The newly formed Diaspora Collection, a group of students, has taken over the main administrative building on the Sarah Lawrence College’s campus, the Dutch-inspired Westlands, and issued a list of demands. The students at this longtime deeply leftist institution allege that the college is racist, based on the college president’s backing of a professor who wrote that college administrations are politically far left and a huge list of other grievances.
Students continue the protest at the window of President Judd’s office. pic.twitter.com/JTd6vO2omL
— The Phoenix (@SLCPhoenix) March 12, 2019
Protest at Difference in Dialogue https://t.co/dNhgRIHsyG
— The Phoenix (@SLCPhoenix) March 13, 2019
If Sarah Lawrence is a racist institution of higher education, there is absolutely no hope for anyone anywhere. We should basically pack up our things and move back home, because if there is any institution in the nation that is willing to hate itself more for its failure to meet its absolute best intentions on making things right for all the glittering, unicorn-y, peace-loving, spectacularly doe-eyed and lovely students of the world, it’s Sarah Lawrence College.
The tiny, idyllic Sarah Lawrence College campus, with an undergrad population of some 1,400 students, is a comfortable place to be. Learning is paramount, and introspection a mandate. I know all this because Sarah Lawrence is my alma mater. I’d say Go Gryphons, but I went there in the 1990s, and we didn’t care about non-stoned sports then. Situated in the glorious northeast corridor of overly elitist institutions of higher education, with institutional peers such as Bard, Wesleyan, Hampshire, and Bennington, Sarah Lawrence is a hotbed of leftist orthodoxy.
The Diaspora Coalition’s Issue
Case in point are the protests happening there right now. The Diaspora Coalition and their allies have been sitting in, chanting, and generally causing a stir to call attention to the plight of being mistreated by one of the most liberal, leftist educational institutions in the northeast.
The student newspaper, The Phoenix, has been documenting all this on Twitter. In one of the videos, the students of the Diaspora Coalition, surrounded by the curved, hard wood banister of Westlands, and the outdated carpeting, chant, “When black and brown bodies are under attack? What do we do!” The reply comes loud and clear: “Stand up, fight back.”
It’s true that I completed my Sarah Lawrence bachelor’s degree way back in the 20th century, and haven’t been back to campus in a few years. But even way back then, no one was under attack. Like, it’s not Baghdad. No one has been under attack at Sarah Lawrence in the history of Sarah Lawrence. There are not violent, hate crime type events on the this quaint, Westchester campus in the rich little towny town of Bronxville, New York. Protest, however, is part of the culture.
Back in the 1990s, there was a big protest because a beloved professor didn’t get tenure. Lots of beloved professors didn’t get tenure that year, but this one was a lot of students’ favorite, and one of the few professors who was a person of color, so students protested. Students went on a hunger strike, and because they were so hungry and needed to keep their strength up, they ate plain bagels and drank orange juice. (Classic Sarah Lawrence-style self-care. We’re not afraid to take what we need.)
Another clip from this latest protest, courtesy of the Phoenix’s Twitter feed, shows students chanting “Stop the perversity, we want diversity!” But oh, young whippersnappers, we went to Sarah Lawrence for the perversity. You’ve got this whole thing upside down.
Just as they claim, the school was not founded on diversity. Instead, it was basically supposed to be a sort of intelligent finishing school for young ladies who needed somewhere to go before they got husbands. And it found success in that space for a while. What could be more perverse than that? That it developed an identity of its own as a liberal bastion of quirky thought and open ideas and rigorous standards of academic exploration is a testament to the work put in by the faculty and students to date.
In the age of wokeness, of course, none of this is enough. That the school tries, while being broke, to facilitate everyone, to speak the right pronouns, to give to her students like some collegiate Little Edie who knows the cupboard is bare when offering you her last biscuit, is not enough for the Diaspora Coalition.
That diaspora means the dispersal of any people from their original homeland, and these students are all paying (in one way or another) a large tuition fee to voluntarily be at Sarah Lawrence instead of their local, home state schools, is apparently irrelevant. Squatters unite, or whatever.
A Bastion Of Privilege
Tuition in 2018-19 was something like $55,000 per year. Sarah Lawrence is a cool and quirky school and everything, and I’m glad I went there and all that, but is anything that comes in at $55,000 per year good? The massive tuition expense has something to do with what the student protesters are on about. They want more kids to be able to attend, and don’t believe that the large tuition should dissuade students from attending. But is it so wrong to say that maybe it could be?
I know this is not the going wisdom from my fellow SLC classmates, and that they would call me out on this in a second, but is it really so bad to say that if, even given full financial accommodations, a prospective student and her family can’t afford the school, that maybe she should go to another school? One where she doesn’t have to suffer food and housing insecurity and come out the other side with a burden of debt larger than the GDP of some small countries?
