The 1992 Need-Blind Occupation: A Look Back with Ben Foss ’95

Drama over Wesleyan’s need-blind admissions status seems to pop up in ten-year cycles. First, in 1982, there was the WSA’s “Save Aid-Blind Letter Drive,” an aggressive letter-writing campaign to convince the Board of Trustees to preserve need-blind admission despite financial desperation. The university raised enough money not to enact the need-aware proposal.

Then, in late 1991, when President William Chace proposed to alter Wesleyan’s need-blind admissions policy, he was confronted with immediate and fierce student opposition. His proposal, which would permit consideration of financial concerns when admitting students from the waiting list, was part of a five-year plan to fix the university’s glaring budget deficit during the recession. So a group calling itself Students for Financially Accessible Education organized a rally of 300, attracting local news coverage. And in February 1992, shit got real: students organized a series of massive protests, sit-ins, and a silent vigil at Downey House. At the height of the protest, 500 students occupied four floors of North College, chanting, singing, and—in some cases—camping out overnight in sub-freezing temperatures. They declared a boycott on classes; they encircled Downey House, arms clasped silently, while the Board of Trustees met inside.

Twenty years ago yesterday, the Courant reported that Wesleyan would remain need-blind.

In the recent months of 2012, President Roth has proposed to the Board of Trustees a cap on financial aid, a temporary measure until Wesleyan’s finances are better in order. As Roth explained it at last month’s Affordability Forum, the University would remain need-blind for maybe 90% of all applicants. But not once that cap is reached. The University would move away from student loans, more towards grants. Financial aid, says Roth, is becoming “unsustainable.” So where’s the student response today? And what’s the solution?

This post is about the need-blind activism that shook this campus in 1992. Read on for an interview I conducted with Ben Foss ’95, who took a seminal role in organizing the North College occupation and is pictured on the cover of the Argus in question. Today, Foss is president of Headstrong Nation, a California-based nonprofit aiming to “create a movement of people with dyslexia and related profiles.” He is not, for the record, related to the hill.

So tell me about the need blind protest you were involved with in 1992.

Need blind was an issue that became very hot in my frosh year at Wesleyan. The central issue was whether the university will evaluate students on their ability to pay. While many schools claim to offer financial aid and to be welcoming to students who don’t have money, many of them kind of cheat a little bit. Brown, for example, will admit students until they’ve maxed out their financial aid budget for the year, and then the last groups of people they admit get in based on their ability to pay. And we didn’t want that.

The president at the time, a guy named Bill Chace, had come in and decided he was gonna change the policy. And Bill Chace made his decision not to involve the students and he decided he was gonna cut need blind. Well, we didn’t like that. And there were a number of different student groups involved in this discussion—students put together a thing called SAFE, I think? Student Association for Education or Student Association for Financial Aid or something like that. You’ll find it in the archives. And we were coming out of a period when they had been pretty significant radicalism on campus. The year before, someone had literally firebombed the president’s office.

Yeah, in 1990, right?

It was just before we got there. And there was a guy involved with that, a whole bunch of people, and it got very complicated, but once something like a firebombing happens, the FBI gets involved. And they started interviewing suspects and people claiming race bias and it just got really ugly. I was not there for any of that. But that’s kind of the context for it.

And, so, on the one hand, there was interest in maintaining radical traditions and making sure our voices were heard. On the other hand, we didn’t want to go down the path that the firebomber had gone down, which wasn’t very conducive to discussion. And I remember what I think was kind of the turning point in the meeting was a meeting in the student association and there was a lot of back and forth and there was a group that was going to start making very radical actions—they were going to start locking themselves to the president’s door, his office. And I was in a group of people who didn’t agree with that strategy because we thought that that would actually alienate a lot of the most important people of the protest. We looked at it and we decided the Board of Directors is really important. And that influenced our strategy.

The second thing that we found out in this meeting was that a large majority of the people who were there on sports scholarships or in fraternities were there on financial aid. So DKE, for example, which people don’t really think of as radical—a lot of students in DKE really cared about this issue because they were from working class communities and they took this seriously. We actually decided to try and reach out. We went down and we went door-to-door in all the frats and met with them and explained the issue and what campus would look like if it changed. And we got letters from the heads of their fraternities. The important thing about that was that fraternities have their alumni networks and connects. And now we’re talking. If you got somebody who’s powerful, it’s not just from students. The DKE chapter had this guy who’s an investment banker at Morgan Stanley or whatever, so that was one element.

