Editor's Notes: This series was reported by The Tufts Daily’s Investigative Team. Reena Karasin and Cathy Perloff contributed reporting.
Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.
Tufts made national headlines in May 2015 when students from Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) staged a 5-day hunger strike to protest the university’s plans to lay off up to 35 janitors. The action was the culmination of tensions between TLC and the administration that had stretched throughout the academic year.
Tufts has a reputation as a home for passionate activists, and many students interviewed for this series cited that reputation as part of their decision to attend Tufts. But actions like the 2015 hunger strike underline the friction between activists and the administration that has been present for decades.
From a 2015 Tufts Climate Action (TCA) sit-in that landed six students on Disciplinary Probation II to May 2016 demonstrations protesting continually increasing tuition hikes, tensions have heightened to the point where the Office of Student Affairs has announced plans to launch a working group to improve relations with the activist community and clarify university policy around demonstrations.
Why student concerns often lead to organized action
Student activists interviewed for this series, who represent a variety of different activist groups on campus, all echo the same complaints: that the university often refuses to engage cooperatively with student groups who are critical of university policy until a public, attention-grabbing action is staged – and that if the action does work, response afterward is disingenuous, slow and ineffective.
TLC member Nicole Joseph explained that the 2015 hunger strike was not an isolated protest, but rather an attempt to gain the attention of administrators who were dismissive of the groups’ concerns in a series of conversations with Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell’s office that took place in the months leading up to the hunger strike. There were 12 meetings, Campbell said.
According to Joseph, a junior, the meetings themselves were the result of student action, one stipulation of an “understanding,” as Campbell referred to it in her interview with the Daily, reached between the university and TLC after members occupied the Coolidge room in Ballou Hall in December 2014.
Joseph, who is also involved in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as well as many other student activist groups on campus, said unproductive meetings are par for the course when it comes to negotiating with administrators.
“My experience in meeting with administrators is that they do a lot of talking in circles and trying to appease you to a point where you say, ‘Oh, something will come out of this,’ but it really just gives them credibility to say they did something,” she said.
Campbell told the Daily that while the meetings did not result in TLC’s demands being met, she felt that the university had given careful consideration to the group’s concerns.
“It isn’t that they weren’t heard, but whatever those demands were, they were not something we agreed with them on,” she said.
TLC’s experience in these meetings led the group to believe more extreme action would be needed in order to save the 35 janitors’ jobs.
But even so, Joseph said even the hunger strike didn’t result in administrators reaching out to discuss their demands further. Other than TUPD officers fencing the protestors’ campsite in and former Executive Director of Public Affairs Kim Thurler’s requesting that the students “be mindful of their health and safety,” the administrators who the strike was directed toward — namely, Campbell’s office — did not reach out to TLC at all for the first three days of the five-day hunger strike, according to Joseph.
“No meeting, no response, no comment, nothing. They didn’t even contact us,” Joseph said. “I was pretty shocked about that.”
University administrators say that these extreme actions are not an effective way of communicating with them.
“There wasn’t going to be an offer [to discuss TLC’s demands during the hunger strike],” Campbell said. “A hunger strike is not the way to engage with us in a conversation, so our primary concern was for their welfare and health.”
Campbell recognized tensions between the university and activist groups, but cited overly disruptive student action as one of the main causes.
“There are certain policies or rules or expectations in our community that, if our advocates want to be treated respectfully, they should do that in turn and treat the community respectfully,” Campbell said, noting that the university was not willing to discuss TLC’s demands during the hunger strike.
Cassie Barnhardt, a professor of educational policy and leadership studies at the University of Iowa, said this is a common pattern for activists at universities around the country.
"Intensity keeps elevating until somebody pays attention to it,” she told the Daily. “So what you see is that oftentimes activists will become more antagonistic, to the extent that they don’t feel campus administrators are actually attempting to address them.”
TCA member Shana Gallagher said that in her experience, it has been extremely difficult to secure meetings or conversations with administrators without first staging a protest or some other action deemed disruptive by the university.
“Any meetings we’ve had with [Chair of the Board of Trustees] Peter Dolan, the [Climate Change] symposium, it all came after student action,” she said. “So when collaboration is presented to us as an option and it seems like it will be productive, then we take that option, but when it’s not, that’s when we have to move toward other means of public pressure and protests in order to make sure those meetings even come about.”
Gallagher, a senior, cited TCA’s occupation of university president Anthony Monaco’s office in the spring of 2015 as one example of how poor communication, as well as a disconnect in the urgency felt by activists and administrators over certain issues, led the group to feel that the sit-in was the only way to catch the attention of administrators like Campbell.
