The 1999 Sit-In
Is it the job of the student of color, finding the school’s ideals regarding diversity don’t quite work in practice, and the majority of the student body is ignorant of her or his culture, to enact change? Is it the job of the few faculty members of color to teach their colleagues about institutional racism? Should the students who select a school for its commitment to diversity be expected to be the only ones struggling to achieve that diversity? Ultimately, whose job is it to make Colby a welcoming and diverse environment?
In 1999, after the open letter from Mayra Diaz ’98 in 1998 (full text of letter), detailing an incident of racial harassment at Colby as well as listing fourteen suggestions for improving the racial tensions at Colby, remained unanswered; after the Student Government Association trivialized minority interests on campus by limiting the proposed Minority Affairs Representative to a “permanent guest” with no voting privileges; after the Task Force on Institutional Racism presented its final report to the Campus Community Committee meeting and dissolved with little commitment from the administration; after the Colby Echo published an editorial containing racially insensitive remarks and the administration failed to address the situation; after, clearly, institutional racism was not a primary concern for anyone at Colby except students and faculty of color, a group of about twenty students took action.
On Friday morning, April 16, at 11 a.m., about twenty students took up President Cotter on his “open door” policy. They marched to his office in Eustis with a list of demands drawn from the recommendations of the task force, which were themselves drawn from the 1998 letter from a student. They demanded a meeting with Cotter, who was across campus meeting with the Board of Trustees. Cotter arrived in Eustis and agreed to meet with the students at 6:30 p.m., then returned to the Trustees. The protestors, frustrated with institutional delays, decided to remain in Cotter’s office, thus initiating the sit-in. During the day, the twenty students were joined by nearly 100 more students, faculty and staff members.
At 4 p.m., Cotter met with student organizers Kenya Sanders ’00 and Kyle Potter ’99, Student Government Association President Ben Langille ’99, incoming SGA Vice President Jon Gray ’00, Assistant Professor Sandy Grande, Dean of the College Earl Smith, Vice President Arnold Yasinski, and Dean of Students Janice Kassman. According to Sanders, Cotter wanted to have a preliminary discussion of the demands, as well as ensure the meeting with all protestors went smoothly. Some demands were revised in this meeting to be more in line with what was felt to be a realistic expectation.
With the protestors refusing to move across campus to Roberts, the evening meeting took place in the President’s Board Room adjacent to his office. This meeting included several Trustees, such as outgoing chairman Lawrence Pugh ’56 and incoming chair Jim Crawford ’64. The demands were discussed and debated for over an hour, at which point Cotter signed an agreement written by student protestor Laura Eichelberger ’99 pledging his commitment towards significant progress on the demands. Cotter later drafted a response to each of the demands (excerpted in the Colby Magazine).
Two years later, as Colby inaugurated Cotter’s successor, William Adams, one of the participants in the sit-in, Dr. Sandy Grande, sent an open letter to the new president explaining the problem of institutional racism at Colby. Grande, who left Colby shortly after the sit-in, returned on April 8, 2001, with Mayra Diaz ’98, whose letter in part sparked the sit-in, for a day of forums on institutional racism at Colby and how best to overcome such a problem. While the event was attended by an array of students, faculty, and staff, many were disappointed by the absence of President Adams and of the administrators who met with the 1999 protestors. In addition, Diaz noted that her letter, which deserved response both by itself and in conjunction with the report of the Task Force on Institutional Racism (which recommended an administrative response to Diaz), still remained unanswered.