The controversy began last May when Kent Syverud, Syracuse University’s new Chancellor, closed the University’s historic Advocacy Center, one of the first of its kind designed to prioritize the needs of victims of sexual assault. Where did this action lead?
On Thursday November 20th, THE General Body, a united front of Syracuse University student groups that has been mobilizing against cuts in a broad range of student services including the Advocacy Center, staff cuts in all non-academic units, a below living wage for 59% of Teaching Assistants, and the new Chancellor’s mysterious but far-reaching“Fast Forward” management initiative (more on this below), ended a sit-in in the lobby of Crouse Hinds Hall, downstairs from SU Chancellor Kent Syverud’s administrative suite. The 18 day sit-in yielded some concessions: the Student Association President can now email the entire student body, Teaching Assistants have secured a 7% pay increase in 2016, the University has postponed their validation of a new Mission and Vision statement, has committed to an immediate search for an Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator, and the Chancellor has added 11 more students to his Fast Forward work groups.
The sit-in began on Monday, November 3rd, following a rally for Diversity and Transparency at Hendricks Chapel. Protestors marched down to Crouse Hinds Hall to deliver their grievances to the administration, their second attempt to meet with the Chancellor. They were met by Administration officials who denied them entrance to the building: University officials would meet with them at the Schine Student Center. Students finally gained admittance to the building and announced that day that they would sit in Crouse Hinds Hall until Chancellor Syverud committed to addressing their grievances.
For the next 18 days, the students succeeded in using mainstream and social media to get word out about the sit-in and their grievances and demands.
During the first week, Chancellor Kent Syverud made a brief appearance at the Sit-in but gave no meaningful commitments. For most meetings with THE General Body, the University was represented by University College Dean Bea Gonzalez, who was never authorized to make any agreements on behalf of the University. This was true for most of the meetings held with the University throughout the sit-in. In an email to the University community on November 12th, Chancellor Syverud said that “THE General Body should work collaboratively with the duly elected representatives and governing bodies that are currently in place, including the Student Association and the Graduate Student Organization, to bring continued action and resolution to these concerns. I look forward to being an active participant in this process.” Students remained skeptical about this response in light of the fact that the Syverud and the Board of Trustees overruled recommendations of the University Senate on Tenure and Promotion and ignored the recommendations of the Student Association and the University Senate.
What Happened on the Weekend of 11/14, and how it backfired on the Syracuse University Administration
Stories in the Syracuse newspapers and other media, when referencing the sit-in, often described it as looking like a homeless shelter. It’s important to remember that the forty or so students sitting-in in Crouse Hinds Hall every night, every weekend, endured constant surveillance. Armed University Department of Public Safety Guards sat in groups of two or three, at each of the building’s entrances, most of the time; at some points, during the students first weekend in Crouse, there was a total of ten guards. Students often woke up with Guards taking pictures of them. Students wondered why guards were constantly videotaping and scanning their ID cards.
On Friday, November 14th, they found out why. That evening, at 8:00 PM, ten minutes after a sympathetic Syracuse University Law Professor, and an ACLU attorney left the building after talking to the students, the building was “locked down” for the weekend. But not to everybody, it seems, because at that point the University’s lawyer, Dan French, appeared and delivered hand addressed envelopes, with the student’s individual names on it, to 15 of the students. Inside the envelopes were copies of the Student Code of Conduct and Disruption Policies highlighted. The following morning, Saturday November 15th, the law professor, a tenured instructor at the University, was refused admittance to the building to talk to students. (For a deeper look at what it was like for the students inside that weekend, see this article.)
“I explained that my mission was to explain the code of conduct and its procedures to the students and that was all; I was denied admittance after being made to wait out in the cold for their response. When I called DPS I was told that students would be allowed out two at a time to talk to me and then would be permitted back in the building; before I could deal with the problem of advising the students out in the cold I received a call from the Associate Chief of DPS Sardino who informed me that no lawyer, university or otherwise would be allowed in the building this weekend and the policy of allowing them out to talk to me was withdrawn,” the SU law professor wrote in an email that went out to over a hundred full time and part time faculty members. On Sunday, November 16th, numerous faculty gathered outside Crouse Hall to show their support for the students.
It is believed that Chancellor Syverud received hundreds of emails over the rest of the weekend. As a result of all of the complaints, on Sunday, November 16th, Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric Spina sent out an email to the University community. “Over the past 24 hours there have been significant and unfortunate misunderstandings regarding the current situation in Crouse-Hinds Hall,” he wrote. “On Friday, Nov. 14, the Office of General Counsel, in an effort to afford those students who continued to remain in the building maximum due process, provided them copies of the Code of Student Conduct. Highlighted were the provision the Code that might apply under the current situation.” No intimidation was intended, according to the Provost; the University was simply affording students due process. To date, students who received these reminders of the Student Conduct Code have received no explanation. Nor has the University yet signed a non-retaliation agreement. Apparently the University Administration values some governance policies more than others, and Student Conduct Code would seem to have more value to them than votes by the Student Association or the University Senate.
