By Damon Krane
November 2, 2006
The Athens News
The Post (Athens, Ohio)
November 2, 2006
An October 24 forum intended to focus on student empowerment instead ended up highlighting racial tensions at Ohio University. The forum was hosted by a recently formed group called Students for Effective and Accountable Leadership. All of SEAL’s representatives at the forum were white, while African-American students comprised about half of the audience.
Having attended the forum as a supporter of greater student power, I must say I wholeheartedly agree with a comment made by Marc Fencil, former president of the OU College Republicans, who told The Post, “I think the meeting was sabotaged by a certain demographic group.”
Since Fencil didn’t say which group, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was talking about the demographic to which he and I both belong. Yes, the meeting was sabotaged by white folks.
By characterizing their push for student power as fundamentally “anti-McDavis,” SEAL’s white founders presented their peers of color with a clear (and false) choice: Either you’re for student power, or you’re for the first president of OU who has significantly increased minority enrollment after three decades of consistent disregard and decline, and who also happens to be the first African-American president of OU in over 200 years. You better pick one. You can’t be for both.
Having created this implicit dichotomy, SEAL’s members proceeded to pick student power — or more accurately, white student power — over minority representation, and then asked their peers of color to follow suit. This alone was enough to sabotage SEAL’s stated purpose, but things got worse from there.
In what progressive members of SEAL say was a compromise struck with right-wing members, the group included in its opening remarks a formal statement in opposition to diversity initiatives that focus on “characteristics such as [students’] race or sexual identification, rather than their common participation in the university community.”
The first audience member to offer comment was Fencil, who said “Diversity is about more than just race” and went on to argue for instituting “more of a balance” between liberal and conservative faculty. (Yes, while opposing affirmative action for historically oppressed groups, many conservatives advocate it for themselves, even as they control all three branches of government.)
SEAL also made the unfortunate choice of selecting one of its right-wing members to help moderate discussion. I began keeping a tally (which I later checked against an audio recording of the forum) of how many times this white woman interrupted the comments of students of color, compared to how many times anyone interrupted any white speaker. The results aren’t exactly a testament to white civility.
These blunders were not just tactical errors that cost SEAL potential allies; they also demonstrate the ignorance that white privilege breeds, even among well-meaning progressive activists like the majority of SEAL’s founders. We should not ask, Why are minority students opposed to a vision of student power that potentially jeopardizes long overdue gains for minorities? Instead we should ask, Why would progressive white students embrace such a vision?
One would expect progressive whites to be just as concerned about diversity as their peers of color. Yet in an October 27 letter to The Post, OU junior Keith Miller, sounding very much like a member of the College Republicans despite last year belonging to the Young Socialist League, declared, “The diversity movement has obviously failed – a point made evident by the racial and ethnic divides [at] Tuesday night’s SEAL meeting.” That’s a bit like blaming the Civil Rights Movement for cross-burnings.
No doubt, the lack of student power at OU is utterly unacceptable. Students pay a great deal in tuition to attend a university that ultimately exists for their benefit. Students are affected by administrative decisions as much or more than any other segment of the university community. Yet students do not have any power within any policy-making body.
That said, whatever the failings of McDavis’ own administration, this man has not deprived students of the very power they lacked under every previous administration. The problem is institutional, not personal. And attempting to pesonalize it in the form of McDavis is a mistake given his administration’s positive accomplishments in the area of diversity. If student empowerment is what SEAL is after, then the group must learn to act in a way that is empowering to more than just its white members.
In all fairness to SEAL, activism isn’t easy. Our substantially segregated society and K-12 school system offer few opportunities for the average 20-year-old of any race to have learned very much about building multi-racial coalitions at the grass-roots level. But thanks to the astute and impressively organized black students who attended this forum, white students now have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes so that this new movement for student power is no longer “sabotaged by a certain demographic group.”
Perhaps Tuesday’s meeting was a painful but necessary bump on the road to improving race relations at OU. As one white person in attendance, I know I learned a great deal from SEAL’s forum.
By Damon Krane
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Prior to writing the commentary above, I had become concerned with SEAL’s focus on OU President Roderick McDavis, which had never been so strong as in flyers advertising the burgeoning group’s October 24 forum. After seeing the flyers, I attempted to arrange a meeting with one of SEAL’s leading organizers, Will Klatt, so that I could express my concerns and hopefully persuade the group to change its approach.
Klatt and I had worked together on several projects, including a counter recruitment campaign in the fall of 2005. I had helped publicize the federal government’s surveillance of the Columbus Student Network, which Klatt had founded while in high school, by getting the Athens News interested in the story. (See also: Athens News, 4/11/06.) Klatt and I generally were on good terms, and I supported his efforts to organize students to advocate for a more democratic university.
