January 25, 2008

Activists take less vocal role

Last spring, following a months-long and vocal campaign, University students marched toward campus from the corner of 55th Street and Ellis Avenue, protesting the University’s February decision not to divest from companies whose business has benefited the repressive regime in the war-torn region of Darfur, Sudan.

Since that decision and the University’s steadfast refusal to reverse course, despite the vocal demands of campus activists, it seems that the campus chapter of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), the student group whose efforts and tactics drew intensely mixed reactions from faculty, administrators, and students, has all but disappeared.

Since then, various campus activism groups have organized around a variety of causes, most of which have met with limited, if any, success.

But STAND members say that the organization is continuing to fight against violence in Sudan using more inclusive and wider-reaching tactics.

“Even though a year has gone by, the issue is still affecting the community,” said third-year Kevin Koll, current head of STAND who took over since last year’s chairs either graduated or went abroad, “and we’re still pushing for change.”

The Board of Trustees’s decision last February not to divest, citing the University’s policy of abstaining from taking political stances, led STAND organizers to hold door-banging protests and an all-day sit-in at the campus administration building.

Their efforts drew both ire and support from members of the campus community because of their often loud, sometimes outrageous nature.

Although Koll said that STAND does not have similar events planned for the coming months, the organization still remains dedicated to the University’s complete divestment from all corporations that provide financial assistance to the current Sudanese regime.

STAND hopes that its Darfur advocacy will have broad implications for the University’s policies, Koll said. The organization intends to encourage administrators to reevaluate both the way the University spends its money and the way it approaches ethical concerns around the globe.

Last quarter the Social Justice Coalition (SJC)—the umbrella organization that includes STAND and other campus activism groups—presented a set of proposals for administrative change to University officials. Among the most pressing of their concerns was administrative transparency, including endowment spending policies. To date, the proposals have not received a definite response from the University.

Despite the frustration of this setback, some SJC members remain optimistic.

“They were willing to meet with us,” third-year SJC member Hannah Jacoby said.

Jacoby said that the meeting will pave the way for future discussions about the issue.

In the meantime, STAND and its partners hope to build more awareness about Darfur throughout the student body, Koll said. Last year, the organization secured grant money to host various Darfur-related educational events as a part of its weeklong “Days of Darfur” lecture series. Although STAND initially intended to host similar events during the 2007 autumn quarter, Koll said that this idea was scrapped in favor of a “more effective” use of the $200,000 Darfur fund that the administration offered when it announced its decision. Koll declined to reveal further details about its plans.

Nevertheless, Koll said STAND has fared well in the face of these changes and has managed to expand among previously “untapped” portions of the student body. He added that there is interest among first-years, “especially this quarter.” STAND has also made efforts to garner the support of a larger proportion of the graduate student population.

Koll’s emphasis on garnering more student support comes on the tail of the frustrating defeat of their divestment campaign last year, as well as the limited success with which several other SJC efforts have been met, reflecting the possible limits of student influence on administrative decisions.

At the end of last school year, the Campus Dining Advisory Board ruled to continue providing the campus with Coca-Cola products, despite the efforts of the campus chapter of Kick Coke Off Campus, which was motivated by concerns about the company’s labor policies abroad. Last month, campus clerical and service workers represented by the Teamsters received vocal support from Students Organizing United with Labor, which held protests, rallies, and sit-ins in the administration building to demand greater wage increases. Only a minor improvement to the contract resulted.

Still, SJC members are cautiously optimistic about their evolving role on campus, pointing to progress made toward improving access to financial aid and increasing environmental sustainability awareness.

“There is a coalition forming around the SJC proposals,” Koll said.