Protest 101: A History of Social Activism at UVM

Faded microfilms of students with spray-painted signs in tattered tents slide in black and white across a computer screen.The Bailey/Howe Library archives of The Cynic reveal the moments that gave the University of Vermont its reputation for student activism.The heart of activism, however, does not lie in colorful picket signs or students crammed into the President’s Wing. It lies in people caring enough to motivate change – at least that is what UVM Director of Student Life Pat Brown suggests.The activism on UVM’s campus demonstrates a level of care that folks have — a common value of questioning the way things are and being really willing to do some things to try to help make things different, Brown said.In his 30 years at the University, “there has been a fairly consistent part of our campus that is concerned about society,” Brown said as he described the campus life at UVM since 1985.In the timeline of protests and campaigns that Brown outlined, the President’s Wing of Waterman has had a rough three decades.In April 1985, students campaigned for divestment in companies that do business with South Africa.”One of the questions across this country was that if we’re supposed to be leaders in societies [and] universities, and we’ve got money invested in those companies, why are we doing that?” Brown reported.In 1988, 20 students occupied Waterman in what The Cynic front page called “The Fight for Color.” The protesting students demanded that minorities be inclueded in the faculty and that studies of minority cultures be incorporated into the curriculum.    In 1991, students occupied the President’s Wing — and the front page of that week’s Cynic  issue — again to demonstrate against the failure to comply with the agreements that came out of the 1988 diversity and social justice protest.Brown also included the campaign against sweatshops and UVM investment in companies or goods that come from sweatshops, as well as the campaign for livable wages by the Student Labor Action Project  (SLAP), in his summary of protests at the University.According to the group’s mission statement, SLAP works “for livable wages and the freedom to organize utilizing collective decision-making, non-hierarchical leadership development and nonviolent direct action.”A successful example of students creating change, the “inclusion of gender identity or expression in the University’s non-discrimination statement is a result of students raising question on campus and taking it to administration and saying this is what we want,” Brown said.Regardless of these precedents, some view activists’ projects as another excuse for people to yell or pitch tents. “I think there are faculty and staff who would say, ‘That’s part of the campus. I don’t care,’ which usually pisses off anyone who is trying to make change because you should care,” Brown said.Students Stand Up member Steven Hannaford, who is currently working to counter University President Daniel Mark Fogel’s decision to implement budget cuts, remarks that “it may be that people think that this is just another excuse to get out and yell and cause ruckus and just be anti-establishment.”With protests on the budget cuts now reaching every aspect of the University, it is almost impossible to ignore the presence of activism on campus.Students Stand Up, a student group founded at the end of last semester, according to Hannaford, and United Academics lead  many of the current protests.United Academics (UA) is a union representing more than 700 of the part-time and full-time faculty at UVM, professor of English and United Academics Communications Co-director Nancy Welch said.”We are working pretty much in solidarity with them [United Academics],” Hannaford said.  Welch agreed, stating that United Academics has worked with Students Stand Up on various projects.”Students Staff Faculty Together (SSFT),  that’s sort of like the bridge between what UA is doing and what Students Stand Up are doing,” Hannaford said. Welch is also a member of SSFT, and reports that the group formed quickly as an organized and visible response upon hearing of the impending cuts.Welch described the impact of the budget cuts on students’ academic experience at UVM as “striking,”  but said she is optimistic as participation is strong and has gotten stronger as people learn that the layoffs are not inevitable.Both groups focus on enlightening students to the realities of the budget cuts. “One of Students Stand Up’s pillars is to give people a clear and logical picture of what’s been happening,” Hannaford said.”We also want to make sure the campus, the public and our trustees know that there are alternatives President Fogel could pursue to address UVM’s financial challenges without damaging education,” professor of Education and president of United Academics David Shiman said in a February 5 press release.”What outcome we are hoping for with the protests is that basically the resources that UVM has be redistributed,” Welch said.Both campaigns report participation among faculty and students to be strong, creating an activist buzz on campus.  Faculty members and students participate in various ways, Welch said.”There are lots of ways to protest, it can be by writing letters to the administration, it can be by going to the trustees meeting and signing up for time to address them, it can be by going to the trustees meeting with a picket sign,” Welch said.”Whatever way it is done, it is getting the message out that our programs are going to hurt, students are going to hurt.”The march from the Davis Center to Waterman that took place in February as part of the current protest against budget cuts is not the first of its kind.  The current protests fit along with what Brown described as a continuum of activism.Welch said the goal of the current protest is to keep what makes UVM special. This aim resides on the same activist platform as past protests, with students using their voices and presence to create what they see as a positive change at UVM.