Student Senate Must Be Proactive in Regaining Student Trust

On Friday, March 8, a group of around 40 students gathered in Tappan Square. Our plan was to disrupt a trustee luncheon and read a statement expressing our concerns about the Academic and Administrative Program Review, the current budget crisis, and a general lack of transparency and meaningful incorporation of student voices in decision making processes at Oberlin.

When we arrived at The Hotel at Oberlin, we were immediately surrounded by Campus Safety officers and administrators, who blocked access to the stairs leading up to the luncheon, causing the “accessibility” concerns raised in Student Senate’s March 11 email. I was able to gain access to the luncheon and read our statement in full to the attendees, which included President Ambar, some student senators, and some trustees.

Numerous students report that during the standoff in the lobby, they were pushed and surrounded by Campus Safety officers and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo. The chair of the AAPR Steering Committee David Kamitsuka promised to send an email out the following day informing students of their ability to attend the AAPR information sessions on Wednesday, March 13 and Thursday, March 14. Although the meeting was already open to students, we had received very little communication about this. It’s likely that the email sent last Saturday morning from the Office of Communications and Kamitsuka can be directly attributed to our action.

Although the action was minimally disruptive and resulted in the dissemination of information that was not broadly known by the student body, some students — including student senators — were critical of the action. Last weekend, there were many exchanges between participants in the action and those critical of it, and some of these exchanges got needlessly heated and personal.

Many of us involved in these weekend conversations were shocked when Student Senate emailed the entire student body condemning the action. All of the concerns raised in the email — concerns about accessibility, about the treatment of support workers, about our supposed lack of information — had already been discussed extensively by organizers.

My issue is not with the concerns raised. I’m happy to engage in dialogue with any student about the nature of last week’s events. My concern is the precedent this sets for collaboration between Student Senate and activist groups moving forward — members of our coalition represent leaders across all areas of campus, groups that fight for workers, people of color, low-income folks, and so much more. I believe that Senate’s decision to publicly criticize the protest is largely due to the interpersonal conflicts between members of Student Senate, their friends, and members of our coalition.

Not only is it unprofessional to use the entire student list to play out petty interpersonal drama and condemn a group of active and engaged members of student groups that do important work — it is irresponsible for Student Senate to present a one-sided narrative of a complicated event and then disseminate information to the entire student body, while prohibiting participants from offering a counternarrative.

The email is rife with mischaracterizations and inaccuracies. For example, there is an allusion to “cyberbullying” of a “staff member who offered direct support and information regarding the organizer’s rights.” This refers to an exchange that took place during the action in which a dean of the College informed us that “the police could be called,” which we interpreted as a threat to call the police. She wasn’t informing us of our rights — she was informing us of their right to call the police. The “cyberbullying” is referring to a video documenting this exchange that was posted on Facebook — a video which has since been deleted. The email from Senate also fails to mention that student protesters were surrounded by Campus Safety officers and pushed — I personally was grabbed and pulled by an adult affiliated with the College as they tried to remove me from the Trustee luncheon.

Regardless of the inaccuracies and mischaracterizations presented in Senate’s email, the email is counter to Senate’s duty to serve all students. In presenting a biased account of last Friday’s events to the entire student body, Senate has alienated some of the most seasoned and motivated activists on this campus.

In the coming period of what is sure to be significant austerity, Student Senate should be making every effort possible to collaborate with and offer support to student activist groups — not taking a position against a group of students raising legitimate concerns about transparency at Oberlin.

Student Senate has a lot of work to do to earn back the trust of many activists in this community. Senate should use the entire student list to recognize that their comments about the action were inappropriate and unwarranted, and to apologize. Organizers and participants in last Friday’s action should be permitted to write a statement offering a counternarrative, and Student Senate should use the student list to distribute that statement, prefaced by their apology.