On Monday November 17th, over a hundred faculty supporters gathered in the rain outside the Hall of Languages. The Chancellor’s email in-box must have crackled at capacity for the rest of that week. Earlier in the week, THE General Body once again invited Chancellor Syverud to meet with them. As previously, only Dean Bea Gonzalez appeared on behalf of the University. Next to her was an empty chair that THE General Body had reserved for the Chancellor. Surrounded by a crowd of University students and faculty, Ms Gonzalez was put in the position of having to say she had no authority to address any of THE General Body’s concerns.
When the meeting was over, THE General Body announced that while the resistance would continue, they were ending their Sit-in in Crouse. They led a march back to Hendricks Chapel for a closing rally.
At 4:30 that afternoon, a faculty member returning to his office in Crouse found a sign posted on the front door saying that the building was closed for “health and safety inspections.” There was a strong DPS presence closely monitoring all students entering the building.
A Story Less Censored than Spun
For anyone wanting to know what THE General Body’s real issues are, by far the most reliable source is their own website. They have a Facebook page, links to activist blogs and plentiful tweets. THE General Body are also, it would seem, not only activists, but archivists. They have a page on PRESS and have collected much of the media coverage of their actions.
Of all the stories about the student action, one of the liveliest and most detailed, the one that really gives a sense of what it must have been like on Monday, November 3rd, was the story published online for Jerk Magazine, the University’s alternative student newspaper. The sit-in received coverage in U.S.A. Today, The Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Democracy Now, and members of the General Body wrote a piece published in The Nation. With the exception of the write-up in The Nation, the coverage in the national newspapers tended to speak about THE General Body’s grievances and demands in the most general terms. This blurb from U.S.A. Today is fairly typical. “Last Monday, students gathered on the steps of Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel for the Diversity and Transparency (DAT) Rally, organized to draw attention to issues facing diverse groups at SU and accusations that the school’s administration is not embracing diversity.” What was positive in the U.S.A. Today article was that it contained a link to the General Body’s exhaustive website.
The Chronicle of Higher Education was equally vague. “Students at Syracuse University are continuing a sit-in that began on Monday and is focused on diversity and transparency at the New York institution, reports The Daily Orange, the campus’s student newspaper.” One of the stories in the in The Chronicle of Higher Education did mention social media, but the one tweet they showed was accessed through the Syracuse newspaper, The Post Standard. The picture of the tweet says, “All Day Dean Bea González has been speaking with students of the @THEgeneralbody on potential agreements. Discussions continue.” THE General Body website has a twitter feed with many lively tweets, some including some very powerful visual rhetoric, but the article showed no link to those.
The City of Syracuse’s remaining newspaper, The Post Standard, has covered the action, but the image that emerges is that students are either demonstrating over abstract concepts of diversity- sort of channeling the 1960’s- or else they are privileged youth with nothing to do besides protest. This letter from the newspaper’s letter page is fairly typical, and less vitriolic than many: “They’re kids. Syverud is an adult. He has a position of power. They have freedom for the first time in their lives. Therefore they feel the need to push limits. As the resident authority figure, they target Syverud. He’s handling it’s properly…. College. It’s where you send young adults for the 4 years that they make their parents insane.” It’s a narrative carried across various media.
The Post Standard’s coverage of the first rally on September 19th, gave five paragraphs to Kevin Quinn, the University’s Vice President of Public Affairs: “The protest today is what really makes Syracuse,” he said, as if student protest were simply part of the University’s charm. He goes on to frame the cuts in the POSSE program as a move promoting diversity. “Quinn confirmed that funds are being moved from the Posse Scholars program toward other efforts aimed at ‘attracting the best and diverse students we can from across the nation.’”
When local news coverage did weigh in on their editorial pages, it was usually an indictment of the protesters. On November 14th, the Post Standard published an editorial titled “Syracuse University protestors: Stop sitting, start acting.” The Daily Orange, the student newspaper affiliated with the Newhouse School of Journalism, published, on November 4th, an editorial “Unruly Behavior Will Not Spur Change.” Both of these pieces did acknowledge the legitimacy of student grievances, but said it was time to stop and work through the system now.
But there is a much bigger, more disturbing aspect to all of the coverage of THE General Body. And that is the almost total absence in this coverage of the real reason THE General Body was organized in the first place: the Chancellor’s “Fast Forward” initiative.
