Student organizations and administration differ on dialogue, demands regarding university issues
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Chants echoed throughout the entire police-guarded building, bouncing off the locked doors of University President Michael Drake’s office as dozens of student activists occupied the building to demand their voices be heard and represented by Ohio State. Tension filled the air as the students filed into Bricker Hall on April 6, marching up the semi-spiral staircase with their fists in the air.
“We are tired of jumping through hoops at an attempt to get the administration to hear our voices,” leaders of the protest chanted. “We are here to get the university to finally be accountable to its students.”
One by one, students stepped forward to tell their personal stories of being silenced by the university, applauded and cheered on by their fellow protesters.
“My personal story of silence is coming to (Drake’s office) every month since June, every single month, and not getting a single response,” said Shell Sindle, a third-year in anthropology and criminology and a member of United Students Against Sweatshops at OSU.
The group of students united under different causes, including diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, budget and investment transparency, and health issues. The movement touted the hashtags #ReclaimOSU and #NoEndsNOW.
The university has a long history of tension with student activist groups on campus, and Wednesday’s rally was one of multiple attempts these students made to be heard. From rallies, to interrupting Drake’s university address, to delivering an abundance of letters and gifts to his office, student activists on campus are saying that enough is enough.
There are more than 150 student activist organizations registered at OSU, according to the Ohio Union website. Interviews with organization leaders and copies of email correspondence sent between the groups and the administration, which were obtained by The Lantern, help support their claims that the university cares little for their concerns. There’s also a resolve to be heard.
“It’s not easy, but that’s why we all who are pushing back keep going,” said Lainie Rini, a fifth-year in geography and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, president of United Students Against Sweatshops at OSU. “The earth is at stake, unions are at stake, people’s livelihoods are at stake, Palestinians are at stake. These are things our university could be doing better on, but they’re not.”
University officials, however, said they do pay attention and take students’ concerns seriously.
“If we clearly do have student groups and individual students who are expressing frustration that they’re not being heard, that there’s not a level of engagement that they’d like to see, we need to take that seriously,” said university spokesman Chris Davey. “We need to continue to be in dialogue with them to seek common ground, and the university is absolutely committed to that.”
‘Can you hear us?’
On December 2, five student activist organizations marched to the Ohio Union and staged a sit-in, sending Drake another list of demands for him to support. The organizations included Real Food OSU, USAS, OSU Divest, International Socialist Organization and Student/Farmworker Alliance.
Drake responded on January 15, telling the organizations he appreciates the diversity of their voices and encouraging them to continue raising their issues.
Since December 2014, Real Food OSU has sent 16 emails to Drake, with no response directly from the president himself. After the initial five months of emails, they received an email in May promising to schedule a meeting.
One month later, the meeting was scheduled for July, but did not take place until September. Real Food OSU was allotted 15 minutes to pitch to Drake their proposal to commit to fair, humane, community-based and ecologically-sustainable food sourcing.
In addition to the emails, the group sent dozens of tweets, delivered 50 clocks to his office — signifying that time is running out to sign on to the commitment — called his office more than 50 times, delivered more than 100 Valentines to him, created email, video and letter campaigns, and, finally, passed a resolution through USG, which the university rejected on March 22.
In November, a select group of individuals organized a rally and sit-in at the union in solidarity with the protestors at University of Missouri called #OSU2Mizzou. They presented a list of demands to the administration, one of which being that the administration write a letter in solidarity with Concerned Student 1950, the student activist group at University of Missouri. The administration agreed, but students claimed conflict arose during a roughly 6-hour long meeting over using the word “demand” in the letter.
“We were saying the word ‘demand’ because, historically, student power has been completely confrontational,” said Sarah Mamo, a third-year in African-American and African studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, as well as a member of OSU Coalition for Black Lives. “The tension in the room was a result of the administration trying to protect the institution and us trying to protect ourselves.”
USAS, in addition, has been urging the university to not privatize its energy sources. They have delivered six letters to Drake since September, receiving one in response in November stating that discussion on the topic will continue and their diverse views are inspiring.
USAS also marched into the president’s office on Halloween, hosted public teach-ins, held rallies, collected signatures for a petition and collaborated with other activist organizations to stage a sit-in at the union and send Drake a list of demands.
After another email from Drake stating their diverse views and passions are valued, USAS decided to interrupt his State of the University Address on January 21.
“What are students to do if the way that we try to have our voices heard through USG representation doesn’t go anywhere?” Rini said. “So we interrupted the University Address making sure (Drake) knew how we felt, making sure faculty who is maybe privately opposed now may have a platform to be publicly opposed.”
The student activists’ demands culminated in the occupation of Bricker Hall on April 6. Again, they were not satisfied with university response.
In a video posted to YouTube, Senior Vice President for Administration and Planning Jay Kasey is seen telling student protesters the possible repercussions for their actions.
“We have chosen to work with you because we respect you and this is your university. We want to have dialogue,” he said. “(But) if you’re here at 5 a.m. … we’re going to escort you out of the building and arrest you. You will be discharged from school too — as in expelled.”
Kasey told protesters they were being “disruptive” and thus violating the student code of conduct.