Unfortunately, however, our schedules didn’t allow for us to meet before SEAL’s forum, and the event turned out even worse than I had feared. After reading Mark Fencil’s comments in the coverage of the demonstration and Keith Miller’s follow-up letter, I felt compelled to publicly weigh in on what by then had become a very public issue.
To say that Klatt was unreceptive to the criticism would be an understatement. The publication of my commentary marked the end of our working relationship. Nevertheless, while I served as editor-in-chief of The InterActivist, the magazine continued to cover Klatt’s subsequent efforts with the newly formed OU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society – including my piece covering a February 2007 SDS rally and another staffer’s feature interview with Klatt in 2008.
College Republicans member Maggie O’Toole, who had moderated SEAL’s presentation, provided a published response to my commentary. So did Monica Gazstonyi, the right-wing student who had assaulted several anti-war demonstrators the previous year, and Keith Miller. I normally reply to criticism, but I didn’t think any of these pieces warranted a response. Finally, O’Toole approached me to discuss the matter in person after I spoke as part of a panel dealing with OU’s speech policies. While the discussion was totally civil, she continued to defend SEAL’s focus on McDavis.
Meanwhile, SEAL succeeded in galvanizing minority student support for McDavis. In April 2007, the OU chapter of the African American sorority Delta Sigma Theta invited me to speak as part of its “Activism 101” discussion series. The completely black audience brought up SEAL early on, and the issue dominated the discussion. In May 2007, an even more explicitly “anti-McDavis” group, Students Against McDavis, held a rally that was met with a counter-rally by predominantly African-American students. As the headline of The Post’s coverage of the affair noted, “Protesters divided along ideological, racial lines.”
While SEAL’s missteps could be attributed in large part to their youth, it was unfortunate to see activists among OU’s faculty make the exact same mistakes. Some of the very same progressive professors who’d led the campaign against OU employee benefit reductions and begun attempting to unionize OU faculty during Robert Glidden’s administration in 2004 focused much more personally on McDavis, with the OU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors organizing a faculty “No Confidence” vote against McDavis in 2006 and again in 2007. Student Senate organized its own “No Confidence” vote in 2007. Thus not only did students have to choose between real gains for campus equality and potential gains for campus democracy, but so too did faculty and the Athens progressive community at large. Indeed, it could be argued that white faculty activists first set the “anti-McDavis” tone and their student counterparts merely followed suit.
SEAL gradually dissolved and by early 2007 was replaced by the OU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, an organization with an explicitly leftist orientation, historically. SDS de-emphasized McDavis and focused more on policies such as OU’s free speech zones. However, SDS refrained from becoming involved in the 2007/2008 campaign against the racism in Ohio University’s student newspaper, The Post, and the group, like its predecessor SEAL, remained overwhelmingly (although not completely) white.
McDavis’ supporters raised the possibility that he was facing disproportionate criticism because of his race. While I suspect this was true, it’s a hard thing to prove and unfortunately the kind of thing whites can easily dismiss as an example “playing the race card.” What was much clearer, however, was the near total disregard many white, progressive student and faculty activists displayed for their peers of color by targeting their organizing efforts against a person responsible for long overdue gains for minorities instead of at a deeply undemocratic institution. It was a pitiful performance, as I wrote in November 2006, of “the ignorance that white privilege breeds, even among well-meaning progressive activists.”
For better or worse, McDavis emerged unscathed. As a September 2012 headline in the Columbus Dispatch put it, “OU president gets praise, raise and 5-year contract extension”.
Meanwhile, Klatt, who graduated OU and left Athens in 2009 (but later returned to both), along with his fellow activists in SDS, do deserve a great deal of credit for pressuring OU in 2008 to accept a revised policy on freedom of speech and assembly on campus, which was formulated by a committee of Graduate Student Senate. Indeed, Klatt has continued to do a lot of great student and labor organizing work since then, and I have the impression that he has served as an important mentor to a new and more multiracial wave of highly impressive progressive student activists at OU. As I wrote in 2006, “activism isn’t easy.” We all grow in the process. I’m glad Klatt is still organizing for participatory democracy nearly a decade after the above piece was written.
Finally, the OU chapter of AAUP continues as a faculty activist group, but the faculty remains non-union.
For more information on the OU chapter of SDS and it’s accomplishments, see “SDS agitates for freer speech at OU,” (The InterActivist, February 2007) and the links to additional coverage at the bottom of the page.