To the Committee on Student Life,
Our conversation and the eventual decision that we made on March 14th about the Wendell Phillips award recipient continues to sit heavy with me. Surviving and resisting with compassion was the central message of the winning speech. While I agree that we must live and resist injustice with compassion when possible, this message ignores situations when compassion is not possible. Four out of five finalists spoke about their struggles at and with this university, recognizing that this collegiate journey is not easy, even harmful at times. The speech we chose stood out in contrast to the other four and our decision silenced those experiences.
I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study at this prestigious university because for four generations, my ancestors survived. However, that survival was conditional to our being pushed out of our homes, our communities, and our countries. We, like many, have suffered and continue to suffer. Survival is not the same for everyone. The chosen message equated survival as graduating from an elite university, ignoring other forms of survival and the immense privilege of which that feat consists. We live in a hierarchical world in which someone will always prefer being the oppressor to the oppressed; this speech fails to question that, and even worse, it validates that reality.
Our job as members of this committee is to “imbue in student life the principles, ideals, and values characteristic of the University.” We certainly chose the speech that Tufts would like to hear: the feel-good message without a message. I understand that this speech was palatable and amenable. I understand that this speech had hints that Tufts is still quirky. I understand that we chose the easy way out. But I do not understand why and it makes me question the integrity of this committee.
As we convened to discuss the finalists’ auditions, we went around in circles for over an hour, unsure of how to pick a winner. While we had attempted to prepare for this difficult process, our rubrics did not make it any easier for us, and in that discussion we contradicted what we had outlined for this award. Our instructions to the finalists were that this speech “is not intended to be simply a graduation speech but to offer a social justice message in the spirit of Wendell Phillips.” Professor Tobin (CSL member) pointed out during our conversation that Wendell Phillips did not stay quiet¾so why did we choose the speech that silences so many important experiences and narratives? I am embarrassed and infuriated to serve on a body that did not listen. Or that did listen, but only on a surface level that would be deemed appropriate for the majority in the audience. However, this award is not meant to honor the majority, but an individual whose social justice work and message exemplify Wendell Phillips.
We chose the speech we didn’t have to think about and that is a direct disservice to the award, to the finalists, and to the Baccalaureate service. Our rubric stated that “the most effective speeches have… deep and constructive thought, and a social justice message for our time.” As a senior sitting in that audience I will listen to my experience and efforts be erased. I will sit there and be told that all I have to do is resist with love, as if I don’t already live life with love and still get pushed around. My parents and grandparents will listen and continue to internalize that struggle is our reality because at least we’ve made it this far.
In our discussion, some members spoke about choosing this speech because it was one the majority could relate to. In doing this, we chose not to acknowledge that Tufts is not for everyone, that it is not the best time of all our lives, that weeping on the quad does not happen, that sometimes we never find the community everyone longs for, that being here is more than just for ourselves. This speech ignored one of the most important and difficult lessons many of us have learned in our time here: we might not fit in, be quirky, be able to drink coffee at the Rez, and that is okay. As we go out into the real world, we have to be able to listen and understand that the reality waiting for us is not rainbows and façades, that compassion is not enough. Why did we feel the need to choose a speech based on palatability?
We began the year thinking about how we can consider the SLRC’s findings in order to make student life at Tufts better for everyone. To follow through with this, we must take a step back and consider how we made this decision. I urge us to continue to think about our positions and whether they allow business as usual to continue, or whether our roles are meant to try to disrupt that. Four out of five finalists struck a balance between recognizing that this community and institution has its faults, and because of those faults they were able to grow and learn, appreciating their Tufts experience. Our decision chooses to ignore those realities, doing a huge disservice to the entire community. That is unacceptable. Finalists and participants should not feel silenced or ignored in this process. I write this in hope that we can make this award process more clear for everyone involved, but also so that we all reflect and question how this situation continues to repeat itself year after year.
Ania Helena Ruiz Borys
Student Co-Chair of the Committee on Student Life
Tufts University, 2018
International Relations and Food Systems