Protests echo across campuses nationwide

by Victoria Nelsen and Marina Shkuratov | 5/7/14 8:35pm

In recent months, colleges across the country have seen a spate of demonstrations regarding issues of identity, with students demanding greater inclusivity on their campuses. Many resemble Dartmouth’s April “Freedom Budget” protests, when over a dozen students occupied College President Phil Hanlon’s office for two days, demanding a point-by-point response to a list of over 70 demands regarding issues of diversity.

In the last year, students at Princeton University, Harvard University, Oberlin College, Mills College, University of Michigan, City University of New York, Mount Holyoke College and University of California at Los Angeles, among others, have initiated protests concerning similar issues.

Melissa Padilla ’16, who was involved in the “Freedom Budget” protest, said she communicated with her friends who were involved with similar protests at other schools, including New York University and University of Texas at Austin, during the construction of the “Freedom Budget” and the sit-in. Other Dartmouth activists spoke with friends on various campuses as well, she said.

The protest at Dartmouth, she said, was not a reaction to movements at other schools but a response to discrimination at the College.

“A lot of universities are looking to be more inclusive but are acting very unlike their statements,” Padilla said. “There’s a big gap between their mission statements and the actual reality of being a student on campus.”

Across the country students are demanding that administrators make structural changes to better support all students.

On April 7, a coalition of students at Oberlin College, in Ohio, wrote an open letter in support of the sit-in at Dartmouth. The letter was posted in the opinion section of “Fearless and Loathing,” an independent website run by Oberlin students.

“We recognize the actions of our fellow students at Dartmouth as courageous, necessary steps that must be taken if institutions such as ours — ones that advertise themselves on falsified notions of diversity, inclusivity and dignity — continue to treat ‘dialogue’ as a synonym for structural violence,” the letter states.

Oberlin junior Ana Robelo, who has been a member of the coalition since its founding last fall, said several communities on Oberlin’s campus worked together to compile a list of demands for their school’s administration. The demands included increased administrative transparency, divestment from companies that support Israeli occupation of Palestine and scholarship funding for undocumented students.

On Oct. 10, a group of Oberlin students took over the Board of Trustees meeting and discussed demands. Oberlin senior Alice Beecher said that hundreds of students dressed in red as a symbol of solidarity.

Robelo said she sensed strong and immediate backlash during the meeting.

Student reactions, however, were generally supportive, though some disagreed with the group’s tactics and the demand to divest from companies that support Israel, Beecher said.

Since the board meeting, Beecher said that some smaller communities within the coalition have met with administrators to advance individual demands.

Beecher said students joined together to create a replica of the wall separating Gaza and Israel, painting it with different representations of borders in society. Students then placed pieces of the wall in front of Oberlin’s main library alongside an audiotape playing students’ personal stories of division within the Oberlin community, she said.

Members of the coalition also stood outside a second trustee meeting in December while holding pieces of the reconstructed wall, Beecher said.

Robelo said the coalition formed in part as a result of events that took place at Oberlin last spring, including the appearance of someone dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and racist graffiti around campus. The coalition, Beecher said, was reacting to what they perceived as the administration’s non-response.

On May 1, approximately 10 students sat outside a Princeton University student center wearing black shirts and white opera masks, playing a recording of their manifesto on a boombox, Princeton junior Katie Horvath said. Passersby were offered fliers outlining the group’s 10 demands for change at the university, including revised mental health policies, divestment and a call for more gender neutral housing options, among others.

Horvath, who participated in the demonstration but emphasized that she did not organize it, said although the protest stemmed from a queer activism movement, its demands were “intersectional” and addressed a range of issues beyond gender.

Though the Princeton group, called Praxis Axis, placed a stack of masks next to their demonstration as an invitation for passersby to join in, few people followed suit since few knew in advance or had clothing that matched that of the protesters, which Horvarth said became a “barrier to entry.”

Horvath said that the Praxis Axis demands felt similar in nature to demands voiced by the “Freedom Budget,” as both were intersectional efforts to address issues centered on identity.

Although Praxis Axis members did not work directly with Dartmouth students to compile their demands, Horvarth said she believed demonstrators at various schools would benefit from joining forces. For those at institutions like Princeton, which tend to have less widespread student activism than more urban institutions, engaging with like-minded students at other colleges can contribute to a stronger “protest culture,” she said.

On April 2, Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang published an essay titled “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege” in The Tory, a conservative publication at the school. The piece, in which Fortgang refused to apologize for having privilege and cited examples of difficulties faced by his family, prompted much discussion on the Princeton campus, Horvath said.

“It’s been helpful,” she said, “in that it has made people concerned and aware who would otherwise be likely to dismiss the demands of a group like the protest group on May Day as unnecessary or absurd or over the top.”

Mount Holyoke, an all-women’s college in Massachusetts, is in the midst of a movement that aims to address discrimination and increase student involvement in college policy, said junior Melanie Wilkerson, an active participant in the movement.

The movement, known as “MoHonest,” began after Mount Holyoke student Maya Wegerif, 21, wrote a blog post alleging discrimination by campus police when she was arrested following an alcohol-related incident.

Wilkerson said that many students of color at Mount Holyoke related to Wegerif’s experience, and the incident sparked much discussion about discrimination and the power of campus police.

“We began to form an entity that wanted to specifically represent students of color on campus,” she said. “And even more broadly, those who have faced discrimination on campus or were allowed to suffer discrimination and not receive adequate administrative support.”

Members presented a formal list of demands to the administration in April, Wilkerson said, and are currently at a “standstill.” The group’s demands include encouraging more active student participation in campus policy and decisions, increasing institutional support for first-generation college students, updating the policy for reporting grievances and creating educational workshops for students, faculty, staff and campus police.

“We’re still negotiating, but we’re a little disappointed with the administration,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson said that members of the “MoHonest” movement were aware of the “Freedom Budget” and considered the Dartmouth activists’ tactics when brainstorming. The sit-in at Dartmouth, she said, was “successful in its visibility.”

Though “MoHonest” protesters considered a sit-in, Wilkerson said they decided against it because some members felt that —unlike at Dartmouth — not enough time had elapsed since the demands had been voiced.

Wilkerson said the “MoHonest” movement reflects a nationwide trend of students becoming more vocal about administrators’ lack of support. “MoHonest” has supported related movements at other institutions, including Vassar College and Bryn Mawr College, she said.

“I feel like the trend is catching on because people across the country are really starting to acknowledge the kind of power young people have,” she said.

Though “MoHonest” faced some opposition from students, Wilkerson said it has found a broad base of support among faculty and alumni.

“In my three years at Mount Holyoke, I have witnessed people go through some pretty intense stuff in terms of discrimination,” Wilkerson said. “Even in a very liberal, diversity-agenda-pushing institution like Mount Holyoke, there are still fundamental flaws and issues that need to be addressed.”

Two student movements have recently arisen at Harvard University, both aiming to increase diversity among faculty, staff and administrators and to improve resources for more diverse programming, Harvard senior Terrance Moore said.

The first of these movements, a photography campaign titled “I, Too, Am Harvard,” launched on Tumblr in early March. The pictures show black students holding signs with examples of racial prejudice they have experienced at Harvard, accompanied by the slogan.

Once the campaign gained attention, students involved began researching other movements to see how they were successful in creating institutional change, Moore said.

The second student movement, known as “The Diversity Report,” spun out of the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign, Moore said.

Students involved in “The Diversity Report” wrote a list of demands and are currently working with specific administrators to achieve them, Moore said. After contacting them, the students decided to fill out report cards evaluating administrators to hold them accountable.

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