SULLIVAN: When Up Against Admins, Remember the Riots of '63
Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 00:09
Student leaders of on-campus organizations often lament the lack of support they receive from the administration on critical issues. Whether it concerns the availability of study space, funding for organizations or important aspects of campus life such as housing and safety, student advocacy is often a fruitless task that rarely receives anything beyond lip service.
This attitude was epitomized by the lack of student representation during the recent campus plan negotiations. The Georgetown community is as much our community as it is our neighbors’ and administrators’, but, having been left out of the discussion, Georgetown students must add another advocacy issue to their existing list of grievances.
When the university does reach out to students, it is only in the most superficial manner. At the Center for Student Programs’ “Blueprint” training session for student group leaders, which took place over the past two weekends, students had the exact opposite problem. Administrators subjected students to their patronizing “attention” for six hours, demonstrating their complete lack of faith in students to run their organizations and serve their peers.
We have certainly seen signs of the university’s attempts to take student concerns into account, such as with the New South Student Center and Dahlgren Chapel renovations. But why does this come only after students have gone through great lengths to be heard? The multi-year Student Life Report finally jumpstarted much-needed discussion about student space, and last year’s Georgetown Day “fence scandal” was defeated only after massive uproar. The university addressed the contraceptive mandate last year after many students and alumni joined in a letter to President DeGioia demanding more information on such a critical decision.
What will it take to really gain the attention and consideration that is owed to the student body? Well, in 1963, it took two nights of student revelry and “expression.”
On May 15, 1963, several hundred Georgetown students set off firecrackers, triggered a false fire alarm and staged an unsuccessful “panty raid” of Georgetown Visitation. Metropolitan Police arrested nine students during the chaos. On the second night of student “riots,” nearly 1,000 students from both Georgetown and nearby universities joined in similar street disruptions throughout the Georgetown neighborhood. Many were protesting the arrest of their classmates the previous night. Several students then set fire to the Annex, faculty housing located at 37th and O Streets that was scheduled to be torn down. The police were warned of numerous bomb threats, including a threat to blow up the university’s gatehouse.
Today, such mass student protest seems almost unthinkable. But these students took to the streets that night, as noted by Georgetown historian Fr. R. Emmett Curran, S.J., “to voice a variety of grievances, including ‘administrative secrecy, the mediocre quality of theology courses, disciplinary measures that they regarded as oppressive and the miserable quality of the cafeteria food.’”
Yes, you read that correctly: the quality of cafeteria food. The students of the past did not bicker in Red Square over partisan issues; they united to seek real reform from the administration. Although they may have taken it too far, at least they had some fun in the process.
The result of those two nights was, at first, serious disciplinary measures and a personal letter from the Pope scolding Georgetown students for breaking the “cloister” of the visitation convent. But soon after, the administration correctly saw past the recklessness of the demonstrations and heard the undercurrent of a call for serious reform. The result was the establishment of a committee of professors and administrators to hear students’ concerns and grievances in a professional and orderly manner. And, slowly but surely, reforms to the Code of Student Conduct and concessions of greater student independence on a number of issues were granted.
A thousand-person riot through the streets of Georgetown would not make any friends today. But the university should appreciate the professionalism and respect that most of our student leaders practice. Reciprocating that approach would unleash the energy and passion that students waste in the jungle of bureaucracy that occupies our Hilltop.
Kevin Sullivan is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. GHOSTS OF HOYAS PAST appears every other Tuesday.