Fast Forward, But Don’t Look Too Hard
The cover of the Spring 2014 Syracuse University Magazine celebrated the new chancellor as a man who likes to listen. The caption under his photo announced that “Chancellor Kent Syverud is known and admired for a leadership style that reflects his personable nature, sharp intellect, passion for listening, and commitment to helping others achieve success.” Chancellor Syverud reinforced this in the interview: ”I like to listen. I learned long ago that there’s so much you can learn just by asking and genuinely hearing what people are saying to you.” This listening persona was reinforced last April, first when the Chancellor sent an email out to all students and alumni surveying whether or not they pronounced the first syllable of “Syracuse” with a long “a” or a long “e” sound. The Post Standard covered the alleged controversy quite extensively, going so far as to ask CNN Anderson Cooper, when he was in Syracuse to speak how he pronounced it.
Around the same time and a little after, other questions were being asked in smaller circles. On June 24th, the Chancellor announced the “launch of Fast Forward Syracuse and its three interrelated components: a Strategic Plan, a Campus Master Plan and an Operational Excellence Program.” Each component has a steering committee and several working groups, and clearly has far reaching repercussions for all members of the University community. What’s significant about “Fast Forward Syracuse” and makes it so strange that news coverage of THE General Body’s grievances and demands never mentions this new management initiative is that all of THE General Body’s complaints are in response to changes made in “Fast Forward’s” wake. The closure of the Advocacy Center and the reduction in psychiatric staff seems to be related to the administration’s request to all non-academic units to produce a report detailing how they would implement 10% and 20% cuts to their staff. The Trustees’ rejection of a University-approved policy related to tenure and promotion may be related to the Strategic Plan’s charge to increase faculty productivity. The Trustees’ top-down reshaping of the University’s mission/vision statement is another of THE General Body’s grievances.
Of course, Fast Forward is evolving, but more and more faculty and students are feeling left out of the process, of the right to a voice. But if students and faculty feel left out, there is strong evidence that the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees do value the opinion of certain outside agencies and entities. On October 8th, students, faculty, and staff were asked to participate in a survey developed by Sasaki Associates,“an award-winning integrated planning and design firm headquartered in Boston, Mass” that is going to “partner with the University for this planning and revitalization.” A look at Sasaki’s webpage indicates that they are an international, award winning architecture and planning firm, but what is their relationship with Syracuse University?
Nor is Sasaki Associates the only outside agency that seems to have a voice in whatever is happening at Syracuse University. In April 2014, Bain and Company, an American global management firm, also headquartered in Boston, Mass, submitted diagnostic findings. “After four months of detailed analysis, review, and discussion; input was gathered from campus leaders, students, faculty, and staff via interviews, focus groups, and an online survey; data was acquired from SU and external sources.” Is it safe to assume that the Fast Forward Syracuse plan is based on the findings of Bain and Company?
Syracuse University’s new corporate initiative may call itself Fast Forward, but the cuts in services that it mandates look more like a return to the past. Back in 1989, when students complained about the rising number of rapes on campus, Chancellor Melvin Eggers formed a Task Force and, within a year, the Rape Advocacy Prevention and Education Center was formed, one of the first of its kind nationally. Chancellor Syverud also knows how to move quickly when he chooses to; after announcing the closure of the Advocacy Center in May 2014 (after students had left for the summer), staff members were let go immediately. Neither are cuts in funding to minority scholarship programs like POSSE a step forward. The University’s “redeployment” of $200,000 that former Chancellor Nancy Cantor earmarked for Syracuse’s west side Tully Community Arts Center is another step backward, not forward.
THE General Body of Syracuse University has brought together fifty student organizations and is now uniting with a growing number of faculty—both tenure track and Syracuse University’s 500 part time faculty- whose long term interests are threatened by the new Chancellor’s corporate belt-tightening. “REWIND SU,” claims one of the student protestors’ signs, calling to mind Syracuse University’s glorious history of activism and reminding the administration that if they are going to try and eradicate fifty years of gains, they will have a fight on their hands.
Student Researcher: Kerry Van Name, Syracuse University
Student Researcher: Laurie Koller, Syracuse University
Faculty Evaluator: Jeff Simmons, Syracuse University
THE General Body website
Jerk Magazine, November 4, 2014
U.S.A. Today, November 11, 2014
Syracuse.com, November 5, 2014
Syracuse.com, September 19, 2014
Chronicle of Higher Education, November 6, 2014
Syracuse University Magazine, Spring 2014
Syracuse.com, Editorial, November 14, 2014
The Daily Orange, Editorial, November 4, 2014
Syracuse.com, April 25, 2014
Syracuse University’s Fast Forward website
Syracuse University News