The second thing we did that I thought worked pretty well: we did what we called a Phone Zap. What we did was we opened up the senior association offices and this was before students had phones in their rooms and long-distance cost a lot of money. So we opened up the student center and we made a plan to call all of the Board of Trustees in their offices. And what that meant was that every member of the Board of Trustees got over 200 personal phone calls from students. The week before the board meeting. As a result, they were pissed! But not at us. Their lives had been disrupted by something that had happened on campus.

Right.

And the president heard about it.  When they came to campus, they were like, “Why am I getting calls from students five times a day about this problem?” And I think he was kind of blindsided by it. So that was an important step. The board was informed directly by the students what was going on.

You called every single member of the Board?

We did. We called their office line. We did not call them at home. And so then, when the protest actually came to campus, we then encircled the Board of Trustees meeting for the day. We locked harms. And they had to actually break through us. We weren’t trying to bar entry. We were just forcing them to take notice of us. We were standing outside chanting and singing. We got the New York Times there, so there was a nice fancy spread in the New York Times of Wesleyan students protesting this issue. So that was significant.

Then what?

And then people just came out of the woodwork. We built a large enough coalition—for example, Econ students teamed up with the Econ faculty and put together a financial plan that would assure that we could protect financial aid. The thing about financial aid is that it’s watery—some years, you actually have too much money because a certain number of students have enough to pay. So they put together a proposal that involved putting money aside in certain years and creating a fund that would be there as a rainy-day fund. Again, the president kept telling the faculty and the Board of Trustees that there was nothing he could do. Well, all of a sudden he’s got a member of the Economics faculty and students who understand Econ explaining more. Then the day of the actual protest came and we took over in North College, we occupied the building, we were chanting—I think there were 900 people or so in the building?

At the time MoCon was the dining center. And there was a tradition of doing what’s called a MoCon Announcement. The building was set up kind of like a spaceship and there was an entry level at the top that allowed you to essentially have a platform looking out on the entire audience. And you could go there and make an announcement, and that was a great way of communicate. So people were constantly going up and making announcements, like, “There’s a protest starting at 3:00 tonight,” that kind of thing. And people came out! So we took over the building and then there was a negotiation and we decided that we were not gonna go to the point where they arrested. But we negotiated that people could stay in the building overnight. And on and on, and eventually the board decided in conversation with the students, you know, “Ease up. We want a new plan.” And that was victory. And to this day, need blind is still in place.

So your protest made the Board of Trustees tell the administration to reformulate the plan, correct?

Yes, that is accurate. That took place over the course of a number of weeks. It wasn’t, like, an instant thing. And it was really just the student voice broke through and was heard on a rational, logical basis. But also, with enough force that it was impossible to ignore.

Was the occupation specifically the final straw?

Yeah, but it’s sort of like Willie Nelson has this thing that he was an overnight success after 15 years. You’ve got to kind of do the groundwork before that works. You can’t just show up and do it. It was the head of Beta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and the head of the Alumni Association who also signed a letter that was in the paper and yaddda yadda yadda. It was a series of building blocks, and that was what I would say was the capstone. I actually had a loud verbal argument with [former dean of admission and financial aid] Barbara-Jan Wilson on the steps of North College in front of TV cameras. If you really do some sleuthing, see if you can find that footage.

The protest really brought the campus together in a way—everyone from Chi Pi (fix) and DKE to random people in MoCon.

You were also involved in restarting the Hermes. Can you tell me about that?

That actually happened two years later. And the way it came about was led by a guy named Tavia Nyongo ’95, a classmate of mine. He was interested in restarting it. It was a magazine that had been around in the ‘70s, I think, and it was in Greek mythology—well, Hermes killed the Argus. So, it was set out in opposition to The Argus.

