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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    ‘The work being done’ by student protesters

    The 10-day student occupation of the administration building at Connecticut College that ended Wednesday began as a call to action over equity and diversity, amid accusations that President Katherine Bergeron had failed to carry through on commitments to those principles. Then, the focus seemed to widen when overcrowded residence halls and overworked support staff were added to the list of unacceptable conditions.

    What could have deteriorated into generalized complaining and gradually worn itself out instead showed that supporters of Student Voices for Equity grasped a primary fact about finances in an institution that defines itself by its principles. As a student said to me in so many words, “It really does matter where our money comes from, in terms of our values.”

    The trigger for the occupation was the resignation of Rodmon King, dean of institutional equity and inclusion, over a planned fundraiser at a private club with a history of racism and antisemitism. The organizers wisely also gave equal weight to the corollary: It also really matters where the college’s money goes – in terms of its values.

    An oversimplified example might be this one from real life: The incoming freshman class is far larger than expected, resulting in crowded, make-shift dorm rooms and a proportionately heavier workload for residence and dining hall staff. Ideals of equity and inclusion notwithstanding, the college failed to equalize the burden on its staff or include them in decision-making.

    Ironically, another example of failing to spend money on commitments may have contributed to the strategic knowledge underlying the protest. To the extent that some students basically staffed the office of institutional equity and inclusion because of inability to retain paid staff, they were naturally learning the ropes, absorbing the values and getting a clear picture of the disconnect.

    The occupation, rather than disconcerting alumni, parents and other supporters, ought to give them great pride in the organized, businesslike, civil protest. Early on, Dean of Students Victor Arcelus is reported to have said he had not seen students at Conn protest “to this degree and level of organization.”

    In effect, Student Voices for Equity had a whiteboard. They may well have had a real whiteboard. They certainly had a roster of roles.

    Besides the 28 occupiers of Fanning Hall, students on the outside ferried food and supplies to the building. Outdoors club members lent sleeping bags. The protesters kept a daily log, which the campus online newspaper, The College Voice, published along with its reporting. The cast, crew and orchestra for the spring musical production of “Into the Woods” canceled the show rather than perform during the campus crisis.

    The students’ dealings with Campus Safety struck me as sophisticated as any civil disobedience I have seen. When asked, they made modifications to meet the fire code. Down came the zip ties on the inside of the fire doors. Up went the trust level with the security officers.

    This went on long enough and was taken seriously enough, including a faculty vote of no confidence in the president, to ensure permanent changes at the college.

    An organized disruption that succeeds in forcing change does not win because the protesters are saying something no one ever said before. Effective protesters know their audience. They describe an issue that rings true and that listeners urgently want to fix.

    The protest was telling truth, and the college community was primed to hear it. President Bergeron could have realized far sooner that a crisis was developing. Indeed, she was in the room last year when a tenured faculty member, a woman and a person of color, laid out many of the same issues at her own retirement party.

    The occupiers cleared out of Fanning late Wednesday, encouraged by a faculty vote of no confidence in President Bergeron but before any official action from the Board of Trustees. Spring break is underway, clearing the campus of almost everyone who could support a prolonged occupation.

    Of what they hope to have accomplished, students speak of “the work being done,” meaning not only protesting current conditions but forming adults willing to carry on with such issues in the larger world. Some say the experience has renewed a sense of community on campus and, while that may not seem so for anyone who was unhappy with the occupation, the tenor has undeniably changed. Certainly there may be prospective students who move on to other choices of college, but there will be others who look at a principled, peaceful, well-run protest as a sign of a good place to be heard as well as listen.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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