Nov. 16 marked the one-year anniversary of the student occupation of the Arthur G. Coons (AGC) Administration building. While others have characterized the occupation as a time of discomfort and danger, we see it as the embodiment of Occidental’s mission in action — a vibrant week of debate, engagement, organizing and teaching about the values and direction of the College. One year later, rather than pursue the path blazed by students, the College has largely erased their efforts and cast them as threats to the institution.
During the Occupation, students endeavored to change the culture of the campus. With strength rather than fragility, students are “canaries in the coal mine.” In the AGC, they exposed conditions the institution is unwilling to acknowledge by calling out uncomfortable truths. They created a vibrant atmosphere in which to breathe and grow. They engaged in critical practices around anti-essentialism and experiences of living in Black bodies. They modeled ways of engaging in challenging issues, creating alternative spaces for rational and critical discourse.
Instead of recognizing the students’ lead and embracing this cultural shift, most administrators and faculty responded by managing crisis and guilt and/or calling for “civil discourse.” These reactions normalized the marginalization of these students by framing protesters as dangerous. Attention to the students’ pleas became a perfunctory “checking off boxes.” While some outcomes show promise — primarily the hiring of a more diverse faculty and the possibility of Black Studies — the College has defaulted
back to business as usual, ignoring the students’ call for the greater goal of changing culture by integrating and elevating diversity and equity.
Currently, students engaging in cultural change have been criminalized by the College administration, which has cultivated a narrative of fear with “dangerous” students as culprits. If the College had worked with the students instead of demonizing them, this year may have started off very differently. With students who faced conduct charges for the 9/11 incident, rather than providing spaces to work through complex issues such as the diverse meanings of national belonging, the histories of violent exclusion, and the myriad ways of commemorating the loss of citizen and non-citizen life, administrators chose to foster a culture of criminalization. While no student was found responsible for violating free speech, as punishment, several are required to write essays on free speech. This frames student actions as unpatriotic, as defined by an increasingly xenophobic and racist national discourse, while internally telling students who participate in protests that they will be monitored and possibly face serious sanctions.
Simultaneously, campus hate incidents and vandalism have been minimized or ignored. Recently, gender-neutral bathroom signs have been damaged and defaced. While administrators say matters are being “handled,” the failure to publicly address hateful incidents, including online death threats, indicates that College leadership prioritizes the concerns of outside critics rather than the well-being of our own students. A new report under Ted Mitchell’s office within the Department of Education states, “Students report less discrimination and bias at institutions where they perceive a stronger institutional commitment to diversity.” (Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Key Data Highlights Focusing on Race and Ethnicity and Promising Practices, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Office of the Under Secretary, U.S. Dept. of Education, Nov. 2016, 41). Are we such an institution? Participation in cultures and institutions that normalize relationships of dominance and marginalization harm all, privileged or not.
Students in the AGC provided spaces for thinking and working in new ways. Were the College’s responses singular reactions to immediate pressures, or will it recognize students who continually expose inequities in their educational and social lives? The rising number of hate crimes by those emboldened by the national election who embrace sexism, racism, xenophobia and anti-queerness makes clear the necessity of education centered on equity and excellence. Furthermore, the hate enabled by the official discourse necessitates individuals to support and lift up voices of students whose lives bear the administration’s failures every day. This is not the work of a select few but the duty and mission of the entire College. Will we collectively take up this work or be forced to admit that the actions we took last year were simply reactions to protests?
And now, even institutional spaces that have uplifted diverse students are in jeopardy. The aforementioned report notes, “Much of the dialogue around diversity and inclusion in higher education suggests that curricula to which students are exposed can greatly impact the way in which they view and engage the world. Research suggests this begins with institutions’ orientation and induction of new students into the campus environment” (Ibid, 41-2). It also points out that for low-income, first-generation and students of color, college “is often an isolating experience where they do not feel accepted, welcomed or well-treated. Colleges and universities can work to make their campuses inclusive, safe and hospitable environments … to help ensure that everyone is able to pursue their educational opportunities to their fullest potential” (Ibid., 47). As the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) transitions, will it continue as a signature program and model for infusing the Mission throughout the College, creating a culture of inclusion and equity, or will it become something to help “minority students” in a College that itself is not changing? What is the direction of the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer? Will it engage in meaningful structural and cultural change? Or will it be an organ of public relations? Will the new Core Program fully re-engage with the challenge of providing an academic center for the College’s multicultural mission?
The one-year mark of the Occupation is not merely a moment of commemoration and reflection. Rather, it is a period to evaluate how much we’ve done. More importantly, it presents an opportunity to choose where our college goes. Should it quell and manage the possibility of future protest? Or should it endeavor to build a more just and equitable institution and society? Current events show the urgent necessity to continue the work students began. To this end, we call on our community to realize what our students envision.
Regina Freer, Professor, Politics
Donna Maeda, Professor, Critical Theory & Social Justice
Movindri Reddy, Professor, Diplomacy and World Affairs