More than 200 University students and faculty protested in front of and inside the administration building on the Quadrangle Tuesday afternoon, voicing their concerns about the department changes announced earlier this semester and demanding a meeting with University President James W. Wagner. The protest culminated in a private three-hour meeting with Wagner, who called Dean of the College Robin Forman on speakerphone.
The walkout was organized by the student re-visioning committee as part of the #EmoryCuts movement. The movement developed in response to Forman’s plan to reallocate resources and eliminate certain programs and departments within the College, which Forman announced in a University-wide email Sept. 14.
Staging a Sit-In
After the initial event on the Quad, several protesters shuffled into the administration building to occupy the fourth-floor hallway outside the offices of University administrators, including Wagner’s.
Protesters sang as they marched from the Quad to the fourth floor, chanting “no transparency, no trust” and “they say cut that, we say fight back.” The protesters remained in the hallway for six hours.
More than 100 students and faculty members occupied the fourth-floor hallway at around 1 p.m. not only to show distaste for the department changes, but also to demonstrate support for those directly affected.
The protest arose much to the surprise of University administrators. Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president, exited his office at one point to address the crowd of protesters.
He explained to the group that he would schedule a meeting with Wagner, who was out of his office at the time protesters entered the building.
One protester loudly “booed” the proposal from Hauk and was immediately quieted by the crowd.
“As you can see, business cannot be conducted in a hallway full of people,” Hauk said in response to the heckler. “[The protesters] are actually impeding the operations of the office of the University.”
Some protesters were unsatisfied with Hauk’s response.
“You won’t let us study, we won’t let you work,” one protester yelled.
Following a tense exchange, Hauk and the protesters agreed to hold a meeting with Wagner and six protesters once Wagner returned.
Following Hauk’s offer, a small group of organizers conferred and agreed that the meeting would be their best option.
However, not all protesters agreed that a meeting was the optimal choice in moving forward. Some students demanded more of a group consensus to determine what the walkout’s next course of action would be.
Protesters used a megaphone to hold a vote to determine the group’s next move. The protesters overwhelmingly voted to meet with Wagner to discuss the department changes.
Nine protesters voted against meeting with Wagner and instead wanted to occupy the hallway until their demands were met, thus possibly risking arrest for trespassing once the building closed.
A group of students wearing all black also unexpectedly attended the sit-in. The students handed out fliers advocating anarchy to protesters during the demonstration.
While the motive of these students was unclear, the protesters accused them of vandalism and asked them to leave the demonstration. The group reportedly spray-painted “OCCUPY A” on parts of the first-floor restroom.
Meeting with Wagner
Following their final decision to meet with Wagner, organizers of the protest strategized in the hallway and discussed which individuals would attend the meeting. They agreed that five students and one faculty member that has been active within the movement would represent the group.
The group consisted of College junior David Mullins; Mairead Sullivan, a graduate student in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies; College sophomore Elizabeth Hennig; Mael Vizcarra, a graduate student in the Institute for Liberal Arts; Andrew Zonderman, a history graduate student; and Chair of the Department of Visual Arts Julia Kjelgaard.
The meeting with Wagner began at 3 p.m. and lasted three hours.
In a follow-up interview with the Wheel, Wagner said that during the meeting the protesters presented him a list of demands composed by the Student Re-visioning Committee. He said Forman needed to address the list of recommendations and demands.
Approximately two and half hours into the meeting, Wagner contacted Forman via speakerphone, allowing him to talk with the group. The phone conversation lasted more than 20 minutes.
In an interview with the Wheel, Forman said that he received an email from the President’s Office asking him to call Wagner. Forman said he called Wagner from the side of a street with ongoing traffic in the background.
Forman said that once he called, the means of communication made holding the conversation very difficult.
“I was not willing to answer a question at that time because they were using words, the meaning of which they had agreed upon over two hours of conversation, and I wasn’t at the meeting,” he said.
Forman added that it was not clear to him what he was being asked to commit to. He noted it would have been “silly” under the circumstances to commit to answering a question that had evolved from a meeting he was absent from.
Immediately following the meeting, Wagner described the phone conversation with Forman as “awkward” to the protestors on the fourth floor.
Wagner later clarified that the conversation between protesters and Forman seemed “awkward” because the Dean entered the conversation late into the discussion.
“There was such a temptation with the Dean on the phone [for the protesters] to begin pursing the agenda of the second meeting; starting to ask about all these other issues … I felt badly that it was awkward for him,” Wagner said.
Although all parties acknowledged that some “awkwardness” came from Forman’s late entrance into the meeting, some protesters believe that some confusion was derived from Wagner and Forman not communicating prior to the conversation.
