Student Protest of Bylaws Revision Favored Animosity Over Message

It has been a few weeks since the community gathered to protest the Board of Trustees’ plan to revise the College bylaws. Since then, the board has voted to approve those changes, and through a confluence of midterms and fall break, the uproar surrounding this decision has disappeared. Lest the silence send the wrong message, the board should know that while the vote to amend the bylaws may have passed, this community remains disappointed and angered by that choice. Let that message resound through the next board meetings and hold a refrain in classrooms and conversations around campus. 

We stand united in that message, but this Editorial Board wishes to step back to consider some of the choices that students made to voice their concerns. A few weeks before the Oct. 6 protest, we wrote that we were disappointed by the lack of fervor in student activism on campus post-pandemic. At that point, the issue seemed to be faltering long term engagement with issues and minimal campus-wide organizing. As the crowds gathered in Wilder Bowl that afternoon, we thought both of our prior concerns would be disproven, only to be met with something altogether more concerning.

At the beginning of the protest, attendees stood outside Wilder Hall as faculty, staff, and students shared opinions and voiced concerns about the management of Oberlin and the impact the proposed amendments would have on our institution. As the hour progressed, the tone of the protest started to change — the crowd’s attention shifted to the trustees standing by Mudd Center, who had come to observe the protests. One student protester with a bullhorn led a group into Mudd and down the staircase toward the Center for Engaged Liberal Arts in an effort to confront the trustees, though Campus Safety ultimately blocked their path. 

We believe that the conduct of these student protesters detracted from the message they were trying to communicate. The hostile attention of the crowd was directed toward a few dozen individuals congregating to do their jobs. Whatever else we may think about the board’s decisions, they remain hardworking people deserving of our decorum and respect, especially if we expect any in return. When protesters’ actions compel the people they’re addressing to physically barricade themselves, they have not created a successful protest. Instead, they have created a hostile situation that encourages defensiveness over concerns for mutual benefit. We’re not saying a different approach to protest would have borne a different outcome in the vote, but in the very least this community would have held together its sense of good faith.

Something largely ignored by the force of bodies and chants that afternoon is that trustees weren’t the only ones in the CELA at the time. Several administrative staff, advisors, and professionals who work every day to support students sat through that chaos. As students knocked on CELA windows and rushed down elevators and stairs, individuals going about  their days found themselves surrounded by anger that wasn’t meant for them. In the heat of protest, whatever message could have been received was replaced by confusion. 

In an ideal world, the message of protesters would hold weight even when brimming with anger. The focus would be on what they are saying, instead of how they are saying it. However, the unfortunate reality is that the validity of protests is going to be judged based on the cumulative impact of the protest, which includes conduct of the protesters. It doesn’t make sense for this to be the standard, and it isn’t fair. But that doesn’t negate the fact that if we want to make a difference, we have to remove every obstacle and every remotely conceivable reason to be discredited and dismissed. Protesters must take this into consideration in order to be effective.

Oberlin students are capable of protesting in a peaceful and effective manner. In March, students joined the faculty to protest for fair pay after the board declined to recommit to its promises regarding faculty compensation. They stood outside, held signs, and gave speeches. There was no direct confrontation with administrators, and campus safety didn’t need to get involved. In this instance, the focus remained on the intent behind the protests. The campus community was able to put 100 percent of its energy into discussion of the matter at hand: that employees don’t receive the support and credence they’re due, and their voices are continually ignored. Voices from that day echo even now, and the message remains ever clear. Further, protests tend to be more effective when they pertain to a specific issue, rather than a general animosity toward a group of people. While we acknowledge and believe that the Board of Trustees and the administration have made several decisions in recent history that were detrimental to the well-being of the College and broader community, we also must recognize that they appreciate their personal responsibility toward Oberlin. Chanting to “abolish the trustees” is not an effective way to impel positive change toward shared governance and better conditions for the people working at this College. 

We stood beside faculty in matters of pay, and we marched again to support the authority of faculty governance. If our goal is to support our professors, then the responsibility falls on us to represent the good our professors enable in us. If we wish to fight the good fight, it remains our duty to fight in a way that credits the genuine good we’re capable of.