calendar, and alleviating the controversy surrounding the imperial and genocidal legacy of Christopher Columbus.

“Any historically accurate understanding of Columbus knows he didn’t just maybe do some bad things; he was actively engaged in slavery, as well as rapine and genocidal behavior,” Geraci wrote. “Defending him as having done good things (whatever those may be remain conveniently unsaid!) is a lot like saying there are ‘very fine people’ among the Neo-Nazi community.”

His remarks were met with unexpected retorts by some members of the Senate.

According to three sources at the meeting, including Geraci, Caccaivillani and senior student senator Ryan Quattromani, Senator Margaret McKiernan said she felt blindsided by the proposal and did not know a vote on such a proposal was happening. McKiernan is a staff representative and library assistant.

McKiernan went on to challenge Geraci’s ability to propose such a concept.

McKiernan asserted that Geraci’s twelve years serving on the faculty disqualify him, because she and other members of the Senate have been members of the college community for much longer – in McKiernan’s case, some thirty-five years.

“[McKiernan’s comment was] presented in a disrespectful manner,” said Cacciavillani. 

McKiernan then changed focus in her argument and asserted to Geraci that in a religious context Columbus Day exemplifies the college’s Lasallian values. McKiernan declined to comment.

“Frankly the way he was treated by some members of the Senate was abhorrent. I can’t believe these are the elders in charge of our school,” one student senator commented.

The meeting then devolved into a disorganized dialogue, with senators shouting over each other and ignoring Jayawickreme’s calls for order.                                    

Another member of the Senate reiterated McKiernan’s original questioning of whether it was appropriate or not for Geraci to raise his proposal, simply because his twelve years as a member of the college community were less than their own durations. Sources at the meeting could not identify this member.                                                                     

No vote was held on Geraci’s proposal.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect the incredible push back experienced at the Senate,” Geraci wrote.

In an email, Geraci drew a comparison between his opposition on the floor of the Senate and the opposition faced by the college’s patron saint, St. Jean Baptiste De la Salle, during his ministry.

“I hope that people will recognize that when our patron started teaching the poor, there were certainly people scared of that change,” Geraci wrote. “But De La Salle’s work was part of the long arc of historical progress, one in which we offer more opportunity, more care, and more protection to our brothers and sisters across the human family.”

The backlash that met Geraci’s proposal pushed the boundaries of the Senate’s constitution, the preamble of which references the body’s “common goal of strengthening our institution by participating in its governance.”

Quattromani is working with other student government representatives to conduct a campus-wide survey to gauge where exactly the student body stands on this issue. Quattromani is personally against the proposal.

The results of the survey will be taken into consideration by the Senate at its next meeting on Oct. 17.

“I don’t care if you’ve been here for a month or 35 years, you have a voice on this campus,” Quattromani said.

The full text of the proposal can be found here.

 

CORRECTION (Oct. 3, 2017, 3:57 p.m.). A previous version of this article read, “he shot back at McKiernan,” instead of, “he shot back at McEneney.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 3, 2017, 10:53 p.m.). A previous version of this article read, “According to later interviews with Cacciavillani and Jayawickreme, he shot back at McEneney, saying, ‘You can’t do that,’ in response to McEneney’s motion.”

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