“It was weird and awkward for me because Wagner and Forman were really not on the same page,” Mullins said. “Forman was very hesitant to divulge or commit to anything of consequence at all … He was very, very, very opaque.”
Wagner said he called Forman to ensure that he saw the value in scheduling a subsequent meeting. Both parties were eventually able to reach a compromise to meet again on Dec. 7 to hold a more formal conversation.
Late in the meeting, Wagner exited his office to use the bathroom. Those who attended the meeting used the break as an opportunity to leave Wagner’s office and discuss their strategy moving forward with the other protesters.
At that point, the organizers disclosed what had been accomplished in the first half of the meeting, noting that Wagner and Forman agreed to meet with the protesters in a public-discussion setting.
However, many protesters felt that the group’s leaders had made a poor compromise. The group then voted and agreed to remain in the hallway until Forman arrived and a resolution to the department changes was reached.
“At this point, the protest met a critical state of negotiation, probably the furthest stage of negotiation either the faculty or students have reached so far,” said Jason Francisco, professor in the Department of Visual Arts. “The discussion is live. No one planned for the meeting to be this long. The occupation of the building has had a significant impact on the [response to the department changes].”
In the middle of the protesters’ meeting with Wagner at 5 p.m., the University locked all doors to the administration building as well as stairwell access to the fourth floor. Security guards waited in the first-floor hallway at the doorway entrances.
At approximately 6 p.m., the meeting between Wagner and the protesters concluded. Both Wagner and the organizers in attendance exited the office and explained to the crowd that they had agreed to schedule a meeting in the future with both Wagner and Forman.
“I think there was a great deal of good faith in doing this,” Wagner said. “The ball is now in my court to get the subsequent meeting scheduled. One thing that is clearly evident is that people are actually uniformly concerned about the future of Emory University.”
The University released a second statement later that night, explaining that Wagner supports Forman and endorses his authority to make the department changes. The statement added, “Neither [Forman] nor Wagner agreed that the cuts would be reversed, they said, but they did agree to discuss the basis of the decisions that were made.”
Regarding the unexpected meeting, Wagner thought it was thoughtful and intense.
“I was very impressed. I was pleased with the level of conversation,” he said.
Following Wagner’s departure, the protesters remained in the hallway to discuss what had been accomplished during the meeting and where the movement was headed moving forward.
“I believe that President Wagner at least wants to work with us and make concessions,” Mullins said.
Some protesters were not completely satisfied with Wagner’s promise of a future meeting. Some said they felt that the meeting was an attempt to delay the process of making a final decision.
Protesters again voted on whether or not to remain in the building until their complete demands were met or accept Wagner’s offer for a meeting and exit the building.
Overwhelmingly, the group decided to leave the building and effectively end the protest.
With Emory Police Department (EPD) officers nearby, the group of protesters walked down from the fourth floor chanting, “We are Emory.”
Following the protest, Katherine Bryant, a fourth-year neuroscience graduate student, said she felt the protest was successful in garnering the attention of both the Emory and Atlanta communities.
“The cuts have hurt so many people,” Bryant said. “They have robbed people of their jobs and their livelihood. We have finally gotten the message out about what the decisions the administration makes does to this community. From now on, Dean Forman and President Wagner will have an audience to those decisions and cannot afford to hide anymore.”
Many local and national media outlets covered the event, including the Associated Press, Fox 5 Atlanta, CBS Atlanta and WSB Action News. Reporters, cameramen and photographers followed the protest from the Quad into the administration building, and at one point, a Fox News helicopter could be seen circling the Quad from above.
Protesters, many of whom left their classes to join the “walk out” at 12 p.m., originally met on the Quad to express their views on the changes via megaphone. Many held signs with phrases such as “Cut Forman” and “We are Emory.” Protesters also marched around the Quad, each holding a letter to spell out “Reject the Cuts.”
Students said the concept of occupying the hallway was a move born out of frustration with the administration’s previous responses to #EmoryCuts’ protests and rallies.
“We have exhausted all other means of addressing the cuts that were enacted by the administration,” said Navyug Gill, a history graduate student. “We wanted to send a message to the administration and engage in a meaningful debate and discussion about the direction of the university. We [planned] on staying until our demands [were] met.”
In response to the protest, the Wheel received a statement from the University late Thursday night regarding the upcoming meeting scheduled for Friday afternoon.
After laying out the agreed upon agenda for the meeting, the statement goes on to say that Wagner and Forman are “looking forward to fostering a deeper understanding of how these decisions were reached and to a productive discussion of the ways in which students, faculty and administrators can continue to work together to implement the Emory College Plan over the next four years.”
Click here for a full copy of the statement.
— By Dustin Slade