Democracy Now! Airs Homecoming Protest, Bizarre Roth Confrontation

“There has been a lot of transparency. There has been a lot of transparency.”

Wesleying wasn’t the only media outlet filming last Saturday’s need-blind protest, in which roughly 50 student activists stormed across the sidelines during the football game, waving a banner proclaiming “DIVER$ITY UNIVER$ITY?” and chanting that “everyone deserves to learn.” Recent grad Nemo Allen ’12, a video production fellow for independent global news hour Democracy Now!, was also at the ready. After filming the protest, Allen stuck around for interviews with engaged students, faculty, and one alumnus who was fiercely involved in the 1982 protests to preserve need-blind at Wesleyan.

But when Allen attempted to interview President Roth, he found himself caught in a bizarre confrontation with the camera still rolling. In the footage, the president walks away from Allen, turns around, insists that “there has been a lot of transparency,” pushes his face close to the camera, grabs Allen’s microphone, grins, continues walking, confronts a police officer, explains the situation, and is asked to return the microphone. (That is not a sentence I ever expected to publish on this blog.) My personal favorite exchange is probably “You have to give that back.” “I don‘t have to!”, but the part where Roth sticks his head into the lens is slightly more conducive to meme-tastic GIFs.

The footage aired towards the end of Democracy Now!’s program this morning. You can also watch it on YouTube (above) as a stand-alone segment. Here’s the full transcript, as narrated by DN! host Amy Goodman:

Students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut are continuing to protest against the school’s decision to change its admission practices by ending what is known as “need-blind admissions” to all applicants. Qualified students now face possible rejection if they are deemed unable to pay full tuition, now around $60,000 a year, making it one of the most expensive schools in the country. Students say the new policy will target the poor and middle class.

Daniel Plafker ’15, Wesleyan student activist: “The reason we’re out here today is to stand in opposition to proposed cuts to the need-blind financial aid policy. Essentially what that allows the admissions office here to do, and in other places, is to actively discriminate against applicants based on their socioeconomic class. This is a decision that was made behind the backs of students, without transparency, behind closed doors, at a time when most of the students weren’t even on campus to know about it.”

On Saturday, Democracy Now! video production fellow Nemo Allen attempted to interview Wesleyan President Michael Roth about the policy change after the school’s football game. Roth refused to answer questions and then grabbed Allen’s microphone and walked away with it.

Nemo Allen: “Why has there been a total lack of transparency with this decision being made? President Michael Roth of Wesleyan University, why has there been a total lack of transparency?”

Michael Roth: “There has been a lot of transparency. There has been a lot of transparency.”

Nemo Allen: “There has been? Excuse me, you have to give that back.”

Michael Roth: “Who are you? I don’t have to do anything.”

Nemo Allen: “I’m with Democracy Now!”

Michael Roth: “Thank you.”

Nemo Allen: “You have to give me my microphone back.”

Michael Roth: “I will. We’re going to walk over — we’re going to walk over to the media relations.”

Wesleyan President Michael Roth eventually returned the microphone after being instructed to do so by a police officer.

The footage of the protest in itself is notable enough. Popular news coverage of the need-blind issue has tended to present student activism as an afterthought, worthy of mention but certainly not media focus. It’s taken an independent news hour to flip the trend, casting the focus on major student organizing against administrative decisions.

But it’s the Roth encounter that’s getting the most attention, even hogging real estate in the Democracy Now! headline. The filmed interaction caps off a week of bad publicity for the president, who was caught on video that same day heatedly asking Public Safety to document two students for chalking—legally, in full compliance with University rules—on public Middletown property. It certainly isn’t a friendly PR move: DN! YouTube comments are already filled with attacks on Roth, many of them childish and ugly. One commenter notes the president’s attempt to have a private conversation with the officer: “HE HAS THE FUCKING MIKE! LOL FAIL!!!” It hasn’t quite heightened the discourse.

Is this a distraction from the issue at hand? Though embarrassing for Roth, the filmed interaction doesn’t exactly highlight the fact that there’s a student Budget Sustainability Task Force hard at work seeking budgetary alternatives to the current proposal. It doesn’t draw attention to the salient arguments in favor of (or against) need-blind being articulated consistently by students since the summer. It doesn’t mention  conversations that are taking place in PAC lecture halls, closed Board of Trustee meetings, WSA forums, and parent assemblies. It’s just a goofy video.

It’s not a civil, thoughtful conversation about need-blind. But maybe that’s the point.

Allen’s footage highlights, and even scandalizes, one consistent aspect of the need-blind debate—a continual failure by administrators to engage  meaningfully with concerns surrounding need-blind and student input. It’s a tendency to talk about one thing and do another. To talk about transparency while making decisions behind closed doors. To write about “financial aid: now more than ever!” while capping the budget. To talk about “bringing students into the conversation” while filing SJB charges against those students who joined a Board of Trustees conversation.

And it’s like telling a news camera that “there has been a lot of transparency” while refusing to answer questions about the issue. And then grabbing the organization’s microphone. And walking away.

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