According to the student code of conduct, disruptive conduct is that which “unreasonably interferes with university activities or with the legitimate activities of any member of the university community.” Those who engage in this prohibited conduct are “subject to disciplinary action by the university.”
Kasey said the employees working in the building were afraid of the protesters.
‘We are responding’
But despite student claims, Davey said that the university has in fact been responding to their causes and movements.
“There have been multiple meetings with (Real Food OSU) where leaders of the university have been very actively engaged and listening to their concerns,” he said. “Same with the students who are concerned about the energy project — multiple meetings, multiple engagements … This is one of dozens of examples of very open, transparent, engaged dialogue and debate that has occurred.”
The problem students have, Davey said, is not the communication with administration, but more so action.
“Sometimes it can feel as though one is going in circles when in fact it’s just that the resolution (that) was being sought isn’t arrived at,” he said.
Davey said, for instance, in regards to one of the main concerns of USAS students about the Comprehensive Energy Management plan, that OSU has produced two commitments to utilities employees if an energy partnership is reached.
Bidding partners have been told by OSU that it would be required of a partner to interview utilities employees affected by a partnership, according to OSU’s energy management website. Also, the university has made a commitment that utilities staff members will be offered a position at OSU at a salary equivalent to that staff member’s current position.
As for Real Food, the university has “a commitment already in place for locally sourced food at OSU that is more expansive than the pledge they were insisting they want OSU to sign,” Davey said. “The notion that the university has not been engaged or responsive, or that discussions with them have been unproductive — I don’t subscribe to that.”
A history of activism
For the past 50 years and on, OSU and many other universities have been hotbeds for student activism and challenges. OSU saw an explosion of this student activism in the 1960s, as students protested against the Vietnam War, racism and sexism, demanding justice and equality for all, according to a May 3, 2010 The Lantern article. The tension cumulated and erupted into violent riots in 1970.
The School of Social Work protested lack of representation in school decisions, rallies protested on-campus military recruiters and research with companies involved with the Vietnam War, and a campus-wide boycott of classes was established to pressure the administration to respond to a list of demands that student activists put together.
Instead of negotiations, students were presented with the Columbus Police. A brawl between the cops and students ensued, and riots developed as students began throwing rocks and bricks through the windows of the Administration Building. Over 300 people had been arrested, more than 70 hospitalized, and at least seven had gunshot wounds by the end of the day.
The violent-turned protests and rallies continued for days, now involving the Ohio National Guard, eventually leading to a two-week shutdown of the university.
“I was at OSU in the early ‘90s and there were a number of different student protests at that time, and there were times that resulted in conflict … between certain student groups and the administration,” Davey said. “There’s a long history of student engagement and activism in our country, and it’s a proud history here at OSU and one that we should embrace.”
Some of today’s student activist organizations have followed the footsteps of the students in 1970, reiterating the demands made then while staging a sit-in at the Ohio Union for the Stand Your Ground Campaign. The national campaign was supported by OSU students in 2012 due to multiple hate crimes around campus, culminating with the vandalization of the Frank W. Hale, Jr. Hale Black Cultural Center after the killing of Trayvon Martin. Just as in 1970, students demanded an increase of diversity on campus and the protection thereof, according to Mamo.
Yet living on with student activism is the tension between the activists and the administration, and group leaders are expressing frustration with the limits they feel are imposed on their initiatives and their voices.
“They constantly repudiate our power (and) try to belittle what we’re saying,” Mamo said. “It feels as though administration only cares about our issues and our concerns insofar as they protect the university’s agenda and the establishment.”
‘What sort of business do you have?’
Despite ongoing tensions between activist organizations and the administration, some of the student leaders of the organizations said they believe the administration itself is not the problem.
“We know that the decision makers are the Board of Trustees,” Rini said, adding that members are handpicked by the governor of the state of Ohio, with some being CEOs, or formerly affiliated with Fortune 500 companies.
“We’re more so critiquing the system that put (the administration) in these positions,” Mamo said. “The Board of Trustees as a group has established this group of black minority administrators to establish this gatekeeper (state) that can control the flow and influx of the knowledge and information that goes through the university, and I think they did that strategically.”
The issue, according to Mamo, Rini and other student activist leaders, is that OSU is serving the interests of investors and the Board of Trustees, rather than the students.
“It’s all about profitability,” said Cole Smith, a second-year in history and president of the International Socialist Organization at OSU. “Our causes have no money … and (the administration) doesn’t respond until we make them unprofitable.”
Rachel Metzler, president of Real Food and a fourth-year in environment, economy, development and sustainability, agreed, saying that it’s “a little ridiculous.”
“If the university doesn’t have business with its students, then I don’t know what sort of business it has,” she said.
But Davey contends this point.
“There’s no constituency that’s more important to the university than our students,” he said. “In order to achieve that, there’s a structure that includes a number of different stakeholders, and the university is engaged every day in working to balance various perspectives and interests.”
At the end of the day, Davey said he does see room for improvement.
“I think that the university’s commitment to engaging with students is fundamental and is strong,” he said. “But always understand of course that you can always do better, and the work never ends.”
Correction April 14: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the president of a student organization and incorrectly stated it was present at the Dec. 2 sit-in at the Ohio Union.
Information concerning the university’s commitment to utilities employees has been corrected to reflect information provided on OSU’s energy management website.