Striking Students

Columbia undergraduates are protesting, among other issues, administration's response to recent campus hate incidents; UMass Amherst group is upset at college costs and more.
November 13, 2007

A hunger strike at Columbia University is nearing the end of its first week, while some students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst are planning to attend Thursday and Friday teach-ins about issues such as college cost instead of attending class. In both cases, it's unclear if and when negotiations or meetings would provide a quick end to the actions.

Five students -- two from Barnard College and three from Columbia -- began fasting on Wednesday in protest of the university's response to recent hate incidents and the university's plans to expand into neighboring Manhattanville, among other issues. One Barnard student was hospitalized over the weekend and ended her hunger strike, but a Barnard political science professor has told his class that he would begin to fast, according to Jamie Chen, a student who is helping support the effort.

The students have been sleeping in tents most evenings and drinking liquids to stay hydrated. Supporters are holding nightly vigils, and nearly 900 students had signed an online petition supporting the cause as of Monday evening.

"This is not just five students who decided they wanted to go on hunger strikes," Chen said. "This is a large group of people who wanted to respond to what we see as institutionalized racism on campus."

Students have been discussing issues of race and land use at meetings for several years, Chen said, but recent events on campus spurred talk of a ratcheted-up campaign. The strike comes one month after a hangman's noose was discovered on the office door of a Teachers College professor. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim graffiti also has also surfaced at Columbia. Others have been upset over the university's decision to allow Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus.

As the hunger strike Web site states: "The recent acts of hate crime on this campus have lent urgency to a long-existing effort to address this university's climate of marginalization." The petition is calling for a "more systematic response" to hate incidents from the university.

Columbia released a statement Monday saying that university officials have been "more than willing" to meet with strikers and will continue to do so in hopes of ending the strike. "But the substance of the strikers' multiple demands is complex and concerns many other students, faculty and members of the university community who may have a diversity of viewpoints," the statement says.

Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president, has issued written responses to some of the recent hate incidents. Judith Shapiro, president of Barnard, said in a statement that she welcomes discussion about curricular changes and shares the students' concern over the hate incidents. But she added that "while hunger strikes have a long and important history as a form of political action, they are not without their dangers and may not always be a necessary strategy in a particular situation."

Students are calling on the university to withdraw the rezoning bid that would involve building into a West Harlem neighborhood, and for officials to allow more student and resident involvement in the process. The expansion would displace at least 5,000 people, the students contend. But Columbia has said that number is much smaller, and that the expansion project is widely favored.

The students are also protesting what they say is a lack of diversity in core curriculum courses -- requirements that are very much identified with the university. They also want more resources for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies.

Dennis Dalton, the Barnard professor who is said to be joining the strike, could not be reached for comment Monday. A Gandhian scholar, Dalton told the Columbia Spectator that he will be living off water and orange juice and will still teach classes.

"I want the core curriculum supplemented by writings on Gandhi, King, Malcolm X.," he said in the article. "I want a change. I have been arguing with the people in the administration since 1969 about this and have been met by indifference. I would like some acknowledgment of non-violence in the core."

Chen said that while she is hopeful that administrators will listen to the group's concerns, the striking students are prepared to continue until Thanksgiving.

At UMass, meanwhile, a group of about 45 graduate and undergraduate students are organizing a Thursday rally and two days of teach-ins, most of which would be led by students. The students are upset about the rising cost of attending the university and campus police dorm sweeps, and are questioning the university's commitment to diversity.

Jeff Napolitano, president of the Graduate Student Senate, emphasized that the students aren't organizing a labor strike. Graduate students who teach might choose to skip classes, he said, but the event isn't being organized by a graduate union.

Since the group decided on its action last week, Ed Blaguszewski, a UMass spokesman, said administrators haven't had time to issue an official response.

Napolitano said students want to see a reduction in fees after years of increases. "We're talking about real accessibility and affordability issues," he said.

Protesters also say administrators have asked campus police to conduct what the group calls invasive dorm sweeps, and want to see an end to that practice. In addition, the group is calling on the university to spend more on recruiting minority students from the surrounding community.


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