Fighting the downsizing of education at the University of Vermont.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Turn: Fogel Should Respect Protesters

June 3, 2009

My Turn: Fogel should respect protesters

By Tina Escaja

Last year, the University of Vermont celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first Waterman takeover by students who'd become convinced that only through this act of civil disobedience would the administration finally sit down to discuss seriously their proposals to diversify the university community and curriculum.

Here's how UVM's The View, in an article this year, described the outcome of occupation of President Lattie Coor's office in the spring of 1988: "After negotiations among faculty, students, and administrators, President Lattie Coor and the protesters emerged from the wing on April 22 with a formal agreement to advance the hiring and recruitment of multicultural faculty and students and enhance the curriculum to build racial and ethnic awareness."

Fast-forward to spring 2009 when a small group of students held a sit-in at President Dan Fogel's office and a large group sat down in the hallway outside the president's wing, convinced that only through this act of civil disobedience would the administration finally agree to discuss seriously students' concerns that UVM's budget was being balanced at the expense of their educations.

This sit-in was part of a series of events that took place over the months following the announcement of cuts and layoffs that many students and faculty feared threatened quality education at UVM. A few weeks before, many hundreds of students who participated in a walk-out were praised by delighted and appreciative professors and staff. But since students still could not get an audience with President Fogel, they decided, in a most peaceful, even celebratory, manner, to wait in the public premises of the Waterman Building until he would see them.

However, unlike President Coor in 1988, President Fogel did not sit down cross-legged on the floor for long hours of discussion that might culminate in a new Waterman Agreement. Instead, he stepped out of his office, telling the students he'd return in a moment, and then called in the police. Instead of a new Waterman Agreement, what President Fogel brought us this spring were the arrests of and criminal charges against 32 students for carrying out a nonviolent protest of his policies.

I am among many UVM faculty and staff who denounce the mishandling of the sit-in by our administration. I was there, and I could see the solidarity among our students that seriously contrasted with the harsh response by the administration. I saw how the administration had the windows of the president wing covered by blankets and paper to block any communication between the students inside and outside the president's wing. This visual rejection of students' attempt at serious dialogue with President Fogel was appalling, as was the use of force exercised exclusively by one side -- the administration -- to break off negotiations.

Students were then banned from entering this building where they were to take classes, receive honors and take exams that would allow them to graduate. This barring of students from entering the building even to fulfill their obligations as students was another example of administrative overreaction and mishandling of the situation. The explanation that students must "pay for their actions" when the administration itself has not been questioned about their own actions is not satisfactory to faculty such as myself.

What would be helpful at this point would be for the trustees and President Fogel to now actively support the dismissal of charges against all of the students. The sit-in was nonviolent, nondestructive and nonobstructive. The students involved should be celebrated, not punished, for honoring UVM's social justice tradition and for their commitment to our university's future.

Tina Escaja of South Burlington is a professor in romance languages at the University of Vermont.

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