It is with expenses in mind that the Diaspora Coalition has released their list of demands, and here they are, broken down in plain English. It’s not surprising that pretty much all of their demands, except for “stop centering whiteness,” cost money.
- Winter housing, no charge, with free food
- Segregated housing for students of color, that will increase in size with demand
- Basic toiletries for all
- Free meals in a variety of restricted options, for any students in need, including grad students
- Staffed food pantry for 300 students per semester. (Somehow this is in addition to the free meal plans?)
- Kosher kitchen
- Full-time staff position as administrative liaison for first-generation college students
- Increase in book, travel, and internship stipends
- Redesign the website to be available in more languages and for more non-traditional students
- Free storage over summer
- Free health insurance
- A first-year (that’s freshman for all you non-Sarah Lawrence people, because we’re egalitarian like that) seminar about intellectual elitism and classism
- Reduction in some tuition-based fees
- Extra info sessions for international students who don’t speak English
- Off-campus transit to storage locations and therapy sessions
- Seminars on American taxes for international students and counseling for the same
- Admit more students with financial need from the Global South, with recruitment efforts
- Expand international scholarship funds
- Give international students jobs on campus since they are not legally allowed to work in the United States (but if they’re not allowed to work in the United States, and the campus isn’t some specialized diplomatic zone…you see the conundrum).
- Two new tenured professors in African diasporic studies, but only one each of Asian, Latinx, and indigenous backgrounds, who will then teach courses in the areas of their ethnicity. (Do they get to teach other stuff? Or must their ethnic and racial backgrounds determine what they can teach?)
- Stop taking money from the Koch Brothers. (So this is interesting: The Diaspora Coalition would like the college to spend a grand heap of money, but also would like to give some back? This money isn’t good enough? Is the board supposed to find pure money somewhere? Untouched by heathen hands? Perhaps soaked in the blood of young virgins who died for their purity?)
- Revoke tenure for Professor Samuel Abrams (He wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about how school administrators are leftist…crickets? Yeah, me too.)
- Add specialized diversity staff, hired only from a pool of people of color, per Title IX: a dean, a director, and an assistant director
- Three new therapists, of specific ethnic and racial backgrounds (if they’re on campus, then who do the students need rides to?)
- Annual diversity training
- Scholarships specifically for students of color for the full four years
- An endowment set aside for these scholarships
- Annual fundraising goals for the endowment (oh, for sure, yeah, the president of the college and the board don’t try desperately to fund raise as much as possible already. And hey, look how successful they were with the Koch Brothers? Oh, wait, yeah, let’s give that money back, shall we? Good call. Pats on backs all around the daisy chain.)
- Stipends for the students with the specialized scholarship, and private housing, and a meal plan, and field trips throughout the year! (Who doesn’t love a field trip?)
- Meet all financial needs of all students of color (Is this before or after the funds are secured in the endowment?)
- Guaranteed work study (Maybe someone wants to be the new dean? Or drive those cars to therapy? Staff the food pantry? Best way to make some jobs, spend some money you don’t have.)
- $500 per semester to eight identity specific student groups. (So $8,000 per year for segregated clubs!)
- Land acknowledgment. (Sure, surprised we didn’t have this already, frankly.)
- No repercussions for missing work study or class for participating in protests. (Because yeah, no one should have to make tough choices or prioritize one thing over another.)
In short, the Diaspora Coalition demands that the college fix all the problems! And all at once! Or else they will shut the school down and take their $55,000 per year with them! Even though they don’t want to pay it anyway. What’s interesting is the one, giant, glaring neon omission in these demands: At no point does the Diaspora Coalition ask for a reduction of base tuition itself.
Why, oh Diaspora Coalition, don’t you just ask if there’s a way costs can be cut and tuition lowered, so that more students from lower-income backgrounds can attend without the president and board having to send out more asks for donations that I can’t reply to because I went to Sarah Lawrence and my sole qualifications are to think deeply and write fast? The most egalitarian, equitable thing any of these glorified private institutions of learning can do is reduce tuition from unfathomably high to maybe sort of manageable.
College President Cristle Collins Judd issued a statement on March 12, after meeting with students. In true Sarah Lawrence fashion, she acknowledged the nobility of their purpose, placed them within the protest history of the school, but she absolutely would not back down in refusing to revoke tenure for Samuel Abrams. For Judd, “the proper response [to offense or grievancd] is vigorous and informed debate and criticism.”
This non-emotional, facts over feelings, rational approach is exactly what is missing in so much of cultural discourse. Judd takes the students seriously, but maintains her position as both educator, and the only adult in the room.
If the kids occupying Westlands can’t see that, they truly have no idea what they want, or how to get it. Go back to class, learn something, and get off my lawn.
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Author: Libby Emmons