Editorial: Protests at Smith, Then and Now

The Editorial Board

During his speech at the opening ceremony of “Inclusion in Action” on April 10, Anthony Jack, author of “The Privileged Poor,” recalled a quote from James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world,” he said, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

The subject of Jack’s speech was not America, however, but the American higher education system. He discussed how universities use the stories of first-generation students while failing to serve them; he pointed out that institutions’ admitting marginalized students doesn’t equal actively including them.

Students recognized that Smith has failed to create an inclusive environment for marginalized students, so they protested during the inclusion conference and on the day after. The first protest took place at a session with then-Campus Chief of Police Daniel Hect. Students confronted Hect about the pro-Trump and anti-immigrant tweets he had both liked and retweeted. Students protested the next day in front of John M. Greene Hall, where members of the organization Students for Social Justice and Institutional Change (SSJIC) read a list of 28 demands relating to the needs of marginalized students, particularly undocumented students, low-income students, students of color, Black students and transgender students.

Although the protests seemed universally supported, some students privately (in the Smith Confessional or private Facebook groups, for example) questioned them. Mainly they criticized the protestors’ tone, disliking the aggressive shouting and the provoking signs (e.g.: “Build a wall around racists”). They challenged the feasibility of some of the SSJIC’s demands and sympathized with harried administrators.

But protests like these work. The evening after the inclusion conference, President McCartney emailed the Smith community, announcing that Daniel Hect had been placed on administrative leave. She also agreed to hire two new mental health counselors and to establish a fund to alleviate the costs of learning disability testing for low-income students. Moreover, we must not forget that, even beyond these recent initiatives, demands from marginalized students — particularly from Black students — have been the impetus for Smith establish programs that we now take for granted.

On March 19, 1969, the Black Students’ Alliance (BSA) presented a list of nine demands to President Mendenhall, Dean Lehmann and other administrators. The list included the demand for a Black studies major, for more Black faculty, for the increased recruitment of Black students and for the establishment of a Black cultural center. This letter came after months of discussions between the BSA and the faculty and administration. The BSA tried to convince the administration that a Black Studies major was not only necessary but also academically valuable. In a report to the Board of Trustees, Mendenhall wrote that a discussion about the Black Studies major “was led by members of the faculty who, while recognizing the immediate, personal, psychological urge for Black studies, wondered whether it would … lead to a self-defeating black separatism.” When the BSA wrote letters to The Sophian and to Mendenhall himself expressing concerns about the major or the admission of Black students, the president invited them to discuss these issues. He described one of these meetings as amicable but rambling. Anonymous members of the BSA wrote of the same meeting that they felt Mendenhall patronized them. Either way, these meetings proved to be ineffective, and Wanda Jordan ’70, then-President of the BSA, wrote in a letter sent to Mendenhall the same day of the demands: “We are very weary of writing letters [and] holding two hour meetings to discuss the importance of this program and our desire for a broader academic and educational experience with people who don’t seem really committed to this program or interested in us. The Afro-American Studies major is a legitimate program that should be seriously instituted without the peripheral attention that [it] has been receiving.” For context, the first Black Studies department was founded in SF State in 1967.

Although a Black Studies department was established at Smith in September 1970, the BSA had to consistently argue with the administration to get it to be a full-fledged department. During initial discussions about the major, the BSA had to argue that not only faculty members from the history, sociology and government departments had to attend meetings about the major, but also faculty members from the art, theater, music and psychology departments. The administration then said that the major should be interdepartmental, but the BSA insisted that a separate Black Studies department was necessary.

Throughout this process, the BSA didn’t just issue demands to the administration — they actively and consistently worked to ensure that these demands would be met the deadlines they set. Four members of the BSA were part of a temporary advising committee for the Black Studies major. The BSA also worked to formed another committee with the other (then) three colleges to perfect a Black Studies program. When the BSA wanted more Black faculty, they brought the resume of a Black potential candidate to Mendenhall’s office. A sign held by a student during SSJIC’s protest echoes this history: “This is unpaid labor.”

The SSJIC draws from this legacy of activism. Just as the BSA set a deadline for Fall 1969 in their initial list of demands, so too did the SSJIC. They set a deadline for several of their demands to met by Fall 2019. Just as the BSA wanted to be part of the hiring process of Black faculty, so too does SSJIC. They want all unity orgs to be part of the hiring process for the next Office of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (OIDE) vice president.

The discomfort that people feel about today’s demands is the same discomfort that people felt about the BSA’s demands 50 years ago. Mendenhall actively feared confrontation with the BSA; people today dislike the SSJIC’s confrontational tone. The BSA’s demands brought us programs that we take for granted today — the Africana Studies major, Otelia Cromwell Day, the Mwangi Cultural Center, the Bridge program (the latter two the BSA opened up to all students of color); the SSJIC’s demands will create a more equitable institution in which marginalized students can thrive. When future students want to improve Smith, they’ll draw on the history that students were making back then and are making right now. They’ll know that the only way to better an institution is to criticize it perpetually.

The articles in this issue of The Sophian were written over the course of the spring semester and before, during and after the inclusion conference and protests. Because of this, some of the articles contain language inconsistent with this issue’s publication date; the first article, for example, notes that on Wednesday, April 10, “classes will be cancelled.” Our goal in printing these articles isn’t to break news — which is the purpose of our website, thesophian.com — but rather to tell a cohesive story about the protests to inform alumnae and to intervene in an ever-accelerating news cycle that serves to confuse and make people forget even recent news. At the end of each article is its original publishing date; some articles have been updated since then.

This issue is also the result of a complete restructuring of The Sophian. Instead of printing a newspaper weekly, The Sophian now publishes nearly daily on the website and prints monthly. This not only makes us more environmentally and financially sustainable but also improves our journalism as it allows our writers to shape their articles around their stories rather than word limits and printing schedules. The result of this is the articles in this issue: articles that inform the Smith community and keep a record of the activism that will change Smith for the better.