WESTROSPECTIVE: A Decade Without Chalking, Part One

Ten years ago, Doug Bennet ’59 declared war on chalk. In a multi-post series, we’re looking back.

On October 3, 2002, President Douglas J. Bennet ’59 sent an email to Wesleyan students, faculty, and administrators. It contained 335 words, but the message was brief: the chalking on campus, much of it sexually explicit, had gone too far.

The practice “undermines our sense of community and impedes substantive dialogue,” Bennet wrote. Though storied, “it is not a lofty tradition.” Plus, “there are more constructive ways to communicate.” With that, the president was declaring a moratorium on the practice. Temporary, of course. But indefinite.

A decade later, chalking remains banned.

With that single memo, Bennet set in motion the controversy that would rock campus that autumn, ten years ago this month. The chalking moratorium enraged queer groups, divided faculty (spoiler: they voted 44–8 against the ban), and inspired flurries of activism all over campus. (There was even a protest at a closed Board of Trustees meeting, recounted here and here. Its details are eerily similar to the occupation last month.) It spawned more Wespeaks than probably any single controversy while I’ve been at Wes, including need-blind. And it captured the imagination of the New York Times, who sent a journalist to cover the drama in a generous feature piece.

Most of all, it sparked a semester-long debate about civility, the First Amendment, and the limits of free speech—a conversation even Mytheos Holt ’10 joined half a decade later. (No, he didn’t come out in favor of the ban.) Like the faculty, not all students opposed the ban. A few, including Brett Beach-Kimball ’05, even penned Wespeaks defending the administrative decision. But no one was oblivious to the debate.

Today, it’s a given that chalking is banned. Sidewalks may light up on the occasional National Coming Out Day or WesFest weekend, but they’re whitewashed by the morning and chalkers risk disciplinary charges. This was the case last month, when about twenty students chalked in support of need-blind admissions and saw their words erased by the morning. (In a 2007 blog post, President Roth himself called chalking “dumb” and a waste of energy resources.) But in 2002, the moratorium was greeted as an infringement on queer life, campus activism, and a basic form of student expression. As one member of the class of 2005 worded it during an interview, it embodied “the administration’s attempt to have the students be the content, not the participants, in campus life.” His classmate recalled “feeling like we were being whitewashed, thrown under the table.”

Some, though, would place the moratorium within a larger narrative. In short, it sparked widespread student discontent and unheard demands that would build during the latter half of Doug Bennet’s presidential administration and culminate with 250 students trapping the president in his office in December, 2004. But that’s a different story altogether…

In marking the tenth anniversary of the ban, we’re presenting a multi-part interview series exploring the moratorium and its aftermath in 2002. That will kick off tomorrow with a conversation with Matthew M’05. (If you were on campus in 2002 and want to talk about it, do contact us at staff_at_wesleying_dot_org.) In the meantime, scroll down for a full gallery of chalking-related materials from the October and November issues of the 2002 Argus. For an even more excellent archive on chalking at Wesleyan, check out the Hermes’ chalking database here.

[nggallery id=203]