A pair of students stood up at 12:15 p.m. in the middle of junior Ariana Fowler’s HIV/AIDS in the Global Community class. When the professor asked what they were doing, the students explained that they were going to attend a protest on Central Library lawn.
“She asked the class if they wanted to participate and some of us said yes, and she told us that we could go. And literally my entire class got up and went to the event together,” Fowler said.
Fowler’s class joined almost 200 students gathered at Central Library on Monday to sign a list of demands to submit to the chancellor. The list of 14 demands ranged from paying the requisite roughly $1 million to remove the “Confederate” inscription from Confederate Memorial Hall, to establishing curriculum requirements focused on minority experiences, to increasing the number of people of color on faculty and the staff at the Psychological and Counseling Center.
— Anna Butrico (@anna_butrico) November 16, 2015
One by one, the students filed into Kirkland and personally handed the signed lists to a smiling and nodding Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. The university issued a statement in response.
“There is nothing more important than cultivating a safe and tolerant campus for all members of the Vanderbilt community, and we appreciate that our students are engaging in that effort,” it read. “We expect and welcome continuing conversations with our students as we work collectively to create and sustain an environment in which each of us has the same right to participate fully and without fear in the Vanderbilt experience.”
‘The tipping point’
The list of demands says it was authored by “a diverse coalition of students.” Hidden Dores and representatives from various facets of campus — including the Divinity School and Peabody College, and people with different racial and gender identities — planned the demonstration, spreading information about it on Facebook.
Akaninyene Ruffin, president of the Multicultural Leadership Council and a lead facilitator for Hidden Dores, said the demonstration was planned in response to recent events at the University of Missouri.
“We planned all of this in less than a week,” Ruffin said. “We knew Monday night after Mizzou fell: Ok, we’re going to do something.”
According to the demonstration’s Facebook page, the list of demands was modeled after those brought to the Mizzou administration earlier this fall. When the demands were not addressed by the Mizzou president, a hunger strike, football team boycott and student activism led to the president’s (and the chancellor’s) resignation.
College campuses have been under close scrutiny in the national media in past weeks. Protests erupted at Yale after a faculty member sent an email questioning the university’s decision to provide advice on culturally sensitive Halloween costumes. Campuses all over the nation from Dartmouth to UCLA have seen similar racial protests. There has also been backlash from free speech advocates and others who accuse the protesters of promoting “PC” culture.
Black students at Mizzou received death threats amid the protests, and many students at Vanderbilt took to social media to express solidarity with them. Students also organized a moment of silence on the steps of the Wyatt Center last Wednesday, and NAACP and National Pan-Hellenic Council organized a “Black Out Vandy” event on Thursday, both to stand in solidarity.
“If we all said that we stood in solidarity with Mizzou, and we saw literally people put their lives on the line to get their goals accomplished, you can’t say that you stand in solidarity with them and never act,” Ruffin said. “I’ve been saying since last spring that this was going to be the year where something big pops up. This was just going to be the year where you would have to hit the tipping point.”
‘The most important thing’
Earlier this year, Zeppos announced at the fall faculty assembly that diversity and inclusion would be a priority.
“This is a project of great importance. It is the most important thing I’m going to be spending my time on,” Zeppos said. “At the center, it’s really a matter of race. It is America’s most fundamental challenge.”
This summer, the university created the Office of Inclusion Initiatives and Cultural Competence. IICC’s website indicates that cultural competence training and professional development series are “coming soon.” The chancellor has also launched a committee on diversity and inclusion.
But some students feel like these initiatives have left student input out of the process.
“Administration likes to do just enough to keep students satisfied,” Fowler said. “I think that they are also very aware of student needs but don’t always necessarily act upon them. And students haven’t always been the most vocal as they could possibly be.”
On Vanderbilt’s campus, students said they saw a need for direct action rather than discussion. Instead of following the recent movements that Vanderbilt student activists have launched that promoted dialogue, the protesters sought to mimic actions at other universities that have already enacted institutional change.
“The movement nationally really showed us that they did it, that it is possible,” said senior Safiah Hassan. “We don’t have to be stuck in a bubble of dialogue forever. Maybe we as students can be active agents of our own change. Maybe we’re more powerful than we think. Maybe we have higher bargaining power than ever thought possible.”
“In the end, when nothing comes to fruition, all that comes out of that is frustration,” Hassan said. “You feel like you put so much time and effort into making a program or talking with people.”
For some students, the demands are hardly new. Ruffin said Hidden Dores has been pushing toward these goals for the past year and a half, since the organization’s founding in spring 2014. She said the list was more of a direct consolidation of those goals.
Backlash to the student protests over university action on racism — at Vanderbilt and elsewhere — has framed the protesters as “entitled,” or “whining.”
Some students in Rand hadn’t heard about the protest at all. Others said they felt that there wasn’t a need for the demands because they hadn’t witnessed racism on Vanderbilt’s campus. Sophomore Audrey Shinar said she feels Vanderbilt has made efforts to promote diversity.
“I felt like they were asking for a little much,” said Shinar. “This sounds bad, but I honestly don’t feel like racism is a problem on this campus — this campus. Mizzou, yes, but on this campus I feel like people are pretty good about inclusion.”
Sophomore Rachel Hoy didn’t attend the protest, but said she supported the cause.
“I feel like everyone in different schools are protesting the same issue, so it kind of just shows how the same problems are permeating around all different campuses so it’s good that they’re all banding together and protesting,” Hoy said.
Sophomore Reggie Wimbley — who attended the demonstration — said the reactions he’s seen on campus have been “disgusting.”
“I wouldn’t believe that my own peers would say stuff like this before, like I was just in utter disbelief,” Wimbley said. “A lot of it is hidden behind Yik Yak, but I’ve also heard toward other students. Like they say, ‘why are you complaining, you guys have affirmative action, and you guys have financial aid,’ and just general assumptions that they believe we all have.
“People have shared their personal experiences and the only thing that they can say is stop whining. That is very apathetic and a very negative way to look at it,” he said.
Ruffin hadn’t downloaded Yik Yak until her friends told her about reactions to the protest. She described her response to mocking Yaks.
“Oh, so this is how the other side thinks,” she said. “Oh wow.”
Activists said that some of the negative reactions stem from students’ lack of connection to the problems faced by students of color.
“I think in certain circles or certain communities, this conversation is daily,”said senior Sarah D’Amico. “I think in other communities, it doesn’t come up, or people check out when it does come up.”
Ruffin and others involved with the protest recognized that change can’t happen overnight, but she emphasized that she wants students to be consulted as decisions are made at the administrative level.
“The ball is now in the administration’s court. As students, we said we want to be intimately involved in the creation of a new Vanderbilt, where it’s not just modifying the system, it’s making a new one,” Ruffin said. “I think that they have the position and power to make the right choice.”
— News reporters Amanda Nwaba and Catie Lambert and News editor Zoe Shancer contributed to this report
—Feature photo by Ziyi Liu, Photo Director