Students speak at convocation
Four students calling for change at the College unexpectedly stepped up to the microphone in Lorimer Chapel following President William “Bro” Adams’ Bicentennial Address Feb. 27.
Three of the students were part of a group that calls itself “Reclaim Colby,” and dozens of students and some faculty at the convocation wore red shirts bearing that same slogan.
Berol Dewdney ’13, who is not a member of Reclaim Colby, was the first to speak. Dewdney stated her love for the College but cited the “still serious issues” of racism, classism, ableism, sexism and homophobia which she said need to be addressed and said that disordered eating, depression and rape happen at the College.
Members of the procession, consisting of administrators and trustees, stayed in the chapel as Dewdney spoke. Following Dewdney’s speech, Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation Sally Baker motioned for the choir to sing after which the procession exited through the back door instead of leaving the way it had entered the chapel. “It was fairly clear that that avenue was not going to be available in the same way that we had rehearsed….I decided that the convocation was now over and we could recess, but we would have to recess the way that we did,” Baker said.
Most of the audience also left, but some, including numerous rows of students in red, remained to listen to the speeches.
Kyle Migliorini ’13, a Reclaim Colby speaker, focused on the College’s increasing tuition and lack of administrative transparency. Cassie Clemmer ’15 and Uzoma Orchingwa ’14 called for concrete changes. “We need a Gender and Sexual Diversity Resource center. We need a Learning differences center,” Clemmer said. “We need administrative support for multiculturalism and living wages for all of our workers. We need a change.”
“I am certainly a believer that communities need to be able to come together to discuss all things, including the most difficult conversations,” Associate Dean of Students and Director of Campus Life Jed Wartman said. “I think at the root of [Wednesday’s] events was a desire to discuss, a desire to engage on some difficult topics, and I appreciate and value that.” Despite what may have been a positive intention, “the environment and the way it took place didn’t allow for a discussion,” Wartman said. “So I regret that I don’t think the intended outcome, of inspiring a better Colby, was reached.”
Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Jim Terhune believes the issues the students addressed are “absolutely critical.” “I appreciate what I know to be sincere commitment to issues of importance to the College and issues of significance to virtually every member of this community,” he said.
Terhune said, “I do struggle with what I think is a misrepresentation of the administration’s engagement with both the individuals involved there and these issues.…As Bro said in his message [Wednesday] these are things we’ve been working on, are committed to and will continue to be [committed to]. I expect those conversations to go forward.”
According to Student Government Association (SGA) Vice President Kareem Kalil ’13, “People have criticized the movement for not trying to work through the system.” Kalil had intended to introduce the students in an effort to facilitate understanding. “I knew it could potentially go a lot better if I could introduce them….I thought they had an important message, [and] I thought my role could be facilitating that in a productive way,” he said.
Adams and Baker spoke with Kalil when he got on stage, and Kalil was thus unable to introduce the students. “What I was telling him was that I thought this was inappropriate,” Baker said. Kalil said, “They told me it wasn’t my time which I was totally aware of. I didn’t want it to be my time.”
Kalil explained that trying to move through the proper channels to accomplish something is a very slow and difficult process at the College. “I can tell you as somebody who has tried to work with the system, it’s really…hard and slow here….I’m going to keep trying to work through the system because that’s what I committed to this year….I see no harm in trying to push the envelope a little bit when the system is the way that it is; it’s really hard to work through,” he said.
As a member of the group who planned the Bicentennial activities, Baker was “very disappointed” that the event didn’t go as planned. “We started [planning] five years ago….I think what was occurring to me as this was happening was the amount of work that committee put in and the amount of work the president put in,” she said.
Some, including Terhune and students who posted on the Civil Discourse following the demonstration, said the speakers’ actions were disrespectful to the choir. “The bottom line is that the action also wasn’t simply disruptive to the speech that President Adams gave, but it also disrupted a performance that several students were prepared to give and had worked hard on,” Terhune said.
The students who spoke said that their intention was not to be disrespectful or to interrupt but to insert themselves into the convocation. Orchingwa explained that they listened to the president’s platform and wanted to present their own. Having examined the schedule for the convocation, Orchingwa said, “No one [was] being interrupted; no one [was] being disrespected…. [The chapel was] a space where people are meeting and we want[ed] to be there engaging.”
Education Program Director and Professor Mark Tappan, Professor of Education Lyn Mikel Brown, Allen Family Professor of Latin American Literature Jorge Olivares and Spanish Department Chair and Associate Professor Betty Sasaki supported the students by wearing the red “Reclaim Colby” shirts. All four professors contributed to the Civil Discourse stating their support for the students who spoke at the convocation.
The students decided to speak at the convocation because, “we’ve learned from our mistakes from the past,” Orchingwa said. He said that “there might be some posturing” on the part of the administration, and “part of what we’re engaged in… is not to let the posturing allow us to fail….This action [was] not at all antagonistic…but we really want to be heard,” Orchingwa said.
Orchingwa explained via e-mail that “[we] support activism and see ourselves as activists, but [what] we did on Wednesday shouldn’t be confined to the scope of activism, because activism in some people’s mind gives the connotation that [we’re] doing something [we’re] maybe not supposed to do. We think it’s within the rights of students to be part of a convocation that celebrates Colby’s history. We are simply living up to the liberal arts values that Colby champions.”
“My hope going forward would be that all the parties involved will engage and share in sincere and honest ways so we can come to an understanding of each other and then determine opportunities from there,” Wartman said. Migliorini shared similar sentiments. “I think if we create that dialogue one on one, that might be the next step moving forward,” Migliorini said.
Migliorini said that although he understands why people said that the demonstration was carried out in the wrong place or at the wrong time, “nobody has accused us of having a bad message yet which I think is something important.”
Dewdney said, “I understand and appreciate critiques of the time and space and I’m sorry for the hurt that was caused…. What I worry most about is this taking away from what’s important and that’s the issues and our love for the community, and I’m hopeful we can move forward with positive dialogue.”
Adams addressed the convocation demonstration in an Official Notice to the College sent the day after the Bicentennial. “It will no doubt be difficult—some might say impossible—to find perfect agreement on strategies, timing, resource allocation, and other factors to fully address these issues,” he wrote. “But, as I hope we have learned by reflecting on Colby’s two centuries of determination and perseverance, we are not an institution that shies away from such challenges.”