A Standout Sit-In

U. of Southern California's decisive response to sit-in raises questions about how officials deal with disruptive student tactics.
May 1, 2007

Your college experience isn't complete until you take over at least one campus building. At least, that might have made sense back in the 1960s, when the student movement spilled over into the public consciousness and it seemed, if only for a moment, that everything was worth protesting.

If times have changed, so have the tactics for both modern-day campus protesters and those who find themselves on the receiving end of student activism: college administrators. "Many of the people who now are leaders of universities were students in the '60s when demonstrations seemed to be … extremely energetic," said Kent Hubbell, dean of students at Cornell University. "Hopefully, we will have learned from that experience in our current roles."

From the tense and divided '60s to the current decade, the norm for colleges facing student protests that involve sit-ins has always been to negotiate. But a recent sit-in has raised questions over whether the possibility of compromise between activists and administrators can still be assumed.

The University of Southern California made news last month when 13 student activists chained themselves together and occupied the president's office. Demanding that all of the institution's branded apparel be manufactured free from sweatshop labor, members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation came prepared: they armed themselves with rations of food, sleeping gear, lawyers, a chaplain and even buckets of kitty litter. (They were evidently ready for a long stay.)

What surprised the activists, as well as outside observers, was the nature of the administration's immediate response: an ultimatum that students had to leave by the end of the day or face immediate "interim suspension," meaning they could not attend classes, remain on campus or stay in university housing until the judicial process went into action. Officials also used students' emergency contacts to inform parents of the consequences, which may also have included revoking scholarships.

"I'm hearing that other campuses have used the tactic of calling in the parents as well as the police, but USC was the first I had encountered," said Tom Hayden, a major figure in the '60s protest movement who is still active in anti-sweatshop efforts, in an e-mail. "Goes back to in loco parentis."

Teresa Cheng, a sophomore who was one of the sit-in's chief organizers, said the protesters went in expecting "suspension and possible arrest" at some point, and amid real negotiations. What caught them by surprise, she said, was the severity and speed of the threatened sanctions. "We thought that there would be some kind of judicial process that we would have access to before the suspensions were actually confirmed," she said.

That is more of a description of what happened at Stanford University last week, when a hunger strike ended with the university expanding its living-wage policy to cover all regular contracted employees.

Why the USC instead responded as it did is a more complex question. The dispute over the specific grievance -- whether sweatshop labor is or should be used in manufacturing campus-themed apparel -- wasn't necessarily even philosophical. "I think it's important that all colleges and universities take a strong look at whether or not the folks who are providing products for them are made in conditions that are inhumane," said Michael L. Jackson, USC's vice president for student affairs, who was a key player in the university's response during the sit-in. "I think that we all collectively should pay attention to this, and work together to end it."

But administrators stress that they have had extensive dealings with the student labor group before and even altered policies as a result of previous dialogue. Meanwhile, members of the labor organization emphasize that USC's policies are out of step with those of many other universities and that it isn't doing enough.

"We had an earlier version of this group take over the president's office about five years ago, and in a discussion with those students, it was clear that there was dialogue," Jackson recounted. "There could be dialogue. Some of the things we're doing today came about as a result of that sit-in and dialogue with those students," he said.

When students and university officials reached an impasse, as members of SCALE felt they did prior to the sit-in, the only perceived remaining option was to try another form of pressure. "What happened was the students from their perspective got fed up, and they decided to in effect issue an ultimatum to the university, and they took over the president's office and they frightened our staff, and they prevented the president's office from functioning," Jackson said. He said USC was "not going to change its mind just because [the activists] were sitting in the president's office, and we wanted them to leave."

He added: "They said that there was no compromise, and there was no further discussion to be had. I think each school has to make its own decision based upon its environment."

That environment, and the various factors that come into play during a delicate situation like the one last month, can be important deciding factors. USC, for instance, is not known as a particularly politically active campus. The university "is famously apathetic in terms of campus political movements," said Patrick McFawn, chair of the USC College Republicans, which didn't support the sit-in. "If you see a protest on campus, it's probably going to garner a few more snickers than voices of support, and that's true on both sides of the political spectrum."

At the same time, USC doesn't have a reputation for being as open and flexible as, say, a Berkeley. Just last year, Jackson came under fire for blocking the re-election of an editor-in-chief at the student newspaper, the Daily Trojan. By USC policy, protests organized without approval are only permitted in a sort of free speech zone at the campus's Trojan Square. "Generally, the administration is not very flexible," McFawn said. Cheng agreed: "I think [last week's response] probably stands out from other universities, but it's not something that's inconsistent with stuff [USC] has done in the past."

