Syracuse University students protest for change

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Student protests, rallies and sit-ins are a distant memory for much of the population; a nugget from another time. To others they are merely stories out of history books or photographs in magazines. But for a group of Syracuse students, faculty and staff, protests have become a very real and very contemporary reality.

“It is clear now, in instances too numerous to describe … that the administration is turning focus away from values of diversity, and rather toward higher academic ratings and rankings; away from transparency and accountability, and toward secretive, top-heavy models of dominance; away from values of community engagement and towards the Ivory Tower on the Hill model; away from considering itself a university and toward functioning as a corporation,” wrote members of the student group Campaign for an Advocacy Center in an Oct. 29 letter-to-the-editor of The Daily Orange.

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Just a few days later, Nov. 3, the Campaign for an Advocacy Center joined with a newly formed student organization called THE General Body for a rally on the steps of Hendricks Chapel. This united front of students had long list of grievances against the university’s new administration. These grievances included the closing of the Advocacy Center as well as the “defunding of the POSSE program, a lack of diverse student representation in the new FAST FORWARD program, rejection of the University Senate’s proposed tenure and promotion policy,”and unrecognized “pervasive issues concerning privilege and discrimination against individuals with marginalized identities.” The list in its entirety and in full detail is posted on the organization’s website and, after being finalized, was sent directly to new university Chancellor Kent Syverud.

Pagan student Madeleine Slade told The Wild Hunt that she’s involved with the protest because she has “experienced firsthand the insufficiencies of the mental health services at this school.” Slade went on to relay a story in which the allegedly underfunded medical program had no personnel available to handle a crisis situation. She said that she was forced to go off-campus to a city mental health facility. Slade said, “We need sufficient services here so we don’t put students’ lives at risk.”

As Slade and other students explained, the trouble all began in June when the administration shut down the advocacy center, originally called the R.A.P.E center. According to Senior VP and Dean of Student Affairs Rebecca Reed Kantrowitz, the center’s services and staff were to be consolidated with the school’s counseling program, rather than remain a stand-alone facility. The closure was due partly to University-wide budget cuts needed to correct well-publicized debt crisis, which according to Syracuse.com, more than doubled under the former Chancellor. Kantrowitz said that the administration would host “listening meetings for the campus community in June, July, August and into the fall semester” to determine how the new counseling structure could best serve students.

However, there was an immediate outcry. Students began organizing and started an online petition to #BringBacktheAC. In September, a rally was held with students chanting “This is an advocate.”

In response, the administration formed a student work group to help examine the situation. In response, The Campaign for the Advocacy Center said, in a Daily Orange article,” we believe that, in response to the groundswell of community involvement and concern, the university has since improved the new support services.” However they added:

One important component that remains lost, however, is a dedicated center — a safe space and resource center that also serves as a powerful symbol of the university’s solidarity with all who have been impacted by sexual and relationship violence and against rape culture. We will continue to mourn the loss of this space and work to restore it.

While the news continued to circle around the Advocacy Center, other problems surfaced. The school announced changes to the POSSE scholarship program, which is considered an integral part of the university’s commitment to maintaining student diversity and to supporting students who otherwise might not have the personal resources or home support to attend college.

Campus Protest Nov. 19 [Photo Credit: Mark Rupert]

Campus Protest Nov. 19 [Photo Credit: Mark Rupert]

In addition, stories like Slade’s began to surface, which raised concern over the treatment of students across the campus. They began to question whether university services supported a safe environment for minority students, students with physical limitations or with mental health issues and students with marginalized identities, such as those in the school’s LGBTQ community, As these questions were asked, the protests began to refocus on a much broader problem, which eventually led to the formation of THE General Body.

Despite the administration’s inclusion of student work groups in its Fast Forward strategic master plan, student protestors did not feel that the administration was actually listening. THE General Body called for another rally – a Diversity and Transparency Rally (DAT Rally), which quickly evolved into something much bigger. After the scheduled Nov. 3 DAT rally, students flooded the Crouse-Hinds Hall of Languages and staged a sit-in, which would then last for 18 days.

Although the list of grievences doesn’t explicitly focus on religion, it does include issues concerning a student’s safety from harassment. Slade said that, while “Hendricks Chapel has always been pretty accepting,” this is not the case campus-wide. Recently, for example, Slade’s Pagan friend was allegedly harassed over religious beliefs. She says, “I think that this falls under issues that THE General Body has already been discussing, namely the way the school handles hate speech.”

Syracuse Pagan chaplain Rev. Mary Hudson did confirm that several of her students were involved in the protests. She told The Wild Hunt, “Its crazy… Most of us here look at this as the students exercising and practicing everything that they have been taught to cause real change. They are being effective and they are doing it peacefully and respectfully and I must say I’m impressed.”

During the 18 day sit-in, the administration and THE General Body went back and forth with communications, negotiations and press conferences. The students issued demands, which included a meeting with Chancellor Syverud, insistence that their grievances to be acknowledge, and insurances that change would happen.

Meanwhile, as they sat each day, students garnered an ever increasing amount of support from both inside and outside the university community. Protests, vigils and rallies were held on campus each day by those not in the hall. Faculty entered the building to offer teach-ins, and some, such as the department of Women and Gender studies, the English Department, and the Geography Faculty, sent open letters to the administration in support of student concerns.

Support flooded in from off campus as well.  For example, emails, tweets and letters arrived from Colgate University students, United Healthcare Workers East, 601 Tully, members of the city of Syracuse Community and the broader University of California community. Pagan activist T. Thorn Coyle has been watching since the beginning. She told The Wild Hunt:

The situation at Syracuse feels connected to youth and student activism happening all around the country and in other parts of the world … Education reform is clearly needed and young activists aren’t toeing the line any more. From walk outs in middle schools and high schools, to building occupations, lock downs, or carrying a mattress to class to highlight rape on campus, student activism is on the rise for good reasons. Students want more of a say in their educational institutions, in student safety on campus, and in how institutional money is invested and spent …We need to pay better attention to young people right now..

On Nov. 20, the sit-in came to a close. While much happened over those 18 long days of tense negotiations with Chanceller Syveud, there were some concessions made on both sides. In a blog post for THE General Body, student Tessa Brown details what the organization sees as its achievements. In a different post, student Vani Kannan explains “phase 2” of the campaign. She wrote:

We are leaving with the knowledge that what we are asking the Chancellor to commit to works towards equity, justice, and safety for every person here today and every person not here … This new phase represents a growing body of students, faculty, staff, and community members who refuse to submit to undemocratic administrative policies that hurt this campus and this community. We will continue to fight alongside each other despite the forces that are trying to divide us.

Nov. 20 News Conference THE Student Body [Photo Credit: Mark Rupert]

Nov. 20 News Conference THE Student Body [Photo Credit: Mark Rupert]

Chancellor Syverud told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I have learned much through this process and appreciate how committed these students are to making our university better. I want the university community to know I remain fully committed to continuing these conversations and working to make Syracuse University the kind of campus where everyone feels welcome and respected.”

After the students left the building, many of the principle organizers held a news conference, which can be heard here, discussing the accomplishments and the future of the movement. Then, as is reported on the blog, the participating students and faculty marched in solidarity to Henricks Chapel where it all began on Nov. 3. One student tweeted: “Anger mobilized is a beautiful thing. THIS MOVEMENT HAS CHANGED MY DAMN LIFE!”  They held up signs that read “#comebackstronger2015.”