What an Education Looks Like: The Sit-in at Syracuse University

From the January/February 2015 PNL #840

by Ben Kuebrich, Vani Kannan and Yanira Rodriguez
What an Education Looks Like:
The Sit-in at Syracuse University 
Ben Kuebrich, Vani Kannan and Yanira Rodriguez
On November 20, members of THE General Body (TGB) packed up sleeping bags and left Crouse-Hinds Hall, the central administration building at SU. After an 18-day sit-in, we move into phase two of our work, representing a growing body of students, faculty, staff and community members who refuse to submit to undemocratic administrative policies that hurt this campus and this community.
When Kent Syverud became Chancellor at SU, he introduced Fast Forward Syracuse, a plan for making wide-scale changes to the university that included restructuring the university’s mission and vision, which are guiding statements for university priorities and investment. The statements were drastically altered and removed references to democracy, the university as a public good, community engagement and students from diverse backgrounds. Instead, the new statements emphasize entrepreneurship. 
TGB—which began as a coalition of student leaders from over 50 student groups, but now includes campus faculty and staff—was formed out of a convergence of concerns, including the closure of the campus sexual assault advocacy center, the decision not to honor a contract with an important scholarship program, the need to hire an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator, the lack of administrative response to university resolutions supporting fossil fuel divestment, the lack of adequate mental health care services on campus, and reductions in budget transparency regarding faculty salaries. There were also concerns related to a hostile campus climate for students with marginalized identities, demonstrated most clearly in the video of a SU soccer player shouting racist, homophobic slurs.
After a series of protests on campus during the fall of  2014, it became clear that Chancellor Syverud and his administration were not taking student concerns seriously. TGB drafted a document of student grievances, needs, and concerns, and held its first action, the Diversity and Transparency rally, on November 3. Following the rally, students marched to Crouse-Hinds Hall. Forty students stayed the night in the building’s lobby and claimed the space by hanging banners that read: “Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand” and “Is This a School or a Corporation?”
During the 18 day sit-in, students, faculty, and community members moved through the space by the hundreds every day, holding classes, meetings and teach-ins. The visitors included Colgate University students (who recently held a sit-in protesting similar policies) and members of various community organizations. Food donations poured in, particularly over the weekends, when students sitting in were unable to leave the building. Faculty, staff and community members also held solidarity rallies throughout the sit-in, lifting students’ spirits when the work became exhausting. Particularly memorable was a visit from the Syracuse Community Choir. Community organizations, SU alumni and parents wrote letters of support to the university. TGB also received messages from students across the country struggling with the corporatization of their own universities, reflecting nationwide trends in higher education.
What We Won
By the end of the sit-in, we came out with several tangible concessions. In addition to stopping the passage of the mission and vision statement, and winning an extension on its comment period, TGB gained:
· an immediate search for an ADA coordinator
· support from administration for a 7% raise in Teaching Assistant (TA) pay for 2016
· eleven more student positions added to Fast Forward work groups
· a meeting with the administration on fossil fuel divestment
· the ability for the undergraduate student president to email the entire student body
We are happy with these results, as they improve some of the most egregious problems on campus. The lowest paid TAs, for example, make just $13,000 per year, far below a living wage and a slap in the face to teachers at a major university. Syracuse University has not had an ADA coordinator for over a decade. And, while the Chancellor described the Fast Forward restructuring campaign as “prioritizing students,” only six undergraduate students were on Fast Forward workgroups out of 93 seats. We resolved some of these major issues and in the process will be able to say we made SU a more accessible, just, and democratic place. 
But these concessions also represent some of the easiest items for the administration to act on. It has been instructive to evaluate the grievances that the Chancellor has refused to address. In particular, not one demand related to supporting students of color—through curricula, admissions, scholarships, programs, or campus policies–received an adequate response. The Chancellor also has not moved enough on mental health care concerns—for example, there is currently only one psychiatrist serving the 25,000 students of SU and SUNY-ESF, and the counseling center is not staffed well enough to even meet SU’s accrediting agency’s recommended counselor-to-student ratio. On these issues, which can be life-or-death, students were heard, but no action has been taken. The lack of action on these crucial student needs indicates that many fears of the university community may prove correct, but it has also galvanized students to continue their work next semester.
What We Built
In response to top-down decision making, we have built a bottom-up social movement. We have begun thinking about this work, which builds coalitions across identities, issues and campus groups, as intersectional social justice organizing. This has been both successful and messy. 
In response to a campus and national climate of rape culture, we created an anti-rape space. In response to a homophobic and racist campus climate, we challenged these ideologies through teach-ins and discussion. While it was not perfect—as the racist, ableist, sexist, classist, homophobic society we live in can seep into our best attempts to create inclusive and conscious spaces—the sit-in hoped to demonstrate to the campus what an institution run on values of democracy and justice might look like. 
Because the institution that we want to see is accountable and responsive not just within the walls of the campus but also beyond them, the relationships forged within the space of the sit-in have recently led to organizing around police violence and structural racism. In the wake of announcements that police officers would not be indicted for murdering Michael Brown and Eric Garner, students from TGB organized two marches and a die-in protesting police brutality. Building broader coalitions around concerns shared across Syracuse and the nation is a central goal for TGB going forward.
In the meantime, we are thankful for the love and solidarity that grew over the course of the 18 days in Crouse-Hinds Hall. During meetings, especially as we got together to reflect at night, we often heard students describe the space as feeling more like home than anywhere else on campus. Students talked about learning about injustice through fighting it in the space. Students talked about this being the most educational space they have been in—something we built ourselves, not with but in opposition to the university administration. 
You can reach TGB at thegeneralbody@gmail.com and learn more at TheGeneralBody.org. We are currently gathering signatures for an alumni letter. Contact us if you would like to be added. We are extremely grateful for the campus and community support, and we look forward to working together in the coming months

On November 20, members of THE General Body (TGB) packed up sleeping bags and left Crouse-Hinds Hall, the central administration building at SU. After an 18-day sit-in, we move into phase two of our work, representing a growing body of students, faculty, staff and community members who refuse to submit to undemocratic administrative policies that hurt this campus and this community.