In a series of emails spanning from April to October 2014, Gallagher had attempted to communicate with Campbell’s office to express her interest in participating in the newly created Sustainability Fund. Her emails, which were provided to the Daily by Gallagher and made public during her successful appeals trial to lessen the disciplinary measures incurred as a result of the sit-in, received only one 20-word response.
Campbell, however, said the university had made efforts to include TCA in sustainability efforts that resulted from the Sustainability Council’s 2013 report.
“I can’t accept that we didn’t meet with them,” Campbell said. “We put students on a committee, I have another committee that’s a sustainable investment fund, I have students participating in that committee with trustees and administration.”
TCA members, and students from activist groups in general, say that the measures put forth by administration don’t effectively address the issues, lack transparency to the student body and are designed to placate students and prolong university action.
The Sustainability Fund itself was dismissed by some TCA members as a measure to placate them following the Divestment Working Group’s rejection of complete divestment from fossil fuel companies earlier that year.
Campbell said the university had listened to TCA members’ demands, and said the group’s complaints stemmed from frustration over the university’s unwillingness to budge on the issue of divestment.
“One of the issues where we really do have disagreement is on divest,” she said.
Gallagher said that while she recognizes administrators may not be intentionally adversarial, there’s a sense that the university’s profit margin and desire to avoid controversy is prioritized over student needs and wishes.
“I understand that it’s difficult in terms of the administrative perspective to sort of consolidate [turning a profit] with the rhetoric of trying to promote positive student traits like passion or protest,” she said. “Obviously Tufts is a school with a big social justice ethos, so I think it’s even harder for students to come to terms with … it definitely is upsetting to me personally that Tufts doesn’t see it as more of a priority to take on some of the issues that student activists really care about.”
As activism involvement increases, Tufts looks to improve relations
Like many liberal arts colleges across the country, Tufts encourages active citizenship in official university rhetoric, arguing that passion for bringing about change is an essential part of becoming an active citizen.
But what happens when that passion is turned on Ballou?
“Tufts’ mission is to promote active citizenship in its student body, and it just very much feels like the administration doesn’t live up to that standard it’s set for itself,” said senior Brian McGough, a member of TCA. “There’s this dissonance between what they say they’re doing and what they’re actually doing.”
This perceived misalignment might become even more problematic for the university in the coming years. According to a survey by the UCLA Chronicle of Higher Education, 8.5 percent of the class of 2019 said there was “a very good chance” they would participate in a protest, the highest level recorded for this item since the survey started in 1967. In few places is this trend toward greater social consciousness clearer than at Tufts, where student activist efforts are frequent, ambitious and polarizing.
According to a survey conducted by Tufts Enigma in January 2016, over 13% of the student body are “regular members” of political or activist organizations, while another 7.7% of students say they support on-campus political action. Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon said in an October 2016 interview that her office is working to be better prepared to meet the needs of a student body that is increasingly active and demanding of the university.
“This is a unique time in the volume and coordination of student energy around these things,” she said. “I think it should be seen as a call for structural reimagining of how we address different endemic things … thinking as a structural institution, how are departments and functions defined, and how do we think of them in a way that allows us to collaborate and address things in a different way?”
Increasing student involvement in activist groups and causes has prompted the Office of Student Affairs to explore a working group on protests, gatherings and demonstrations to review existing policies on Gatherings, Demonstrations, Protests and Disturbances and to improve the campus understanding of them, according to McMahon.
Tufts’ Communications and Media Specialist Mickey Toogood, who served as Judicial Affairs Administrator until Jan. 3, wrote in an email to the Daily that while the working group is not a response to a specific incident, it is a culmination of “ongoing discussions … with a number of students and student organizations.”
The fact that this effort to improve the university’s relationship with student activists is coming from the Office of Student Affairs is not surprising — according to students and administrators, this office has been especially helpful in addressing student complaints about campus life.
McMahon said that this dynamic might be a result of the unique role of her office on campus, which is to deal directly with students.
“My world is different than other administrators. My function at the university is to support the student experience,” she said. “My ability and framework around the student voice … is shaped by that. More so than a lot of other people, where it’s not as core to their job function.”
Student activists who spoke to the Daily for this story agreed that McMahon and her office have been the most receptive to criticism, and typically offered more opportunities for cooperation and discussion.
“When Mary Pat came to Tufts the first thing she did was realize that students were tremendously upset by the sexual misconduct problems happening at Tufts and the administrative responses to it, so she made an effort to meet students and to put us all in one room in the campus center and hear us,” senior Allyson Blackburn, a former member of Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention, recalled. “It meant a lot to have her listen, which was not at all something I was accustomed to from administrators.”
