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On Wednesday, students at Wilberforce University, a small historically black college just outside of Dayton Ohio, gave a demonstration of what student power can mean.

Fed up with the college’s failure to address its longstanding problems, than three hundred of the school’s five hundred enrolled students marched on Wilberforce’s administrative offices to request transfer applications. Some 337 the demonstrators — two thirds of the college’s student body — are said to be prepared to request transfer to nearby Central State University next fall if their demands aren’t met.

The students’ complaints include high tuition, reductions in student services, and unchecked mold in one dormitory.

Founded in 1856, Wilberforce is the oldest private historically black college in the United States. (Many of its earliest students were escaped slaves.) But the college has struggled in recent years, amid charges of mismanagement leveled against top administrators — enrollment has fallen by half in the last seven years, and the institution is tens of millions of dollars in debt.

WU student government president Brandon Harvey, who organized Wednesday’s protest, considers the threat to withdraw a last-ditch effort to save the university. “Academic life, spiritual life and social life are at an all-time low,” he told the Dayton News. “I’m afraid when I come back three to five years from now, Wilberforce University will not be alive.”

Wilberforce president Patricia Lofton Hardaway held a press conference in response to the protest, but made no specific pledges for reform. Students plan to demonstrate again next week when the college’s board of trustees meets at an off-campus location.

Last weekend some forty Wesleyan students entered a closed meeting of the university’s Board of Trustees, looking to give input on a matter of university governance. The students were advocates of need-blind admissions, a policy under which students are accepted for admission without consideration of their ability to pay. (Admissions have traditionally been need-blind at Wesleyan, but at the start of the summer, after many students had left campus, the trustees voted to scrap that policy for the class of 2017.)

This wasn’t a long occupation — it lasted only about fifteen minutes before students left voluntarily. It wasn’t particularly aggressive — video of the incident shows a conspicuously quiet, and respectful, discussion. And it was far from unprecedented — on the video, one trustee is seen declaring that “students barging in [to trustee meetings] is a long and time-honored tradition at Wesleyan.”

But now at least five of the students who participated in the action are being brought up on campus judicial charges. As the campus online newspaper Wesleying notes, the five stand accused of “disruption” and “failure to comply.” According to the campus student handbook, it looks like punishment for these two violations could be anything from a warning to expulsion.

I watched the video, and I gotta say — that’s some seriously non-disruptive disruption, and some seriously compliant non-compliance. Shame on Wesleyan for making it into a judicial issue.

“The University of California was a young, comparatively small institution when I entered there in 1885 as a freshman. … My class numbered about one hundred boys and girls, mostly boys, who came from all parts of the State and represented all sorts of people and occupations. … We found already formed at Berkeley the typical undergraduate customs, rights, and privileged vices which we had to respect ourselves and defend against the faculty, regents, and the State government.

“One evening, before I had matriculated, I was taken out by some upper classmen to teach the president a lesson. He had been the head of a private preparatory school and was trying to govern the private lives and the public morals of university “men” as he had those of his schoolboys. Fetching a long ladder, the upper classmen thrust it through a front window of Prexy’s house and, to the chant of obscene songs, swung it back and forth, up and down, round and round, till everything breakable within sounded broken and the drunken indignation outside was satisfied or tired.

“This turned out to be one of the last battles in the war for liberty against that president. He was allowed to resign soon thereafter and I noticed that not only the students but many of the faculty and regents rejoiced in his downfall and turned with us to face and fight the new president when, after a lot of politics, he was appointed and presented. We learned somehow a good deal about the considerations that governed our college government. They were not only academic. The government of a university was — like the State government and horse-racing and so many other things — not what I had been led to expect. And a college education wasn’t either, nor the student mind.”

—The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens

The summer lull in this year’s Quebec student protests is coming to a close, and the next few weeks are likely to be crucial ones for the future of the movement.

To recap: Quebec’s ruling Liberal Party announced plans for multi-year tuition hikes last February, prompting students to walk out of classes throughout the provinces. Those walkouts quickly developed into ongoing student strikes, with many campuses closing entirely after student strike votes at general assemblies. College administrators generally respected the strikes, even — in some cases — refusing to comply with court orders that their campuses be reopened. Suddenly the red square, symbol of the movement, was everywhere.

In mid-May the government brought forward a proposal to end the strike, but it offered only minimal concessions and its plan was overwhelmingly rejected in a series of campus votes. After that debacle the Liberal Party put forward Bill 78, a law that criminalized much protest in the region and imposed stiff penalties on student organizations that supported campus closures. Bowing to the reality of widespread campus closures, Bill 78 suspended the spring semester at colleges shuttered by the strike, mandating that they resume meeting in mid-August. (The law passed on a party-line vote after a hectic marathon session.)

Defiance of Bill 78 was widespread, and its provisions have generally not yet been implemented. Hundreds of thousands of Quebecois took to the streets in the aftermath of its passage, and protests have continued throughout the summer on a somewhat smaller scale.

That’s what’s happened. Here’s what’s coming:

Rumors have been swirling for months that Quebec’s ruling Liberal Party will announce on August 1 that they will be holding provincial elections on September 4, and news reporting is increasingly treating a Wednesday announcement as a done deal. Polling has been sparse so far, but the most recent data show the LP and the Parti Quebecois virtually deadlocked, with one poll aggregator showing the LP likely to win some 60 seats in the new legislature — a six-seat loss from their current standing, and a decline large enough to rob them of their current majority in the 125-seat body.

But the situation could change dramatically between now and the election, particularly since Bill 78 mandates that the province’s striking colleges re-open their doors on August 17. A student lawsuit to block implementation of the Bill was rejected earlier this month, but another challenge is still pending — this one from professors who say the government does not have the right to unilaterally impose a new teaching schedule on them.

Mark your calendars: This year, campus activism for the new academic year starts in Quebec, and it’s starting early.

Mario Savio. Because Mario Savio.

About This Blog

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out AngusJohnston.com.
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