When Kent Syverud became Chancellor at SU, he introduced Fast Forward Syracuse, a plan for making wide-scale changes to the university that included restructuring the university’s mission and vision, which are guiding statements for university priorities and investment. The statements were drastically altered and removed references to democracy, the university as a public good, community engagement and students from diverse backgrounds. Instead, the new statements emphasize entrepreneurship. 


A General Body meeting in Crouse-Hinds Hall.
Photo: Kim Powell

TGB—which began as a coalition of student leaders from over 50 student groups, but now includes campus faculty and staff—was formed out of a convergence of concerns, including the closure of the campus sexual assault advocacy center, the decision not to honor a contract with an important scholarship program, the need to hire an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator, the lack of administrative response to university resolutions supporting fossil fuel divestment, the lack of adequate mental health care services on campus, and reductions in budget transparency regarding faculty salaries. There were also concerns related to a hostile campus climate for students with marginalized identities, demonstrated most clearly in the video of a SU soccer player shouting racist, homophobic slurs.

After a series of protests on campus during the fall of  2014, it became clear that Chancellor Syverud and his administration were not taking student concerns seriously. TGB drafted a document of student grievances, needs, and concerns, and held its first action, the Diversity and Transparency rally, on November 3. Following the rally, students marched to Crouse-Hinds Hall. Forty students stayed the night in the building’s lobby and claimed the space by hanging banners that read: “Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand” and “Is This a School or a Corporation?”

During the 18 day sit-in, students, faculty, and community members moved through the space by the hundreds every day, holding classes, meetings and teach-ins. The visitors included Colgate University students (who recently held a sit-in protesting similar policies) and members of various community organizations. Food donations poured in, particularly over the weekends, when students sitting in were unable to leave the building. Faculty, staff and community members also held solidarity rallies throughout the sit-in, lifting students’ spirits when the work became exhausting. Particularly memorable was a visit from the Syracuse Community Choir. Community organizations, SU alumni and parents wrote letters of support to the university. TGB also received messages from students across the country struggling with the corporatization of their own universities, reflecting nationwide trends in higher education.

What We Won

By the end of the sit-in, we came out with several tangible concessions. In addition to stopping the passage of the mission and vision statement, and winning an extension on its comment period, TGB gained:

· an immediate search for an ADA coordinator

· support from administration for a 7% raise in Teaching Assistant (TA) pay for 2016

· eleven more student positions added to Fast Forward work groups

· a meeting with the administration on fossil fuel divestment

· the ability for the undergraduate student president to email the entire student body

We are happy with these results, as they improve some of the most egregious problems on campus. The lowest paid TAs, for example, make just $13,000 per year, far below a living wage and a slap in the face to teachers at a major university. Syracuse University has not had an ADA coordinator for over a decade. And, while the Chancellor described the Fast Forward restructuring campaign as “prioritizing students,” only six undergraduate students were on Fast Forward workgroups out of 93 seats. We resolved some of these major issues and in the process will be able to say we made SU a more accessible, just, and democratic place. 

But these concessions also represent some of the easiest items for the administration to act on. It has been instructive to evaluate the grievances that the Chancellor has refused to address. In particular, not one demand related to supporting students of color—through curricula, admissions, scholarships, programs, or campus policies–received an adequate response. The Chancellor also has not moved enough on mental health care concerns—for example, there is currently only one psychiatrist serving the 25,000 students of SU and SUNY-ESF, and the counseling center is not staffed well enough to even meet SU’s accrediting agency’s recommended counselor-to-student ratio. On these issues, which can be life-or-death, students were heard, but no action has been taken. The lack of action on these crucial student needs indicates that many fears of the university community may prove correct, but it has also galvanized students to continue their work next semester.

What We Built

In response to top-down decision making, we have built a bottom-up social movement. We have begun thinking about this work, which builds coalitions across identities, issues and campus groups, as intersectional social justice organizing. This has been both successful and messy. 

In response to a campus and national climate of rape culture, we created an anti-rape space. In response to a homophobic and racist campus climate, we challenged these ideologies through teach-ins and discussion. While it was not perfect—as the racist, ableist, sexist, classist, homophobic society we live in can seep into our best attempts to create inclusive and conscious spaces—the sit-in hoped to demonstrate to the campus what an institution run on values of democracy and justice might look like. 

Because the institution that we want to see is accountable and responsive not just within the walls of the campus but also beyond them, the relationships forged within the space of the sit-in have recently led to organizing around police violence and structural racism. In the wake of announcements that police officers would not be indicted for murdering Michael Brown and Eric Garner, students from TGB organized two marches and a die-in protesting police brutality. Building broader coalitions around concerns shared across Syracuse and the nation is a central goal for TGB going forward.

In the meantime, we are thankful for the love and solidarity that grew over the course of the 18 days in Crouse-Hinds Hall. During meetings, especially as we got together to reflect at night, we often heard students describe the space as feeling more like home than anywhere else on campus. Students talked about learning about injustice through fighting it in the space. Students talked about this being the most educational space they have been in—something we built ourselves, not with but in opposition to the university administration. 

You can reach TGB at thegeneralbody@gmail.com and learn more at TheGeneralBody.org. We are currently gathering signatures for an alumni letter. Contact us if you would like to be added. We are extremely grateful for the campus and community support, and we look forward to working together in the coming months.

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