Part II: When activism becomes mired in task forces
Many student activists have become skeptical of the effectiveness of task forces, committees and working groups in general, which are often among the university’s initial responses to protests or complaints from students. Establishing a committee to deal with a campus issue has become so ubiquitous that Tufts has a faculty-led Committee on Committees, whose role is to appoint, recommend and facilitate elections of members of various committees, according to the Office of the Secretary of the Faculty’s webpage.
Some students go so far as to label these solutions a tool of delay meant to placate protesters rather than address controversial issues.
“Often, a lot of the advocacy we’re doing and the anger we feel gets funneled into an administrative task force, which is a body of people that don’t really do s—t, frankly,” said senior Allyson Blackburn, a member of Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP). “They sit in a room once or twice a semester and talk about things in abstract.”
Tufts Climate Action (TCA) member Shana Gallagher said that while she does not think working groups and other prolonged responses to student action are an intentional way to ignore student concerns, there is a discrepancy in the sense of urgency felt by students and administrators.
“I think what really bums a lot of activists out and feeds this 'us vs. them' mentality is when we feel like admin totally is just waiting for us to leave … for us it’s only four years, but four years is a long, formative time,” Gallagher, a senior, said. “So I think it’s wrong for administrations to try to have more of an institutional view of things as opposed to appreciating the value of each member of our community.”
Recently, dominant campus issues like the movement to abolish Greek life or Tufts Student Action’s (TSA) call for the university to halt tuition hikes have been siphoned into the Student Life Review Committee and the Financial Aid Student Advisory Board, respectively.
According to Tufts Community Union (TCU) senator Charlie Zhen, who sits on both the Student Life Review Committee and the Financial Aid Student Advisory Board, students who participate in many of these committees are unsure of their role and feel powerless to help enact change.
“I was speaking with students who are on these committees and they’re very confused as to how they got on, they're confused as to what their role is, they’re confused as to what administration wants from them,” Zhen, a sophomore, said. “From what I’ve experienced, these are just measures to say that they did something.”
But Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon said that students’ heightened sense of urgency can prevent them from looking at issues thoughtfully, and that administrative solutions like working groups and committees foster more thorough, long-term solutions.
According to alumnus Andrew Núñez (A '15), many in the activist community see this argument as dismissive of their work and experience, and think that it only contributes to students’ feelings of antagonism when working with the university.
“That has been a sentiment I have heard while sitting on committees, blatantly said by faculty members even … that we’re too impulsive and short-sighted in our four years here to make lasting policy decisions,” Núñez said. “The choice there is to empower students or not, and it seems to me that by not empowering students, it’s to the detriment of the institution.”
According to Cassie Barnhardt, a professor of educational policy at the University of Iowa, committees and other feedback-oriented groups are common university responses to student advocacy. Barnhardt said this is due to universities’ unique institutional structures of “shared governance,” which aim to include the voices of all community members.
In addition, Barnhardt acknowledged that committees are sometimes used as “freezers:” easy ways to address student concerns without actually implementing any change.
The obstructive power of “freezers”
History suggests there may be some weight to the claim that regardless of intent, working groups and committees do not facilitate policy changes requested by student activists.
In 2011, Tufts Pan Afrikan Alliance (PAA) organized an occupation of Ballou Hall to protest the university’s lack of resource commitment to race and ethnic studies, specifically Africana studies. Shortly thereafter, newly appointed University President Anthony Monaco established a Presidential Council on Diversity.
The council published its list of recommendations in December 2013, but little action was taken before Provost David Harris, who had been appointed the previous year, called for the development of a 10-year strategic plan that would incorporate actions on inclusivity and diversity.
Harris pointed out that the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer and other such measures taken shortly after the list was published were part of the university’s response to the council’s recommendations, and that those recommendations also informed aspects of the 10-year plan.
“The work of the council informed university-level strategic planning, as well as strategic planning in each of the schools,” Harris told the Daily in an email. “We began working on diversity and inclusion recommendations before all of the planning processes were completed, and have continued that work.”
Núñez, a former TCU Senator who was involved in many student activist efforts over the course of his time at Tufts, said that even if the formation and work of the diversity council was not meant to intentionally delay action to combat racial inequities at the university, administrators’ lack of urgency demonstrated a misunderstanding of the needs of students of color.
“This might not be malicious intent, but it also shows there is no emergency to the issues that students raise,” Núñez said. “We have to remember that universities are spaced not like the rest of their lives … if a student has real issues of feeling misplaced there, they can’t just go home and feel at ease. And by the university not treating it with the same emergency that students do, you have these long periods of inaction.”
