Forty-five years after the Westlands Sit-in

Photo by Ellie Brumbaum '17

Photo by Ellie Brumbaum '17

On Tuesday, March 4, 1969, Westland's was overtaken by students. This was known as the "Westland's Sit-In." The students were complaining about "elitism" and wanted more "diversity."

Placards placed around campus said things such as, "Liberated womanhood in a sexually and socioeconomically homogenous environment is a logical inconsistency. Support the sit-in." 

Around seventy students of the 665 undergraduates and the ten graduates at the time participated in the sit-in. The front door was secured with a rope. Arthur Raybin, Director of Development for the college at the time, approached the students to reason with them soon after the takeover, but was told to leave.

Because the administrative offices were in Westlands, administration had to be moved into the President's House. They repurposed the rooms and carried on with business as best they could.

Classes continued as usual since the majority of students hadn't joined the sit-in. Some of the students sent food to the protestors inside Westland's.

The main spark for the sit-in was the tuition increase. The deficit was $700,000. According to CPI Inflation Calculator, that would be about $4,500,000 in today's dollars.  The tuition in 1969 was $5,000 per student, per year, which is about $32,000 today. The raise of $450 was announced in late January.  Esther Rausenbush, the President at the time, met with the 24-member Board of Trustees who agreed to lower the increase by $100 when alumni agreed to help meet the deficit. They also announced financial help for students facing hardships with the new costs.

The students rejected the compromise and began the sit-in demanding that the school be integrated with students from poor and middle-income families "in order to broaden the educational horizons of the student body." Their concern was that it would become impossible for anyone who was not rich to attend Sarah Lawrence.

What the students meant by "diversity" was that they wanted more lower income students. The twenty eight black students at the time were not in support of the sit-in. The Black Students Association did support several demands from the protesters, which were related to diversification and new educational goals and policies.

During their time in Westland's, the protesting students kept everything in order. They vacuumed the hall carpets on a daily basis, and even though they now had access to all the important papers of the college, as far as administration knows, the students touched none of them. 

At one point, a rumor surfaced that Esther Rausenbush was about to call the police. Three faculty members spoke to Esther, who promptly denied the rumor. By Friday, March 14th, Esther thought the tension had lessened enough for her to enter the building. Esther sent a note in the morning saying that she would come to the building at 10:30 a.m. and that she wanted the building clear, and the doors open. When Esther arrived, she was not admitted inside. A note placed outside listed three "demands." Esther's intention then was to send a warning note of suspension. Later, four girls said that they had abandoned the tuition request, and all the other requests except that "one-third of the entering class this fall should be people from working-class homes." Esther told them while a student body of many racial and economic backgrounds was desirable, they didn't have the money for it.

Later that day, word reached around campus that at around 10:30 p.m., the protesters were going to leave Westlands. At around 10:45, the protestors left the building. About a hundred people had gathered, including press representatives, some from CBS News. One protestor read a statement and then the rest of the protestors went off across campus, officially ending the sit-in. By 11:15 p.m., administration was back in their offices.

The sit-in ended ten days after it started. Some said the Westland's sit-in empowered the student body to take charge of their education, while others complained it would lead to a lowering of academic standards. 

When the rumor came out that Esther was going to suspend everyone in Westlands she was told, "Please don't do anything just now; they don't want to be suspended; they want to be here." The reasons for the sit-in had little to do with dissatisfaction of the college as a whole. Sarah Lawrence students already had a large voice in their education, strong communication with their teachers, and the opportunity to do independent work. Even the Board meeting that involved the tuition increase had two student representatives. The Westland's occupiers weren't protesting because they rejected the school, but because they valued it.

by Joseph McFarland '16
jmcfarland@gm.slc.edu

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