Students Protest Economist’s Actions, Not Views


Olivia Scott

Students protest Jeffrey Sachs at Wednesday’s convocation. Protesters entered Finney Chapel during Sachs’s talk to speak out against his actions and the College’s decision to fund a speaker the protesters called a “neoliberalist capitalist.”

Madeline Stocker, News Editor

Those who expected developmentalism to be the only policy deconstructed at Jeffrey Sachs’s convocation Wednesday night were in for a surprise.

Sachs, an American economist and former economic advisor to a number of governments worldwide, began the first few words of his convocation speech in front of a relatively large audience of students, faculty, staff and community members, but was soon drowned out by the shouts from a group of students scattered throughout Finney Chapel.

“Jeffrey Sachs has spent his life using vulnerable populations in mass economic experiments,” the students proclaimed from their vantage points. Banners denouncing neoliberalism unfurled from both sides of the chapel’s balconies as the students continued to protest the economist, who they claimed “propagat[ed] the death and mass poverty of millions of people,” and “obliterat[ed] the working class in Bolivia, Poland and Russia.”

After completing their demonstration, a call-and-response “mic check” in which several student leaders shouted each phrase and other students resounded the call, the protesters exited the chapel, shouting, “No justice, no peace. Keep Sachs out of international relief,” over Sachs’s request for quiet.

According to the students who led the demonstration, the purpose of the protest was to speak out against Sachs’s actions, not views, as well as focus accountability on the College for funding a speaker they accused of promoting a neoliberalist capitalist agenda.

In order to achieve their goal, protesters lined the pews with fliers directing attention to some of Sachs’s more controversial tactics, hoping to encourage attendees to think critically about the speaker’s actions before choosing how to perceive the content of his convocation.

The economist, who The New York Times called “the most important economist in the world,” is known to many as the father of shock therapy, a term that refers to the intentional instigation of instability and conflict within a country. This tactic is often achieved by suddenly dropping price and currency controls, withdrawing state subsidies and privatizing publicly owned assets.

“These policies pass the cost of economic stabilization onto lower classes, leading to widespread unemployment, low average purchasing power and increased poverty,” read the program that student protesters passed out to audience members.

For many, however, the success of these policies cannot be denied. In 1985, Sachs advised the Bolivian government to use shock therapy during a time of heightened hyperinflation and subsequently reduced inflation by 11,375 percent. He has also played a large role in the stabilization of the Polish, Estonian and Slovenian governments and is the founder of the Millennium Villages Project, which has achieved notable success in raising agricultural production and cutting the child mortality rates of more than a dozen African countries.

He has been named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine and one of the “500 Most Influential People in the Field of Foreign Policy” by the World Affairs Councils of America as a result of his economic policies.

The economic influence of his policies, however, is often far from black and white. “Shock therapy was largely successful in Poland, albeit possibly at high social costs in the short run, but utterly failed in Russia,” said Professor of Economics Tobias Pfutze. “It is, however, a stretch to say that without it, Poland would be a much poorer country today than it actually is. In Russia, on the other hand, shock therapy failed because the society had [an] institutional heritage of modern, market-friendly institutions to fall back upon. But [I] expect that other more gradual approaches would have equally failed. The flipside is that approaches other than shock therapy would also have worked in Poland. The transition may have been longer, and today, Poland would be a little poorer, but the country would not be fundamentally different.” Aside from prompting a reaction from

Sachs — who chastised the protesters for refusing to debate and learn — the demonstration also received criticism from students who questioned its efficacy.

“It’s presumptuous on the part of the students to yell something at a Nobel Prize winner, not listen to his response and then walk out as if we have all the information. It strikes me as kind of arrogant,” said College junior and Student Senate Liaison Machmud Makhmudov.

Makhmudov said he believed that the protestors should have stayed in an attempt to create a dialogue with Sachs and subsequently educate audience members on the purpose of their demonstration.

“If they had organized well, they could have made sure that a lot of the questions were voiced from protestors,” Makhmudov said. “The opportunity was there. To deny that there wouldn’t have been any discourse if they stayed doesn’t make sense.”

In a wider discussion of the efficacy of Oberlin activism, some of which took place on public social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, several other students said they believed that the protesters would have made a greater impact if they stayed until the end of the convocation, citing Sachs’s many accolades as evidence of his value as a convocation speaker.

Several of the protesters said that their aim was not to respect the speaker but to challenge the information that the College presents as unbiased truth. “The objective of the action was not

to respect the liberalism and violence over Third World working classes that Sachs and the College uphold by having a dialogue or a debate. The objective was to support the concurrent and more important events Black Lives Matter, historicizing Anti-Black violence, and Carry That Weight, supporting survivors of sexual and domestic violence — violences that are all buttressed by capitalism and continue to be eclipsed and silenced by dominant narratives such as Sachs’s,” protesters and College seniors Ana Patrice Robelo, Megan Giselea Bautista and Gian-Carlo Toriano Parel said in an statement to the Review.

The students also called attention to the fact that for some, both the administration’s decision to invite Sachs to speak and the rhetoric used in the College’s program flyer indicates that Oberlin values capitalist and white supremacist ideologies.

“For us and many around the world, he is representative of neoliberal, imperialist ideologies that continue to have destructive impacts and have become models for economists all over the world,” they said. “This is part of a larger trend that continues in order to indoctrinate the Oberlin College community with values of neoliberalism and elitism.”

For Makhmudov and others, however, the College is not responsible for the actions of its convocation speakers.

“It’s the responsibility of the speaker to voice their own views, and it’s the responsibility of the protesters to respond to the speaker and create a dialogue and discussion,” he said.