Tufts alumna Jameelah Morris (A ’13), who was co-president of PAA during her time at Tufts and helped organize the 2011 demonstration, said the establishment of a council in general was not even one of the demands student protesters presented and that the lukewarm response was indicative of an unwillingness to enact real change.
The council’s 2013 report was not the first of its kind. In 1996, the university created a Task Force on Race, whose report to the community a year later included recommendations such as requiring faculty and staff to participate in “a workshop that deals exclusively with issues of race awareness and diversity,” that the Office of Undergraduate Admissions “make inroads in expanding the diversity of our student population” and “the addition of at least three new tenure track positions in American race and ethnic studies.”
If these recommendations seem familiar, it’s because they’re very similar to some of the actions listed in the 2013 report from the Council on Diversity, which include “increas[ing] the awareness and understanding of issues of diversity and inclusion in faculty through professional development activities,” as well as to “review the undergraduate co-curricular experience with focused attention to issues of diversity and inclusion.”
“For something like the Council on Diversity to work, it has to be intentional in trying to target and solve these issues,” Morris said. “Otherwise, you end up with the same four to five-year cycle of non-action or minimal action that’s been going on since this fight started.”
By the time the university’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Mark Brimhall-Vargas, was hired in 2015 and began to follow through on some of the recommendations of the council, almost five years had passed since students had gathered to demand changes in curriculum, resource allocation and cultural competency training, among other things.
Also in 2015, another student protest was held at which participants demanded, once again, that Tufts improve its commitment to diversity and resources for its African American students.
To recap, this was three years after the Diversity Council released its recommendations, five years after the 2011 occupation of Ballou to which the council was a response, 19 years after the Task Force on Race’s recommendations were released, and 47 years after the Africana Center was founded without faculty resources for an accompanying academic department, which it was finally granted in 2012.
In 2016, some of the demands repeated by African American students over the years were addressed: Linda Daniels, a woman of color, was hired as a staff psychologist, and a new pre-orientation program called Students’ Quest for Unity in the African Diaspora (SQUAD) was implemented.
McMahon said that at Tufts as well as at other university campuses, new groups of students often ask for different or further changes once the administration has met their predecessors’ demands due to the ever-changing nature of the student body.
“I’ve had the experience before of investing heavily in change on a campus, and then thinking we’ve made a lot of progress, and then we have to think about something else,” she said.
For students of color, activism is often synonymous with fighting for equal treatment and resources
Núñez argued that in the case of the Council on Diversity, it was clear that the university was using delay tactics to avoid addressing sensitive issues in the hopes that the loudest students would be replaced by a student body less concerned with the issue.
“The thing the university really does, the tool they have the most capacity for, is to delay. That’s important because students graduate in four years," he said. "So, a movement that might have strong leaders on campus, if they delay long enough they know those students will graduate, and they hope that that movement will die."
According to Morris, one of the reasons that PAA asked for specific resources rather than a committee to assess their needs was because members were aware that these solutions have tended to benefit the university more than aggrieved students.
“Students who are brought on to task forces are often just there to affirm what [the university] has already decided they want to do,” she said. “If I’m a student sitting on a council on diversity, I can make recommendations all day, but it’s very clear where the power actually lies.”
Morris said that while PAA and other activist groups she worked with always took the “official” route to advocacy first — emailing administrators, issuing petitions, etc. — she stressed that this kind of communication would never be enough to foster institutional change, regardless of whether administrators were sympathetic to their concerns.
“At the end of the day, if I’m not getting responses, I’m taking whatever action I have left,” Morris said. “I had little interest in changing the moral compass of the university. I wanted to change where those dollars were going.”
Morris said that as a student activist and a person of color and because of the historic lack of diversity on college campuses like Tufts, her mere presence became political.
“Our presence on campus is automatically a tense point of conversation … to me, engaging actively with the university was never a choice," Morris said. "That choice lies with white students who might realize things are wrong and get involved, but I never saw it as a choice to be active.”
Núñez shared a similar opinion on what it’s like to be an activist of color at Tufts.
“When I was a student, ‘activist’ was a very racialized word," he said. "People would get called an activist without actually even being one, like, ‘Oh she’s a black girl who speaks about her experience on campus, so she’s an activist.’”
For Morris, this illustrates how the experiences of Tufts’ students of color are pushed to the side by the university and the campus community.
“As a student of color, it was always clear that we were not a priority,” she said.
