NEW YORK – The New York City Police Department hate crimes task force tried to determine Wednesday who could have hung a noose on the office door of a black Columbia University professor.
An NYPD spokesman told FOXNews.com that the matter was being treated as a hate crime, but offered no further details. The noose was discovered Tuesday by a colleague of Madonna Constantine, a professor at the university's graduate education school.
A police official told The Associated Press that investigators were looking at whether a fellow faculty member at Teachers College with whom Constantine had a dispute or an unhappy student might have been responsible.
Meanwhile, Columbia University students and faculty held a rally protesting the incident Wednesday. Many said they weren't shocked that such a racially-motivated gesture happened at the Ivy League school.
The prestigious university, according to rally attendees, struggles with racial tension and prejudice in spite of its status as an elite institution with top-notch academics and a commitment to diversity.
"Unfortunately, I'm not surprised," said one female African American doctoral student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Columbia is not a tolerant community. There is not only racism but classism. I feel voiceless and invisible at times, but I've learned to let my voice be heard."
Demonstrators with signs declaring "Intolerance Is Intolerable" and "Not on Our Campus" protested Wednesday afternoon outside Teachers College, and Constantine spoke publicly to condemn the "heinous and highly upsetting incident" of which she apparently was the victim.
"I would like us to stay strong in the face of such a blatant act of racism," she told the boisterous, multicultural crowd. "Hanging the noose on my office door reeks of cowardice and fear on many levels."
Constantine has written extensively about racism and teaches a racial justice course. She wasn't in her office Tuesday when her colleague noticed the noose, an inflammatory symbol recalling a bygone era of racially motivated lynchings in the South.
No one answered a knock on Constantine's office door in Horace Hall after Wednesday's rally ended, but a university employee emerged at one point and said he'd just had a meeting with her.
"It's definitely painful," the doctoral student at the rally said of the incident. "I'm from the South, where there are blatant forms of racism. Hidden forms are always worse."
She said she often feels isolated as a black woman on campus, and many of her fellow students frequently turn their backs on her instead of speaking to her. At first, she said, she wondered whether she was being too sensitive, but other minorities at Columbia, located in the heart of Harlem in New York City, have told her of similar experiences.
"It feels intentional because it constantly happens," she said.
An adjunct professor at Wednesday's protest said she has noticed an increase in discriminatory behavior and attributed it to the current political climate in the United States.
"It's horrifying obviously," said Cris Beam, who teaches creative writing. "We're in a culture right now of escalating racism, in an increasingly conservative (environment). We all live in this country, so it seeps in."
A junior at Pace University, located at the opposite, southern, tip of Manhattan, said he came to the rally to show his support for the fight against discrimination.
"Really obnoxious and blatant racism should be exposed in order to bring to light the larger systemic problems," said Brian Kelly, 20, who is studying politics at Pace.
First-year Teachers College student Michelle Miller of Canada believes the noose incident "shows a threat is looming."
"At an educational school, where they're trying to teach multiculturalism, that is sort of a slap in the face against them," said Miller, 22. "If it's happening at Columbia, in Harlem, then it can happen anywhere."
The gesture targeting Constantine is the latest in a string of similar incidents involving nooses. Hangman's ropes were left in the bag of a black cadet and the office of a woman giving race relations training at the U.S, Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut; at Nassau County Police headquarters in Long Island, N.Y.; and last year on the branch of an oak tree outside Jena High School in Jena, La.
In the Jena case, three white students were suspended from school but not tried for the crime. The town has since been rocked by racial strife, with a white student badly beaten three months later and mass demonstrations after the arrest of six black students for the assault.
Columbia's own brush with a noose crime has rattled the school, which has been steeped in controversy lately — most recently over the hosting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. University officials vowed that whoever pinned the noose on Constantine's door would be punished.
Columbia prides itself on its diverse student body. The population is made up of those from about 80 countries and is 12 percent black, 11 percent Asian American and 7 percent Hispanic.
"This is an assault on African Americans and therefore it is an assault on every one of us," university President Lee C. Bollinger said in a statement. "I know I speak on behalf of every member of our communities in condemning this horrible action."