Students Against the Rebrand Call For More Input Post Protest

Some cardboard picket signs used to protest at the board of trustees meeting    Photo credit: Jomana Abdallah 

Some cardboard picket signs used to protest at the board of trustees meeting 
Photo credit: Jomana Abdallah 

More cardboard picket signs used to protest at the board of trustees meeting    Photo credit: Jomana Abdallah 

More cardboard picket signs used to protest at the board of trustees meeting 
Photo credit: Jomana Abdallah 

In early February, a group called Students Against the Rebrand stormed into a Board of Trustees meeting in Heimbold with a document outlining their various concerns with the current state of the College. The list of demands drafted by the small group of students leading the protest covered the alleged “neoliberalization of SLC [and] shift in institutional values and priorities,” as written in a letter posted by the group on their website and directed at the student body. Through this document, which is split into topics that include admissions policies, athletics, the gender ratio, labor relations, sexual assault and diversity, these students aim to reverse the trend they say has been developing at the College over the last few years.

According to member and Senior Class President Emily Rogers (‘15), the group largely came out of concerns about the College's response to workers unionizing on campus and its subsequent relationship with the law firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King (BSK), which has been seen as problematic by both students and faculty who say the firm has been part of "anti-union" activities in the past. “There had been a lot of pushback against BSK, but we really saw a very lacking response from the administration. So I think that is what convinced a lot of people, definitely myself, that the old methods have failed,” said Rogers. “We had to try something different, and that's what we did.”

While the response from the Board was “largely positive” and steps have been taken to create a student affairs committee within the Board of Trustees, Rogers added that the group as a whole “has been unable to secure a meeting with [College President Lawrence], or any of the trustees, and no one from senior staff has responded to any of us.”

On the protest itself, President Lawrence said that while it was obviously a surprise at the time, she was aware of many pre-existing student opinions regarding the issues brought up. Dean Al Green said he thinks the group used too broad a brush in painting the school, adding, "The issues are of concern. But I also think that some of the issues are actually being addressed," mainly pointing to the work that has been done on the prevention of sexual violence.

President Lawrence explained that while she takes the points brought up seriously, her main concern is, “how we [can] do better in hearing voices, helping students feel like they have a voice, and in doing something with the structures so we're improving how that works, both with the board and with us on senior staff.” She continued, “The larger reaction is that it's clear that at least some students, and we weren't totally sure who this group was, feel that, despite the mechanisms set up in senate, on the Board, where there are four student representatives, that somehow other students don't feel like their voices are heard.”

Many of the students who are part of the group are and have been involved in channels for student engagement and input, whether it be through senate, committees, or campus activism groups. Despite this level of involvement, many of these members still do not feel like they have enough information, and one of the main issues the group has been advocating for is increased transparency within the administration.

On this subject, President Lawrence responded, “I don't know exactly what that means because we feel that on senior staff, we go to the Senate a lot of the time to go into detail about what's happening in Finance, what's happening in the President's office, what's happening in Admissions, what's happening in Athletics. So I don't know what more transparency means.” Still, she said she is open to expanding student access to the administration.

Another major point brought up in the document, which goes along with the call for increased transparency, is a demand to reveal how much the college is spending on contracted firms (one of which is the law firm, BSK) which is not information currently available to the college community. When speaking about this, Rogers pointed to periods in the history of the college when financial data that is now confidential had been open to the entire student body, particularly during efforts to grow the college under President Charles DeCarlo in 1976.

President Lawrence emphasized that SLC does not have a large staff and maintained that this makes reaching out to contracted firms necessary. However, on the subject of BSK, President Lawrence said the College had no intention to be perceived as anti-union. “We hired a law firm with a lot of experience in this area because the College doesn't have that experience. We have not had unions before on campus,” she said. "But there's absolutely no intention of intimidating the workers and, in fact, we're going to do what we can to have and plan to have negotiations.” When asked if she thought the document was at all limited in its understanding of the financial realities of the school, the president answered with a straightforward, “Yeah.”

But the group does not buy the excuse of tough financial times. “Show us the data,” Rogers said. Fellow member Faith McGlothlin ('15) added, “There are certain financial realities that this school has to face all the time...but part of what came up in a lot of our discussions is considering the money that we do have, and then thinking, what are we focusing on? What are we privileging more than other issues?” Member Kelly Gilbert ('15) continued on this note, saying, “If you can't afford to give people a raise, but you can afford to retain a law firm that's notorious for union-busting, and they cost at least tens of thousands of dollars if not hundreds of thousands of would rather do that than just treat people fairly? That doesn't make sense to me, and if you're argument is about economic competitiveness, you're doing it wrong.”

In terms of other parts of the document, Dean Green pointed out aspects of it he felt were inaccurate: for example, demands that call for balancing spending on men's and women's sports, which, if not done, would be an NCAA violation. “These are requirements,” he said, “It's one of those things that students just assumed that we were not [doing], but by law, we have to.” Dean of Enrollment Kevin McKenna said he feels this points less to the document itself and more to the issue of “what's wrong with our manner of communication, and the way that we communicate to students that led to that misperception.”

All three administrators still maintain that there has not been a “rebrand”, or a shift in institutional values. “What makes a good student experience doesn't stand still completely, but that's different from changing the values of the college,” said President Lawrence. But Students Against the Rebrand do not seem to be backing down from their assertion that, in recent years, a broad set of changes have indeed taken place.

The initiative has gained support from the student body since the protest. Despite this, there have been various criticisms from fellow students, mostly on the subject of diversity. While race-related issues were included in the list of demands, some felt that they were not adequately explored or taken seriously. Rogers agreed that this part of the document should be expanded upon, but added that, while asked, “a lot of people who are currently working on [issues regarding race on campus] did not want to be a part of this group." She said it became an issue of, “How do you both signify that you agree with their efforts, without stealing words from them.” Rogers also pointed out blatant false information about the protest immediately following it, particularly the rumor that there were no students of color involved.

The present focus of the group is receiving input from a wider range of students, since the current document is limited to the contributions of the relatively small group who initially formed the list of demands and organized the protest. On both the criticism and the direction the initiative will take from here, Gilbert said, "I do think we could have done better [in terms of the action]...and I really want to make it a more inclusive movement.” McGlothlin continued, “While the scope [of the list of demands] is rather broad, it is not meant to be all-encompassing at all.” The group acknowledges that it is not a complete representation of the community and welcomes any feedback from interested students, emphasizing that its list of demands is a living document.  

by Janaki Chadha ‘17

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.