Part III: Tensions between activists and administrators fueled by claims of co-option in university rhetoric
In the spring 2016 issue of JUMBO magazine, Tufts Admissions’ thrice-yearly publication aimed at prospective students and their families, Tufts Climate Action (TCA) member Shana Gallagher was featured in a student profile series titled “It’s Cool to be Smart.” Gallagher felt her efforts as an activist at Tufts were co-opted by the piece and that the details of her work as an activist over her four years at Tufts — namely, her support for fossil fuel divestment — were largely ignored.
“They totally made it seem like I credit all of my success as a student activist to being at Tufts, when really if I had taken the response that Tufts [gave] in terms of my student activism as related to the sit-in to heart, I wouldn’t be a student activist anymore,” she said, referring to being put on Disciplinary Probation Level II following TCA’s spring 2015 sit-in in University President Anthony Monaco’s office, an action the JUMBO article doesn’t mention.
Gallagher, a senior, said she spent about “80 percent” of her interview with the writer of the JUMBO piece discussing divestment, but that when the writer sent her the finished piece, the focus was primarily on her work in marine biology and ocean conservancy, and that “the word divestment was not in there once” before she wrote the writer to ask that it be included.
“For [Tufts] to take credit for my student activism, even though I had to sort of drag them by the teeth to even put the majority of what I do into that article and then put that in an admissions magazine to encourage other passionate students to come to Tufts, I think it’s quite misleading,” she said.
The published version of the profile says that Gallagher and TCA “are currently engaged in the fossil fuel divestment movement happening nationally,” and makes no mention of the university’s continued rejection of divestment.
Kriska Desir, who wrote the JUMBO article, confirmed that divestment was a large part of her discussion with Gallagher, and said that while nobody actually edited out mentions of it from the initial draft, writing for admissions was tacitly expected to be uncritical of the university.
"It was an implicit part of our assignments to make [T]ufts as appealing as possible and it definitely felt like glossing over problematic aspects of the Tufts administration," Desir, a sophomore, told the Daily in an electronic message.
Desir added that this is part of the reason she decided not to work for the admissions department this year.
"The name of the game is selling a product to prospective students and if doing that means lying by omission, then I couldn't justify my work there."
Director of Undergraduate Admissions Susan Garrity Ardizzoni told the Daily she couldn’t comment on Gallagher’s account because she was not involved in writing or editing the profile and that the editor of JUMBO magazine at the time is no longer employed at Tufts.
Ardizzoni said that students aren't intentionally profiled as activists but that the increase in student involvement with activist groups makes it more likely that activist narratives will be associated with the university.
“I’ve been at Tufts for a while, and I would say that there has been a more activist spirit in the last couple of years, so naturally with that there are more students involved and there will be more of those students who could likely be in the magazine or on the website or as part of our tour guide crew,” Ardizzoni said.
The headline for Gallagher’s profile calls her the “student leader of Tufts Climate Action,” and the first word in the piece describes her as an “activist.” Gallagher said she would have no issue with the university showcasing her and other activists’ work if administrators were more open to cooperation.
“If they’re going to be using this as a selling point and sort of bragging about … whatever student activism is going on, I think it is their responsibility to better engage student activists,” she said.
Tufts: A place for activists?
Over the past few years, Tufts has garnered a national reputation as a fierce defender of progressive values, earning the intense scorn of conservative media outlets like FOX News and Breitbart thanks to intensifying liberal activism and administrative and faculty initiatives like Tufts’ decision to accept undocumented students openly.
But whether that reputation is a result of university policies or actions taken by the student body is unclear. Most of these initiatives are a product of student action, and activists say the university has often been resistant to the progressive changes it later commends.
“I’ve been puzzling on this,” Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon said in an October 2016 interview. “I’ve been thinking about how much does [student activism] beget part of the culture? How much do people get drawn here for that aspect of it? How much are the ways that we engage and teach and learn here also feeding into that? I see that it informs itself, but I don’t know the answer.”
Dean of Admissions Karen Richardson said that while a student’s involvement in activism prior to graduating high school is not viewed positively or negatively on applications, the personality traits such involvement might reveal, such as passion and conviction, are often rewarded during the admissions process. Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell concurred with that assessment.
Whether part of an intentional strategy or not, many in the activist community see Tufts’ embrace of what Ardizzoni refers to as the “activist spirit” — both in official university messaging and in marketing materials like the JUMBO article — as opportunistic and disingenuous when compared to what they see as the university’s general antagonism toward many campus groups and causes.
“Administration will take activism in whatever form and turn it into a sort of plus, to sell itself or sell its students’ reputation,” TCA member Brian McGough, a senior, said. “But that is inconsistent with how it actually deals with student activists — there isn’t an appreciation for the work we’re doing.”
Gallagher said the university’s attitude toward activist groups makes cooperation difficult and fosters unnecessary antagonism toward administrators.