Despite that apparent reputation, administrators have stressed the need, first, to weigh various factors in the search for a solution, and also to begin a dialogue in order to negotiate a favorable outcome from the perspective of the institution. Richard Hurley, president of the American Association of University Administrators, has had his own share of run-ins with student protesters: Two years ago, students demanding a "living wage" for university employees chained themselves together in his office at the University of Mary Washington, where he is chief financial officer and vice president for administration, finance and legislative affairs (and the current acting president).

For Hurley, being thrust into managing a response to students occupying his office wasn't something he'd ever been prepared for. "For me personally, and I think for this institution, we were winging it ... because it was a first," he said. "Our objective was to bring the demonstration to an end as quickly as we could." A quick solution, as painless as possible, remains administrators' highest priority along with keeping everyone safe. "I believe that institutionally, we try to exercise forbearance. We try to make sure first and foremost that no one is hurt," Hubbell said about his experience at Cornell, which included an incident in 2005 over a proposed (and subsequently built) parking lot.

"I know that these things tend to be extremely fluid," Hubbell noted. "There is a sense of urgency that always seems to accompany these kinds of actions. They are disruptive in a fundamental sense."

Despite the relative agreement over ends when these situations arise, the decisions over how to go about reaching those goals have varied in the past. The factors informing those deliberations seem to include:

  • Institutional history and structure. Is the university equipped to meet student demands? Hurley implied that Mary Washington's board of visitors would be less tolerant of disruptive student tactics than the administration has been in the past.
  • Legacy of protests. Is there a history of student activism at that institution, and are students generally supportive of the sort of extreme tactics that can bring administrative business to a halt? Both Jackson and McFawn at USC suggested that most students, regardless of their views on the university's labor policies, disagreed with the activist group's tactics. (There has, however, been significant faculty support: David Eggenschwiler, an emeritus professor of English at USC, wrote that "ninety-eight faculty members signed and submitted to the president a letter protesting his summary judgment of the students and his threats of immediate and harsh reprisals. Although the spring semester is nearly over, faculty members continue to press the administration for what they consider more reasonable responses to students' actions and demands.") As a result, how the response will be received by the campus at large certainly factors into administrators' thinking. "I would have to weigh the depth of feeling about the issue on the campus because you could incite riots if there was a particular issue that had people so exercised," Hurley said, pointing to Gallaudet University's handling of mass student unrest last year over the controversial choice of the institution's next president. "That's a good example to me where a stronger tactic could really have made a bad situation worse." On the other hand, some have criticized the lack of a tougher response as possibly undercutting the power of future presidents.
  • Campus atmosphere. Are students active politically, or more focused on their studies or social lives? At both USC and Mary Washington, administrators described students as politically disengaged, at least relative to peers at other universities. That would affect, in pure numbers, the magnitude of students' bargaining power and the amount of pressure they could exercise.
  • Willingness to compromise. Are protesters ready to make concessions, and is the administration willing to negotiate with them? The key point here is whether activists believe their cause is a moral imperative; in those cases, it's much more likely that compromise won't be acceptable to them. At the same time, university officials would presumably have to find merit in students' grievances before agreeing to initiate discussions.

As they've dealt with such situations over the years, university officials have come up with concrete principles to guide them in their responses. "I would look towards some fundamental principles: forbearance, the willingness to think reasonably about the demands, first and foremost to make sure that everyone’s safe, no one’s hurt. I don’t think a building’s worth the hair on the head of a student," Hubbell said.

Inevitably with anything involving academe, however, those practical guidelines have also been incorporated into more unifying theories. Guy and Heidi Burgess, co-directors of the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium, outlined some of the conditions necessary for negotiation in a paper published in Conflict Management in Higher Education in 2001.

In the essay, the authors write that it is crucial to assess whether the time is "ripe" for negotiation or mediation. "In personalized and highly escalated conflicts, people may become so angry and distrustful that they will not negotiate in good faith, or they may refuse to negotiate at all," they wrote. "Students may make the assumption that the university administration 'will not listen to them,' or 'doesn't care,' and therefore negotiations are a waste of time."

The theory applies to administrators as well: "Similarly, administrators may assume that the students have made their demands (which the administrators may or may not view as reasonable) and further assume that the students are not willing to consider alternative approaches. Sometimes this is true: the protesting group may believe so strongly in a moral issue that they are unwilling to compromise their basic beliefs. As a result, they may prefer a principled defeat to what they see as a 'hollow compromise.'"

Beyond coming to a resolution and working toward a solution that is acceptable to both sides, however, it's worth remembering that universities exist primarily as institutions of learning. Hubbell agrees. "I think in the end, under the best of circumstances, they're a learning experience for the students involved and for the campus," he said. "Of course, every incident is unique and the grievances are likewise unique, but in the final analysis I think one hopes that you can turn these things toward constructive ends."


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