With Us or Against Us?

Students of color at Haverford and administrators are at a standstill as a boycott of classes continues for a second week. The students are demanding firm commitments to structurally shift the institution and better support for students of color.

November 9, 2020
 
David Edelman/@haverfordclerk

Senior administrators at Haverford College put their own jobs on the line in an effort to address concerns of racial inequities at the college and end a strike led by students of color, which has stretched into a second week.

During a tense listening session via Zoom with Black student organizers and an audience of nearly 300 students and faculty members on Nov. 5, one student using a pseudonym asked President Wendy Raymond to resign “if effective change does not occur” to support students of color, who say they have been treated inequitably for decades. Raymond and other college leaders agreed that if adequate progress is not made, it would be appropriate for them to leave.

“I am here for this work,” Raymond said during the meeting. “And if I am an impediment, if I am not the way forward as president and there is a better way forward for Haverford College to do that, absolutely.”

Students of color started a boycott of classes and campus jobs on Oct. 28 to protest the college’s inaction on changes demanded by students, which they outlined in a letter several months ago amid nationwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd. About 780 students of 1,373 total enrolled have informed organizers they are participating in the strike, according to Aishah Collison-Cofie, a junior and one of the organizers. Other students have openly and anonymously dissented to the strike due to disagreement with the organizers’ tactics and some of the demands.

Students at nearby Bryn Mawr College, a women’s college, are also participating in the strike and issued a similar list of demands to the institution's administrators. Bryn Mawr and Haverford have a partnership that allows their students to take classes at either of the campuses.

Black Students’ Boiling Point

Collison-Cofie said students waited for the college to give specific responses and timelines to their previous letter’s demands, such as severing ties with local police and a “reparation fund” toward multicultural programs and facilities on campus. But their patience ran out when Raymond and Joyce Bylander, dean of the college, sent an “insensitive” email to students two days after Walter Wallace Jr., a Black Philadelphia resident, was killed by city police last month. Haverford, a liberal arts and Quaker college, is located minutes from West Philadelphia, where Wallace was shot, and students from the neighborhood attend the college, Collison-Cofie said.

Several students felt compelled to go into the city and join hundreds of others in protest of police brutality, but the administrators’ email discouraged students from doing so. They told students that protesting in Philadelphia “would not bring Walter Wallace back.”

“While we all might be tempted to join protests about this tragedy, we are imploring you to temper that impulse,” the email said. “Now is not the time to go to Philadelphia. Our fear is that for every righteous protestor in the street, there are other actors afoot; we have seen this across the nation far too often, in cities large and small, in college towns and urban centers.”

Trevor Stern, a junior at the college, who is white, said the email could have used more sensitive language. But over all he interpreted it as a consideration for students’ safety amid unrest in the city and the risk of contracting COVID-19, which the college has “strict protocols” for, especially when it comes to off-campus travel.

However, Collison-Cofie, who is Black, called the email “insensitive and disgusting.” She and other Black student organizers felt it represented what they have believed about the college for several months -- administrators are willing to label Haverford is an “antiracist” institution, but they have not actively promoted and supported the antiracist activism work of students or adopted the antiracist initiatives that students of color proposed, student organizers said. During the Zoom meeting, they said they are dissatisfied with the amount of “listening and learning” college administrators continue to do, rather than taking specific steps forward on the demands and action student organizers have laid out for them.

And so, after attempts to “do it the cordial way,” the students decided to escalate their action, Collison-Cofie said.

“If it takes striking for you guys to listen to us, make some change and have some action to prove this is truly the antiracist institution it is claiming to be and actually supporting its lower income and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] students, then that’s the risk we’re willing to take,” Collison-Cofie said. “There has been much open dialogue, there have been many workshops … It shows the performative nature of many people on campus.”

Demanding Precise Action

Student organizers presented a list of 14 demands to administrators on Oct. 29, some of which Raymond responded to positively, such as resolving “increased surveillance and policing” of students of color for COVID-19 rule violations and creating a “framework to deal with problematic professors” who exhibit racial or gender discrimination. Raymond told students that she had called upon administrative and faculty working groups and task forces to evaluate the issues, according to a detailed response to initial demands published in The Clerk, the college’s student newspaper.

But she and members of the college’s Board of Managers who spoke during the Zoom meeting also expressed reluctance to commit to specific demands right away, due to faculty committee rules and the need for approval from the board. Charles Beever, chair of the Board of Managers, said that the meeting was “not the place to make statements one way or the other,” a response that students in the meeting were dissatisfied with.

“The purpose of our presence in this conversation is to listen and understand,” he said. “We have to build consensus about any actions that we support or take … At this point that's not what we're here to do. We are here to listen and learn.”

There were some demands related to the strike that Raymond said she could not commit to, such as providing pay for student employees of the college for the duration that they participate in the strike and lose wages from campus jobs. Raymond agreed these students would be paid for up to 20 hours spent striking.