“Unfortunately, because administration has had a lot of discrepancy between their more public perspective on student activists and the way they interact behind closed doors, it makes sense that student activist groups feel like administration is their enemy,” she said.
For some students, pre-matriculation optimism about getting involved as an activist at Tufts quickly turned to disillusionment once they got to campus.
Gallagher said one of the reasons she enrolled at Tufts was that she felt “this community cares about [student activists] and will be receptive to what [she's] passionate about and what [she's] going to want to do here,” but that administrators have been far more cold and reluctant to listen than she anticipated.
“To come to Tufts with one expectation about student activism here and then to have your dreams crushed is a little upsetting,” she said.
Allyson Blackburn, a member of Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), also said there was a discrepancy between Tufts’ messaging and her experience as an activist working with administration.
“I’d definitely say that Tufts marketed itself as a diverse place that valued active citizenship, and I think Tufts really likes active citizenship until somebody holds a mirror up to Ballou,” Blackburn, a senior, said. “That’s a hard reality to face.”
Students and administrators alike agree that Tufts’ activist community has influenced the university’s reputation and thus has had an impact on shaping the student body.
Blackburn said that Tufts’ activist community and progressive reputation was “absolutely” a factor in her decision to attend the university but credits that appeal to the students themselves as well as university marketing.
“I visited Tufts a couple of times, and I actually really hated it at first,” she said. “I had a friend who went here when I was a senior in high school and I met his friends who were involved in spaces like TLC [Tufts Labor Coalition], and who were, five years ago, advocating for janitors to get things like gloves. And I wanted that out of my college experience, I wanted to feel like I was in a space that was challenging people to look around them.”
Gallagher recalled encountering a prospective student drawn to Tufts for similar reasons during a TCA demonstration at an accepted students day last year.
“There was one girl that we like to talk about in TCA who was saying she was picking her school based on who had the best divestment campaign,” she said. “So I think it’s something that young people are aware of and want to take action on.”
Richardson said she felt that both the visibility of activist groups on campus and Tufts’ own marketing efforts have contributed to the university’s reputation as an institution where student activism is encouraged.
“Tufts tends to have a reputation as a place where social justice is important to the student body … as student activism has become more prominent on campus, it becomes a part of the story of Tufts,” she told the Daily in an email.
McGough argued that the university has been adept at spinning student criticisms to support its progressive narrative, adding that when it comes to conversations about sustainability, this co-option has been a way for Tufts to say that it’s addressing student concerns without actually changing university policies.
“Where Tufts sees a lot of demand for sustainability on campus, it sort of meets that demand in its messaging rather than through structural changes,” he said.
Gallagher noted that Tufts has taken actions to support sustainability in recent years. Tufts signed the American Campus Act on Climate pledge in 2015 and began construction on the Central Energy Plant to help heat and power the university sustainably, not to mention the famed Talloires Declaration which, since its initiation by former Tufts president Jean Meyer in 2005, has garnered signatures from over 430 university presidents pledging to make their campuses more sustainable. However, Gallagher said that most of these initiatives were a result of student demands for more sustainability.
“I do think that the role of student justice groups has been marginalized when it has been productive in terms of new policy that has been implemented,” she said.
Gallagher added that this lack of recognition only leads to more tension between activist groups and the university.
All administrators who spoke with the Daily agreed that “student advocacy,” referring to activist movements on campus aimed at changing university policy, was a positive and important part of the undergraduate experience.
McMahon said input and labor from individual students were crucial to addressing campus issues. She also said that while the university’s policy on protests and demonstrations is in need of further review, she feels the importance of student activism in enhancing the undergraduate experience is recognized by the university.
“I think student passion and advocacy for change is embraced as part of the Tufts identity,” she said. “I see that as a characteristic and positive part of the learning experience for students.”
However, when asked if the university as an institution benefitted from campus activism, both McMahon and Campbell said they hadn’t made the connection before.
This disconnect, say many student activists, is a part of a bigger problem of condescension that has fostered mistrust and antagonism between campus groups and administration.
“When the past and the present speak to each other”
Gallagher said that while she doesn’t expect Tufts to refer negatively to itself in its marketing materials, she would welcome a recognition of activist contributions to shaping the university’s policies and values.
“To feel like an administration is vocal and forthcoming about wanting to work with students, and to say that some of our policy has come from student activism and it is a two-way conversation, I think that’d be a fine thing to have as part of your administrative rhetoric,” she said.
One source of recognition for the role of student activism in shaping Tufts over the years has come from Tufts’ historians.
