On Oct. 31, students, faculty and staff gathered in the Academic Council Room to debate student demonstration policies at Wellesley. The “listening session” was intended to provide a forum for students to offer suggestions concerning the new student demonstration policy. Elizabeth Gildersleeve, Wellesley’s chief communications officer, moderated the discussion. Approximately 35 community members — as well as about a dozen students — were present at the event. The event was a continuation of events that occurred earlier in the semester, including the proposal and eventual dissolution of an interim demonstration policy in late August and early September.
Timeline of Events
On Aug. 29, Sheilah Horton, vice president and dean of students at Wellesley, announced the implementation of a new interim protest policy via email. Horton explained via e-mail that the purpose of the new interim policy was “to take a proactive step…to ensure the continued safety of our community.” The e-mail also states that the policy “is a set of overarching guidelines to ensure students’ rights to safely assemble and protest.”
Upon release of Horton’s email, student organizers Pris Nasrat ’19, Daniela Krimerman Arroyo ’19, Ni’Shele Jackson ’19, Casey Melton ’19, Madeline Wood ’19 and Sophie Hurwitz ’21 sent a response email to the student community entitled “Open Letter regarding the New Interim Demonstration Planning Policy.”
On Sep. 4, President Johnson suspended the interim policy, with the intention of continuing discussions and establishing a new policy by the end of the academic year. Johnson announced the suspension via email, citing the importance of collaborating with all members of the student body as a primary motivation.
Interim Demonstration Policy
Before one can understand why the interim policy was suspended, it’s important to acknowledge what made the interim demonstration policy controversial. The most recent version of the policy stated that it was created “to assure the continued safety of Wellesley students, faculty, staff, and the broader community.”
However, student organizers identified three main problems with the interim demonstration policy. First, according to Casey Melton ’19, a student organizer who has been active in the over-haul of the interim demonstration policy, the old policy gave a considerable amount of power to campus police. “My first concern was the power that it gave to campus police,” said Melton. “It is concerning to me to see that administration does not seem to understand how harmful police can be to folks belonging to marginalized groups.” The interim policy required student organizers to meet with Dean Horton or campus police prior to the protest, in order to establish particular protocols regarding topics such as safety, time, and location of the protest.
Secondly, student organizers also expressed concern over the way protests were identified in the old policy. According to Melton, “My second concern was the idea that protests should not be disruptive. In the original policy, they wrote that ‘Freedom of expression does not include the right to engage in conduct that disrupts the College’s essential operations or threatens the safety of others.’ I agree that a demonstration should not threaten the safety of others; however, I do not think that the original writers of this policy understood that demonstrations are often disruptive by necessity. Demonstrations are almost always a last resort tactic that we are escalated toward after we have exhausted every other route allowed to us. These routes are often exhausted because people will not listen to us. Protesting, and being disruptive in the process, is a way of finally making people hear us.”
Lastly, the original protest policy was designed to protect student protestors from outside agitators. However, Melton believed that the policy needed to be more explicit in its language. They state, “[President Johnson and Dean Horton] should make it very clear that whatever policy they decide upon explicitly addresses outside agitators. The original one was very specifically targeted at students in its language and the punitive tools outlined, so in our eyes clearly did not address outside agitators.”
Key Takeaways from Listening Session
The listening session was held on Oct. 31 to gather student feedback concerning the demonstration policies and possibly solicit suggestions for future policy changes. Though the listening session was productive, those who attended would have liked to see a larger turnout. Speaking of the session, Melton says, “The listening session was sparsely attended, and I wish that I had seen more concerned students, as I know there are many more on campus. I also wish there had been more done by administration who set up this listening session to connect more with the student body about what this listening session was about.”
Some key changes presented in the listening session include: encouraging more student voices in the policy creation process, creating space for faculty/staff to provide advocacy resources for students and solidifying the commitment to make the campus a safer place.
The listening session also revealed the diverse opinions students have about a potential demonstration policy. Casey Melton believes that the College should not have a demonstration policy; “I do not think that we should have a demonstration policy for students because I think that we already have a hard time organizing, and should not have to jump through any more hoops in order to be able to demonstrate on-campus.” They added, “the historic discrimination of marginalized groups is what turns me off.”
On the other hand, student organizer Jo Sehon ’19 believes that a demonstration policy, if done well, could be beneficial for the community. Sehon says, “As a whole, I’m for a protest policy; I just said that to ensure that we get the right sort of protest policy.”
Protest Policies At Other Schools
The decision to invoke a student demonstration policy is not unlike other protest policies being implemented on campuses across the U.S. On Oct. 23, students at Tufts protested the implementation of a new demonstration policy. This new policy requires protests expecting more than 25 students to register and approve their protest with the Office of Campus Life at least five days in advance. Students attending the protest cited this new policy as problematic- mostly because it gives the Tufts administration a lot more power to regulate what types of protests students can hold. The Tufts administration can now approve or deny certain student protests, depending on whether the protest will have access to adequate medical and security support.
The Wellesley administration hopes to have a new policy drafted by the end of the academic year. The new policy is primarily being written by Provost Shennan, Dean Horton and Assistant Vice President and Director of Human Resources Carolyn Slaboden. Additionally, discussions about creating an ad-hoc student committee for these discussions are ongoing.
In the meantime, if you would like to contribute thoughts or feedback to the discussion, check out the Google Form which will be available for comment until Nov. 16. The link will be available on our website.