Student organizers also demanded no academic penalties for participating in the strike, despite that many students have stopped attending classes and completing coursework. Raymond said this decision would be left up to individual faculty members, some of whom have been supportive of the strike and canceled classes for more than a week, and others who are enforcing class attendance and assignment requirements, according to Collison-Cofie. But Raymond countered that the financial and academic consequences of striking are on students who participate and emphasized that “we do need to get back to the classroom.”

“You are here to get a formal education in the classes that you're enrolled in toward your full education as a human being here at Haverford and beyond,” she said during the meeting. “That is the institution’s role and goal … If you choose to not participate in your classes, then you are not and we are not engaging in your education and that means that there are consequences to your choices.”

Shutting Down Dissent?

There are several students who are opposed to the strike and specifically feel as though the stoppage of classes for more than a week has been disruptive to their educational experience at Haverford. Stern, the junior, said all of his classes were canceled from Oct. 28 until Nov. 5, when one of his professors held a special one-on-one session because all other students refused to attend.

The strike has had an adverse impact on students who generally support the racial justice goals of the demands laid out by organizers, Stern said. He doesn’t object to students choosing to strike, but students who want to attend class have been “unwillingly dragged along” with the strikers because some faculty members have decided not to hold classes, Stern said. Some students who don’t strike, or express dissent to the strike, are being called racist, he said.

“That’s their choice and that’s what they want to do. But the objection is to the pressure that they apply to those who want to go to class, that they’re racist, that they don’t support racial equality if they don’t strike,” Stern said. “Many faculty have gotten on board and are refusing to hold class, because for students who value their academics, that’s troubling.”

There are some students who are also opposed to specific demands of the student organizers but feel as though their dissenting ideas have been silenced by supporters of the strike. One student, who wrote an anonymous letter published on a blog managed by the Department of Political Science, strongly disagreed with a demand asking for academic leniency for students of color who experience the disproportionate health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and trauma of police violence. This request would result in “unequal treatment” for students of color compared to white students, the letter said.

Eighty-two students as of Nov. 8 have also signed onto a letter that opposes the way that strike organizers have treated students who don’t completely agree with the strike or its exact demands, said Jacob Gaba, a student who helped develop and distribute the letter. Students who signed it are “completely in support of material, systemic change” and acknowledged that systemic racism “plagues” the United States. But they believe students with different perspectives than the strike organizers are being silenced and demonized, the letter said.

The letter provided an example from the strike organizers’ FAQ page, which stated “you either support the liberation of Black people and other POC [people of color] or you don’t” and said students’ “reluctance to participate perpetuates, reproduces, and propagates the same colonial and white supremacist systems that advantage certain groups of people over others.” The letter in opposition to the strikers’ tactics said this rhetoric has created a “harmful environment” on campus.

“While we will never all agree on the best way to improve our community, we can agree that the route to the best solutions will always involve spirited debate and thoughtful discourse,” the letter said. “We are disappointed that neither has occurred in the midst of this strike, and we are concerned that the mutual trust necessary for meaningful change is being lost.”

Gus Stadler, an English professor and chair of the college’s administrative advisory committee, said he “fully supports” the strike. He said it is hard to “take seriously” the students who are opposed because it seems they are not considering how the students of color leading it have been silenced on Haverford’s campus for several years. Stadler, who has been at the college for 22 years, said progress on racial justice goals are long overdue and dissenting students should understand that “the nature of a strike comes down to is you’re either for it or against it.”

“It’s a very liberal campus and very focused on social justice. At the same time it’s a very white campus,” Stadler said. “People want to be comfortable and they want to feel like everybody’s being heard, but that can happen in a way that sacrifices action that advances social justice and especially racial justice … A strike is disruptive and it’s scary, and the students know that.”

Momentum for change at the college frequently dies out due to endless discussion among leaders and passing off responsibility to address issues of race to other staff members or administrative bodies on campus, Stadler said. As a substitute for classes, Stadler and other professors are leading teach-ins related to the strike and its goals, and he led a session on “navigating institutional structures to enact change.”

“We have this tendency to talk and talk and talk and to start a working group, start a task force, then a committee, and deferring action and substituting talk for action,” he said. “For all of its social justice trappings, it’s hard for our campus to cope with the actual discomfort that comes with political activism that leads to action.”

Ayanna Madison, a sophomore and organizer of the strike, said that those who disagree with providing more academic leniency and support for students of color and other historically marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ and disabled students, are uncomfortable with addressing the “position of power that they have had on this campus the whole time.” Madison said the opposing students’ and faculty members’ desire to continue with classes under the current “status quo” are not confronting the inequitable treatment that students of color said they have experienced in classes all along.

“A lot of people are hiding behind academia, and that is predicated on the assumption that academia is built for everyone,” Madison said. “The point of this is to point out that Haverford was exclusively built for cisgender, heterosexual white men and that it needs to change its structure or go. A lot of people do not want that change of structure because they’re actively benefiting from it.”

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