Since September 2015, an exhibit titled “Jumbos in Protest: Student Activism at Tufts, 1965-2015” has been on display in Tisch Library — right outside the Tower Cafe, where prospective students often stop on campus tours.
The exhibit was curated by a research assistant for Tufts Digital Collections and Archives (DCA), according to the exhibit’s web page, and showcases historical documentation of student demonstrations against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam and Iraq wars, as well as Tufts’ investments in apartheid South Africa, among other social issues.
Andrew Núñez (LA ’15) said historiographies like this are a good way to recognize student activists’ contributions to the university, since official Tufts marketing material is unlikely to front information about the university’s shortcomings.
“I think it’s great for students like me when the present and past speak to each other … if Tufts were to create a way to credit students, it would be to create some sort of archival project so that students can visit periods of time on campus.”
Homages to Tufts student activists’ role in the effort to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1970s are prominent in many places on campus, including at Hotung Cafe in the Mayer Campus Center, where museum-sized blown-up photographs of student protests line the walls of the upper floor.
Núñez said this kind of record, while important, still lacks recognition of the university’s unwillingness to give in to student demands.
In fact, Tufts divested from South Africa late compared to other universities — it did so in 1989, 12 years after Hampshire college became the first to do so — after voting twice to reject divestment as a strategy, according to a 1989 New York Times article.
Campbell, like the exhibit in Tisch Library, lauded the history of student activism at Tufts.
“I personally really appreciate [student activism] because I’m a product of the ’60s and ’70s and watched a lot of change happen in our country because of advocacy,” she told the Daily.
It's important to note, however, that this change, seen by today’s administrators as positive, was a result of student activist efforts directly confronting university policy and being met with repeated resistance.
Part IV: Activism, exhausting for students, has pushed change at Tufts
In the spring of 2013, students signed an open letter demanding a re-evaluation of Tufts’ sexual misconduct code. University President Anthony Monaco responded by creating the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force.
About a year later, Tufts was found non-compliant with Title IX by the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for the university’s poor handling of a 2010 sexual assault case, according to a Boston Globe article. The university initially disputed the OCR’s finding.
Ultimately, Tufts’ policy was expanded and revised after students voiced demands, not just in the setting of the task force, but through demonstrations and action as well.
Student action as a catalyst for change
Many students saw the university’s official rejection of the federal condemnation as a way for the university to avoid taking responsibility for the shortcomings in its methods of dealing with sexual misconduct. In response, over 100 student activists marched in protest outside Ballou Hall in the spring of 2014 demanding, among other things, a more comprehensive review of the university’s sexual misconduct policy.
According to a May 2014 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the protests resulted in a meeting between activists and administrators in Ballou, in which they discussed "the university’s interaction with the Education Department and its handling of sexual-misconduct reports," and reached some agreements.
According to Allyson Blackburn, a member of Action for Sexual Assault Prevention at Tufts (ASAP) who sat on the task force and attended the meeting, it was only through these protests that any comprehensive change came about, despite having participated in almost a year of task force meetings supposedly focused on making that change happen.
“Honestly, I think we accomplished so much more in that six-hour meeting in the basement of Ballou than we did in a year on the task force,” Blackburn, a senior, told the Daily.
Blackburn said that this is in part because on most task forces, administrators hold final say over the direction and proposals the members take, which she feels can be used to contain and undermine the frustrations of students who actually deal with the issues being addressed.
"If you’re someone like me who’s survived violence here and you’re trying to make sense of it, or if you are an undocumented immigrant trying to make sense of your experience here, or if you’re trying to understand why all your friends of color are dropping out of school, that’s where the distinction lies between administrative understandings and student activist understandings," she said. “I think some administrators care more about hearing those narratives than others ... The experience didn’t have to be unfortunate — it became that way."
Following the protests — and Tufts’ subsequent reversal of their decision to dispute the OCR’s findings — the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy was expanded dramatically at the recommendation of the task force.
Blackburn asserted that this progress would “absolutely not” have been made without the pressure and labor of student activists.
“The OCR would have had a field day if students hadn’t intervened sooner,” she said.
In addition, Blackburn said that students on the task force who urged critical reflection and urgent action were patronized and ignored by the administrators and faculty who had final authority. Blackburn added that when students on the task force asked about the possibility of compensation for their work, their contributions were trivialized by administrators.
“Administrators compared doing an administrative task force, writing policy and coming up with education initiatives for the student body to being a part of a pep band, and then saying it was unfair to compensate students on the sexual misconduct task force because they do not compensate students on other task forces,” she recalled. “[This] to me is a system that is deeply exploitative of student labor.”