So the thing was around and he went to the student association and got a budget for it. And we began publishing every two months or so—political essays, whimsical stuff. A big thing we did was a manual called “Disorientation” that was intended for incoming students. It was sort of like, “Here’s the stuff you really need to know when you get to campus.” This is how you actually get good classes. Stuff that they wouldn’t put in official literature. And there was a strong bias for things that weren’t talked about in the mainstream press—queer-related issues, that kind of thing, but also discussion of politics and longer-winded pieces.

Also, for the record, President Chace left the university a year later, after that protest. You’ll have to check the facts on this, but he was only president for two or three years and then he went to Emory, which is often called “Coca-Cola University.” It’s a very—clean place.

So the Hermes—I worked on it for two years, I think it continued for a year or two after that, I have no idea how long it existed for after we left.

It still publishes today.

Oh, really? Do they still do “Disorientation”?

I don’t think so. Are there any other notable protests during your time at Wes worth mentioning?

There were. During my senior year [1994-1995] there was this big fight over the meal plan. At the time, meal plans were optional. It was very bad business for the meal providers. So they put pressure on the school to force everyone to go on the meal plan whether they lived on campus or not. And the administration did this. It was an issue and there was a fight over it, but I don’t think it was the most politically important thing that happened. It’s over, like, whether I have to pay for extra meals that I don’t eat. There were protests and whatever.

What about chalking? Was there much chalking when you were on campus?

Absolutely, huge amounts of chalking! People would chalk for everything from like parties to—there were a couple of queer groups that were using it as a way to get gay-positive themes out. People would go out at night and chalk something about anal sex or something about radical thought. People would chalk over nothing, I mean, this was before they had campus-wide email, so if you wanted to get the word out to people, you  had to go ring a bell.

We had the Vax system, which was not a widely used tool.

A what system?

It was called the Vax—V-A-X. It was an early version of email. It was essentially email, but you used an account on the university server and that kind of stuff.

Did you access it from a personal computer or from the labs?

No, very few people had personal computers. I feel like I’m taking about the Stone Age, but you had to go down to the Science Center and you could check email and it was primarily a way to exchange notes with people not at Wesleyan. It was seen as a fast, cheap way to replace communication at other campuses.

Okay, last question. Your last name is “Foss.” Any connection with the hill?

No relation.

LINKS:

This post is part of a loose Wesleying series focusing on student life at Wes in the early 1990s. For another installment, see the Middletown Mummy Mystery.

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  • Jesse

    Great interview. 

    Just wanted to point out: Wesleyan is no longer need-blind for waitlist students as of (I think) a few years ago, a policy that these students were apparently fighting against. I believe Roth mentioned this at the affordability forum. 

    • http://twitter.com/RJAlvarez Robert Alvarez

      Is that right? Embarrassed to say I didn’t know that. Very depressing if that is the case.

    • http://www.wesleying.org Zach

       I’ve received conflicting information about this, so I emailed Nancy Meislahn (Dean of Admission & Financial Aid) to clarify. Her response:

      “Zach, the current policy is need-blind for all offers of admission for first-year students, including the wait list.

      -nancy”

      • Jesse

        My bad. 

      • Mad Joy

        But, that’s first-year students.  Not the case for transfers, I believe.

  • Nicky Coconuts

    Amazing!

  • Alex Wilkinson

    Great interview, Zach! Thanks for doing this.

  • http://twitter.com/RJAlvarez Robert Alvarez

    Wonderful interview with Ben. I was involved in the planning for the protests as well in the weeks leading up to the Board meeting, and I just want to echo something that he said. These were not exclusively “radical” undertakings by any means. Rather, they truly united the campus. The Chace plan was terribly conceived and gutted for little benefit an essential element of Wesleyan’s identity and character. I was an active conservative and Republican on campus (yes, we exist), and we endorsed the protests. In fact, the Wesleyan Republicans that year wound up spending most of our budget faxing out press releases the day of the North College takeover (yes, go ahead and snicker, but you didn’t email stuff like that back then and faxing was actually pretty expensive). That type of broad-based organizing is tons of hard work, but it is also powerfully effective when you pull it off.

    I truly hope that a similarly broad-based coalition can come together and protect Wesleyan’s proud financial aid tradition once again.

    Rob Alvarez, ’96 (originally ’95)