By Charles Dumas
Apr. 26, 2009
Eight years ago, a group of Penn State students "occupied" the
HUB-Robeson Building to call attention to issues of race. It was not
the first time. In 1969, PSU students had occupied the
telecommunications building protesting the war and racial issues.
I was told by veterans of that time that the university
administration acted as if they were under siege by hostile forces.
In '64, I was part of a civil rights group in Oakland, Calif., which
was recruiting students at UC-Berkeley to protest racist hiring
policies of the local daily paper. The paper's publisher, also a
university trustee, demanded that the school shut us down. They did.
It resulted in a series of violent confrontations that ultimately led
to the Free Speech Movement.
Four years later, I was part of a theater/activist group that was
protesting Columbia University's attempt to annex parts of the Harlem
Community. Some of the black students occupied Hamilton Hall in
solidarity. Later, hundreds of white students occupied several other
buildings in sympathetic protest.
Columbia called in the New York City police. Hundreds of students
were arrested, others were beaten bloody. Prosecution had replaced
pedagogy in the name of restoring order.
There were other student protests with even more disastrous results.
The national guard opened fire on a protest at Kent State killing
four students. Other students were killed protesting at Jackson
State, in Orangeburg, S.C.
But at Penn State, in 2001, the administration and protesting
students did a strange thing in response to the situation. For nine
days they sat down and talked with each other about the problems and
their mutual concerns. Meanwhile, the students would attend classes,
take exams and write papers. At the end of the day they would return
to the HUB-Robeson Center to sleep for the night.
University President Graham Spanier and Vice Provost Terrell Jones,
negotiating for the administration, also went about their duties
preparing for graduation.
In the end, the students and administration reached an agreement.
Among the programs established: The Africana Research Center, an
increase in faculty lines in the African and African-American Studies
Department from 2.5 to 10, more courses and scholarships in AAAS.
By talking with each other, these potential adversaries had together
helped to create a new environment of civility and diversity.
Those events drew national attention. Later that spring my wife and I
went to a family centenary celebration of their ancestor's graduation
from West Point. During a question-and-answer session, the academy's
commandant was asked whether the cadets had any courses in ethical
behavior. "Yes, we talk to them about ethical conduct," he said. "But
we don't sit down and have discussions. This is West Point not Penn State."
Four months later, on Sept. 11, the world was flipped upside down by
the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in
Pennsylvania. We stopped talking to each other. War, torture and
terror replaced negotiation. Maybe it's time we followed the lead of
the children of the Village and start talking again.
Charles Dumas is an associate professor in the School of Theatre at Penn State.