In an email to the Daily, Tufts General Counsel Mary Jeka, who co-chaired the task force, acknowledged disagreements on the task force but said that student input was appreciated.
“Notwithstanding differences of opinion, discussions were constructive and collegial, overall,” she wrote. “We were fortunate to have committed students who worked alongside staff and faculty to adopt strengthened policies and procedures for the Tufts community.”
But Blackburn said those constructive discussions would likely have yielded minimal change if not for the student action following the OCR’s finding in 2014.
“Frankly, I don’t care if administrators like or dislike student activism, or think that it doesn’t necessarily benefit them,” she said. “Student activism works, and it’s shaped the way Tufts currently exists.”
Activist burnout and the exhaustion of going unheard
Last February, an article in the Brown Daily Herald discussed the toll of activist work on students’ grades. Earlier this semester, an article in the Tufts Observer illuminated the ways in which student activism at Tufts has been harmful not only to activists’ academic performance, but also to their mental health and general well-being. This pattern of exhaustion and frustration among student activists — which Observer writer Wilson Wong aptly titled “The Cost of Student Resistance” — is a phenomenon known as activist burnout, and for many student activists, it’s simply a part of life at Tufts.
“Activist burnout is so real, it’s honestly depressing,” Tufts alum Andrew Núñez (A ’15) said. “That’s something people don’t talk about, what kind of impact this has on students.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students who spend 16 hours or more per week working outside the classroom have significantly lower GPAs than those who spend 15 or fewer.
Sophomore Parker Breza is quoted in the Observer article as saying “student activists are unpaid consultants for the university. Our work is a full-time job.”
University of Iowa Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies Cassie Barnhardt, however, argues that asking administrators to take on this work would be detrimental to the growth of the institution.
“The corporatization of the university … is a structural arrangement that reduces service, and pushes much of the organization of the institution onto administrators and moves students and faculty away from that,” she said. “You need some of that, but pushing these things out to the distance they [are at] creates these cleavages where the burdens become so fragmented that students are looking to others to do that work when it’s actually a shared responsibility.”
Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell and Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon said they value student activists’ role in helping the university move forward.
“If the question is do we learn from our advocates, the answer is yes,” Campbell said.
Organizing and activist work is often even more straining for students of color, as much of the efforts of marginalized communities are to first ensure equal access to resources and opportunities.
Tufts alumna and former co-president of Tufts Pan Afrikan Alliance Jameelah Morris (A’13) said that her experience with activism as a woman of color was especially exhausting.
“Historically, students of color and [those] from marginalized communities on campus are not prioritized,” she said. “So then you have the same students who have to struggle just to live on campus having to also fight for more resources and equal treatment.”
According to McMahon, the Office of Student Affairs has undertaken efforts to educate administrators and other university employees about the needs and experiences of students, especially those from marginalized communities.
“One of the things I’ve been trying to do with my team is continuously build people’s awareness of the current college experience,” she said in an October 2016 interview. “I think it follows that working with staff who are generally conversant in the stuff that students are thinking about [will improve relations]. And that’s just a different approach than we’ve done here before.”
Activists hope for more cooperation, but stress administrative responsibility
Campbell told the Daily that while she may not agree with activists on many issues, she is respectful of their right to “express their views.”
“I think the community is at worst tolerant and at best welcomes people expressing their views,” she said. “If they cross a line where they’re violating a policy or making it hard for the campus to function we feel we have to take an action, whether it’s discipline or something beyond that, but mostly it’s been opportunities to interact or quasi-negotiate and end the disruption so that we can move on.”
For Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) member Nicole Joseph, this desire to “move on” rather than engage with student concerns is indicative of many central administrators’ adversarial attitude toward the work done by her group and others like it. Joseph said that following a TLC action advocating for workers' rights staged at a Jumbo Days event in April 2016 the group received no offer from the university inquiring to discuss their concerns.
“We only have communication in the sense that if they think we’re about to [stage an action], they might send us an email asking us if we’re doing it and outlining the disciplinary measures we could receive,” Joseph said.
According to Joseph and many other student activists who spoke to the Daily for this article, this kind of reactionary communication comprises the majority of the dialogue between activist groups and the university.
Tufts Climate Action (TCA) member Shana Gallagher said that she hopes a more collaborative approach can be taken to pursue progress at Tufts, and believes that while the initiative should lie primarily with administrators, activists share some responsibility for the tension.
“I understand that it’s often easier for activists to paint it as more black and white, that administration is bad and we’re good,” Gallagher, a senior, said. “I think there’s some responsibility on both sides to repair this relationship … but from what I’ve seen, I think that maybe administration should be putting more effort into coming up with tools and strategies to try to bridge this gap better.”