The Daily Gamecock

'If there is no conversation, we'll be back': Students protest university inaction

Dozens of students took part in @USC2020Vision’s walkout to protest university inactivity on issues concerning marginalized groups at the university. The group, who had their protest plans revealed the night of Nov. 15 on social media, convened at the Longstreet Theatre at approximately 11 a.m. on Nov. 16. Most students dressed in black to show their support for the movement.

In a letter sent to University President Harris Pastides Sunday night, the group expressed their concerns — including their demands — which range from a public recognition of the university's history with slavery to provisions for gender-neutral housing and bathrooms.

Another of @USC2020Vision’s demands included “a transparent and independent investigation” into several administrators — including Bobby Gist, executive assistant to the president for Equal Opportunity Programs, Dennis Pruitt, the vice president for Student Affairs, and Jerry Brewer, associate vice president for Student Affairs and Academic Support.

According to fourth-year African American studies student and @USC2020Vision member Karli Wells, the impetus behind the investigation has to do with how the officials have handled individual student cases.

“(The) ways in which they are doing their job or ways in which the ways they have previously done their job has harmed students either directly or by virtue of things that have come out of their office," she said.

Prominent members of the group included Wells, third-year biology and psychology  student Clarie Randall, second-year business student Nona Henderson, sixth-year music student Caleb Coker, third-year finance student Morgan Lewis and others. 

Coker has grown to distrust primarily rhetoric-based ways of moving forward.

“So what we have had from the university has been a lot of dialogue, a lot of conversations, a lot of panels, forums — those kinds of things,” Coker said. “But what we haven’t seen is any kind of change, any kind of actual change in policy, change in how the university functions.'”

At around 11:30 a.m., the protesters began to march silently in pairs up Sumter Street, across the Horseshoe, to the Osborne Administration building. Wells and Randall led the protesters holding a sign proclaiming the university’s motto: "Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel."

Upon the protesters' arrival at the Osborne building, three university officials — USC Provost Joan Gabel, Chief Diversity Officer John Dozier and Vice President for Student Affairs Dennis Pruitt — met them.

Gabel welcomed the protesters and explained that President Harris Pastides could not be present because he is currently representing USC in Indianapolis, Indiana at the 2015 annual meeting of the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities.

She then invited them to speak and, one by one, representatives of @USC2020Vision began to read their demands out loud, as the officials listened.

After the protesters stated their demands, Gabel invited the student leaders of @USC2020Vision into the administration building to discuss their demands and potential solutions as a smaller group. However, the consensus of the group was to reject Gabel’s offer. One member said it was a method to “divide and conquer," which Gabel denied.

“There’s no divide and conquer intended,” Gabel said. “We’re very glad to talk with you collectively. We can begin to work together on a timeline — it will vary according to what you asked for, some of which is underway, some of which need a lot more work. But we want to work together to make it happen, including the development of a timeline in an inclusive way, so we can ensure that we’re working together transparently.”

After addressing several questions from several student protesters, Wells proposed a town-hall forum hosted by Pastides upon his arrival in Columbia, something Gabel said could definitely be worked out.

That we can absolutely commit to, is a town hall conversation that anyone who wants to participate in and represent their views on collectively, individually or otherwise, we’re very happy to do,” Gabel said.

Dozier also addressed questions and criticisms at length with the crowd and ensured the students that their voices were heard.

 “I recognize that change has taken a long time for many of you. And change may not necessarily happen right around the corner — it may not happen tomorrow," he said. "But there are things that we are already working that are in complete alignment with the requests that you’ve made.”

After the administrators and many of the students involved adjourned from the courtyard outside the Osborne building, members of the group including its leaders addressed members of the press.

Lewis believed that the protest sparked awareness for their cause.

“We hope this makes a statement," she said. "We hope that we don’t lose this momentum. Our biggest thing with this is that we want everybody here to keep coming, and to tell your friends, and have more people coming, because these issues haven’t been addressed."

Wells talked about what the following days might entail for the group and for their movement.

“The direct next step is to take that link on the diversity and inclusion website and flood it with every single one of our concerns,” Wells said. “Even just on Twitter now we are getting bombarded with hatred essentially and for no other reason than the fact that we want to stand up and say that we pay the exact same amount to attend this university as everyone else and deserve to have the same rights and opportunities that everyone has.”

Library and information science professor Michelle Martin participated in the protest and stressed that the problems pointed out by the protesters are relevant to faculty as well as students.

"The fact that we have 70-ish (black) faculty on campus and we’ve lost eight in the last two years tells me that all is not well for us either," Martin said. "And I know from having heard from at least half of those that it’s because of inequity issues and being on a campus where the rhetoric about valuing diversity does not match the actions or the funding decisions."

In his absence, Pastides issued a tweet commending the way the protest was conducted.

University spokesman Wes Hickman said that some of the immediate steps the university is taking to address the protesters' concerns were included in Pastides' letter sent to the student body Nov. 13.

“Provost Gabel and Dr. Dozier are incorporating diversity and inclusiveness as part of our measurable campus progress," Hickman said. "We are creating a new leadership distinction in social justice to encourage individual and societal efforts to improve the lives of all. The Social Compact Task Force that has been meeting this semester is addressing many of these issues as well, and a full report and recommendation is expected in the spring semester.”

Despite these and other promises, Lewis made one thing clear: “If there is more conversation, we have to see where that conversation goes. If there is no conversation, we’ll be back.”