Last Thursday, senior College administrators hosted a community forum on strategies for effectively protesting the actions of the College as a part of Claiming Williams Day. Chief Communications Officer Jim Reische led the meeting, assisted by Associate Provost Chris Winters ’95 and Zilkha Center Sustainability Coordinator Elayne Elliott. The meeting, which was attended by a small contingent of fewer than 10 students, was meant to discuss potential changes to the College, brainstorm strategies for implementation and discuss the feasibility of a future Winter Study course on enacting change at the College.
Reische in particular spearheaded the idea of a formal course. “I came up with the idea after years of participating in and then later observing student protests. With some very notable exceptions, the majority didn’t produce actual change. So, I thought, if we want people to become effective change-makers, we need to teach them how it’s done,” he said. Throughout the meeting, however, some participants expressed skepticism as to whether the administration itself is a useful teacher in learning how to protest the administration.
The session focused on potential causes to hone in on. Recurring themes included the entry system, the role of Junior Advisors, the College’s admission policies for athletes and legacy students and socioeconomic divides on campus. Several participants contended that the College does not spend enough time advertising its resources to lower-income students, and some expressed that because of their socioeconomic statuses, they do not feel comfortable seeking help on campus. For those who come from low-resource schools, some argued, asking for help could be seen as equivalent to an admission of failure. Some administrators, too, shared difficulties in navigating that divide. Winters mentioned that he often does not know how to provide assistance or advice to low-income students without coming off as patronizing.
The meeting eventually shifted to discussing strategies that student groups could use to implement effective change. In particular, students brainstormed how to turn cathartic, ephemeral protests into enduring movements. For administrators like Reische, intimidation by and misunderstanding of the College’s complex bureaucracy is responsible for movements that quickly fizzle out. He repeatedly contended that a willingness to work with the administration and an understanding of effective points of contact are more useful than protest. “One of the hardest things is knowing when protest is the right way to go, and if so, what kind, versus when there are other avenues that would yield better or quicker results,” he said. “Who knows how to work the levers of change better than the people who hold them? And we’re OK teaching other people where those levers are and how to help operate them.”
From there, discussion began regarding potential structures for a possible future Winter Study course. Students listed ideal focuses like building allies, learning where decisions are made, honing time-management skills and learning about research. In addition, there was interest in working on individual initiatives and bringing in guest speakers rather than having a typical lecture format. For those in the room, there was an overwhelming expectation that administrators, Reische in particular, could communicate effectively with students in a Winter Study course.
Still, no one contested that significant barriers still exist between administrators and students. Communication between the two groups was described as anemic and unsatisfying. Differing time availabilities also presented a potential barrier. “A lot of students aren’t available until 10. I’m usually in bed by 10,” Reische said. Furthermore, the fact that students are generally on campus for only four years, and only for seven or eight months each year, gives some administrators the tendency to wait out the actions of advocates with the knowledge that those students’ graduations are near.
Throughout the meeting, administrators in attendance worked hard to portray the administration as a potential partner. Winters brought up a quip from Seinfeld: “Is there more there than meets the eye? No. There’s less.” He used that logic to defend the administration’s policies and actions. “If the administration can’t help you, it’s probably not because they don’t care; it’s probably something much more mundane than that,” he said. Reische was more blunt. “Hopkins isn’t the death star… You might be surprised to learn how many of [our goals] are the same things you want,” he said. “Student voices, student perspectives and student energy are all necessary to help drive that work.”
Despite the administrators’ optimism regarding the session, they acknowledged continuing hostility from the activist community at large. “Very few students showed up, which was too bad,” Reische said of the meeting. Attendance was not only small, but also nearly uniformly white and male. Reische harbors no illusions as to what may have been the cause of that. “I’m told others didn’t come because they heard the session was being led by ‘the Communications guy,’” he lamented. That fact has not led him to question his role in student protesting, though. “My job isn’t to mask Williams’ flaws; there are plenty of things here that urgently need changing. So I don’t want students to stop trying – I want to help you get better at it,” he said.