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Do Students Have Power to Affect Campus Policies?

Campus | March 2, 2015

A history of student movements contributing to social change hangs in black and white, right along the book stacks of the Tisch Library. Photographs date back as far as 1915, depicting Tufts students marching in a parade for women’s suffrage, and continue on through 1987 where students clutch signs emblazoned with “Stop Support of Apartheid.”

Today, the germane sentiment of these photos continues to pervade the Tufts campus. Instead of signs protesting apartheid, December brought messages like “We Can’t Breathe” from the student group Indict Tufts, part of the larger #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Student activism has enjoyed a rich and controversial history on campus. It makes perfect sense that college-aged students would gravitate towards taking social activist roles—education is a powerful tool. This education comes in many forms—not only in the classroom but also outside of it. Students can listen to their professors speak in the morning, discuss what they have learned over lunch with friends, and then go to a guest lecture in the evening to round out their knowledge

Furthermore, there is a sense of empowerment bestowed upon students as they enter the gates of the university. Real change does not seem so far out of reach, as many of the same issues occur on campus as they do worldwide, only on a much smaller scale. This presents students with a real opportunity to make small changes in their community that, hopefully, spurs a larger movement.

Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) is making real change on the Tufts’ campus. Both publicizing issues such as Tufts’ treatment of the janitorial staff and negotiating contracts for part-time professors, TLC has enjoyed a success this semester elusive to many other groups on campus. TLC member Nicole Joseph describes much of what the club does as aiming to “stand in solidarity with workers.” The battles groups like TLC win at Tufts are victories both on campus and within larger social movements.

Recently, TLC succeeded in convincing the Tufts administration to sign an agreement stating there would be no janitorial cuts through April 2015. Other triumphs included improved transparency and communication between TLC and the administration regarding the future of Tufts’ janitorial staff. It didn’t end there: TLC also partnered with the Tufts administration to facilitate their joining of a Workers Rights Coalition, which commits to purchasing products from businesses following fair labor practices worldwide.

TLC’s approach breaks from the traditional path to change as laid out by the administration and TCU. TLC board member Daniel Weaver says, “…we find ourselves working almost entirely outside any of the University’s official channels for students, such as TCU… I think this is mostly because the University will stonewall students who call for significant change if you try to meet with administrators, go to TCU, etc. We have seen a lot of that when it comes to issues with Tufts’ treatment of the janitorial staff.”

However, a myriad of committees, councils, and student representatives attempt to integrate students’ voices into the administration’s decision-making process. If an issue is exceptionally controversial—unable to be solved through the traditional committee process—students may even engage in dialogue with the Board of Trustees. When the issues become contentious and broader interests become entangled, Weaver argues it is more efficient and effective to bypass the system put in place. “I think we, as students, are not surprised when the University doesn’t agree to significant policy changes just because we met with administrators, or passed a TCU resolution. I think we all acknowledge that it takes a good deal of organizing outside of the University’s provided channels, with rallies, sit-ins, etc. to get the University to budge [on] big problems.”

Tufts students’ passion for social change is certainly commendable, and small crusades students have taken can sometimes lead to a more enjoyable and fulfilling Tufts experience. In 2008, TCU fought for the installation of later dining hours on weekends at The Commons to give students a late-night dining option on campus. And while the magnitude of this issue certainly is not comparable to those like Justice for Janitors or #BlackLivesMatter, it still serves as a positive example of change brought on by students.

TCU treasurer Isabella Kahhalé cites this example as evidence of students working in tandem with the administration to produce something that has garnered an overwhelmingly positive reaction. “Personally I have found Tufts administrators to be quite open to new possibilities—or at the least, meeting with you to discuss them…I think that more change could happen but a lot of potential projects get dropped and pushed to the side as it becomes increasingly clear that the way to change isn’t a walk in the park.”

Unfortunately, these instances of student success in creating change on campus are often more of an anomaly, rather than the norm. It’s no secret some other groups have faced more roadblocks along their path to change, and are less likely to share an optimistic viewpoint like Kahhalé’s when it comes to cooperation with the Tufts administration. The push for divestment by Tufts Climate Action (TCA) illustrates the clashing of student ideals and what actually lies within their scope of power.

Although University President Anthony Monaco established a series of meetings last year discussing divestment with student activists, no substantial progress was made, and many students were left displeased with the proceedings. The obstacles divestment faces do not necessarily lie in lack of support. When the issue of divestment was put to a referendum in 2013 it met with overwhelming student support; 74 percent were in favor of divestment from fossil fuels. Nevertheless, students fighting for divestment are fighting a hard battle because of the nature of the cause—above all, money. While students cannot officially gain access to the specific companies in which Tufts has invested its endowment, it is standard practice across universities to invest in the fossil fuel industry, something that Tufts has never publicly denied. Divestment is dangerously intertwined with the financial dealings of the school, and whenever money is heavily involved, the stakes are immediately raised.

In an open letter that the club wrote recently to Peter Dolan and the Board of Trustees, TCA requests that the Board “re-engage with Tufts Climate Action and the Tufts community to discuss complete divestment from fossil fuels in a formal, democratic and public setting.”

So how did TLC successfully lobby for improved communication between club members and the Tufts administration, while Tufts Climate Action is still shouting to be heard? The answer most likely lies in the magnitude of the students’ differing demands. The fact that one group found success while the other did not might suggest that change on this campus is possible, yet only up to a certain point. It is empowering to think that if enough of the student body rallied behind a specific cause, there’s little that couldn’t be changed. However, it becomes disheartening when factors, such as economic motivation, prove to be too great a hurdle for any number of students to clear.

After all, if students cannot be effective vehicles of change, there really is no one to fill their void. Campuses should be largely defined by the sentiments of their student body, and to some extent they can be, but it is frightening to consider what would happen if that was not always a possibility. While setbacks are an inevitable part of the road to change, Tufts student activists have made their resilience clear. They have shown they understand their potential power and are determined to use it.