“The ultimate goal wasn’t to be able to chalk. It was to exhibit control over their environment.”
Ten years ago this autumn, President Doug Bennet ’59 sent out an all-campus email and banned chalking at Wesleyan for good. When I set out to mark the tenth anniversary of that Moratorium, I only meant to reflect on a heated and surreal episode in Wesleyan’s activist history and share the story behind a once-treasured campus medium that stills pops up every now and then.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. What follows is an unexpectedly timely conversation with our first interview subject, Matthew M. ’05, who not only passionately fought the chalking moratorium, but went so far as to hack into President Bennet’s email and inform the Wesleyan community that the Moratorium was over. (Spoiler: It wasn’t.) According to Matthew, the chalking controversy wasn’t just about chalk. It was about widespread discontent over “fewer and fewer outlets for organized student autonomy”—a sentiment that brewed well past the fall of ’02 and culminated with over 250 students trapping President Bennet in his office in December, 2004. (No, really. Ask your older sister about it!)
The full interview is past the jump (it’s a long one), and the introductory post is here. Since he openly admits to perpetrating email fraud, Matthew asked me to withhold his last name. Our chalking Westrospective will continue later this week with another interview reflection.
When you arrived on campus in 2001, how would you characterize the student body’s relationship with chalking at Wesleyan?
It was kind of an institution. And it was used in a variety of different ways. The most attention-getting way was when whatever the LGBTQ etc. student group was at the time chalked. A couple times a year, they would have a sort of chalking blast. Also, it was used regularly by a lot of student groups who were advertising events or activist groups just promoting something. You know, “Come watch this movie.” “Apply to Alpha Delt.” It was just public media communication that was a regular feature of the landscape and a very colorful expression of Wesleyan’s diversity and charm.
You mentioned that queer groups were especially involved in chalking. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Every semester or so, they would have a big chalking explosion. And part of the intent of that was to offer people—especially young queer people who might be coming out for the first time or really kind of starting to be public with themselves—to offer those people sort of an anonymous forum for expressing themselves and expressing their desires and their humanity and sexuality. And I think a lot of people considered the anonymity and the publicness to be really important and valuable. And a lot of people also considered it to be a great way of queering public life at Wesleyan and making part of the public discourse reflect the diversity and range of life experience of the student body.
So there was a weekend or so where at night people were out chalking and in the morning, campus was just covered everywhere, all sidewalks, with chalk and with messages and with color. It was great.
Did you chalk a lot?
Yeah, some chalking. I think everybody did.
Yeah, sure. At some point or another, everybody held a piece of chalk in their hands and wrote something on the sidewalk. Maybe not everybody. Not everybody. But it was very common. It was not really a “niche affair.”
From what I’ve read, the WSA provided the chalk for free at the time.
Yes. That is true. That was exactly the really standard communication medium. If you were part of a student group and you were advertising an event—you know, if there was a speaker or a discussion or a movie—what you did was you got your event on the WSA event email, you put a message on the voicemail bulletin that went out, you hung up a banner in the campus center, and you went out and you chalked.
Did you say that there was a voicemail bulletin at the time?
Yes. This was before everybody had cell phones. Everybody had a landline in their dorm room. And I think it was something like a daily message bulletin, so when you checked your voicemail you would also receive this minute-long or whatever list of announcements.
Can you describe the events leading up to Doug Bennet’s passing the moratorium?
There was some growing displeasure from some people who were part of the campus community about the explicit nature of some of the chalking.
Yeah. And some of the background for this was: President Bennet was at Wesleyan and he, from what I recall, was really tasked with two objectives as the president of Wesleyan. One was to dramatically increase the size of Wesleyan’s endowment. And the other, which was part and parcel of that, was to give Wesleyan greater mainstream prestige.
And so, at this time, ten, eleven, twelve years ago, Wesleyan was considered a school for—you know, artsy people and freaks and queers and weirdos. And a lot of students liked that about it. But I think a lot of alums and a lot of the members of the Board wanted it to be seen as a serious, northeast liberal arts university. To the point where, in the ‘90s, they embarked on a campaign to call Wesleyan the “Independent Ivy” in order to put it alongside an Ivy League school. And students were really pissed off about that, because they went to Wesleyan. Not this rebranded Wesleyan. So Bennet was trying to make sure that Wesleyan was known for its academic prestige, not for the antics of its student body, so to speak.
And so the fact that in the previous year the New York Times had published this “exposé” on the “naked dorm,” which was not a thing. But this bothered members of the administration and the Board of Trustees. The members of WestCo could sort of write their own charter and policies, and one year they just threw in a clothing-optional clause. It’s not like people in the dorm were walking around naked, but the New York Times got their hands on this and all of a sudden everyone who knows somebody who goes to Wesleyan was like, “Oh you go to that school with the naked dorm!” And students are like, “Yeah, there’s not a naked dorm, sorry to disappoint you.”
So when did Bennet specifically decide to go after chalking?
I don’t really recall any specific precipitating events, except for some growing rumblings that people were uncomfortable with the sexual nature of some of the chalking. There are worse things in the world than discomfort. The conversation really started to happen, as I recall, in the fall of 2002. The moratorium was placed somewhere in that time frame. And then the development of it was Bennet referred to the moratorium as temporary, and talked about—you know, we’re going to have campus conversations about the way to go from here, but that was just a delaying tactic. The moratorium was temporary until it wasn’t.
So what was the campus reaction to this?
I think the popular sentiment was something along the lines of: “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?” Now, looking back on it ten years later, it’s just like, we fought over chalking? And they banned chalking? That’s so dumb! But also, that’s a tactic of decision, because if you get people to focus in on one small little thing, the bigger picture can be ignored. And the bigger picture was the administration’s attempt to have the students be the content, not the participants, in campus life.
Can you clarify what you mean by that last comment?
During my time at Wesleyan, there were fewer and fewer outlets for organized student autonomy. Fewer spaces for students to meet and use and do things. Fewer opportunities for student creativity. More and more regulations on what students were allowed to do with the resources. So, in the backdrop of those attempts to change what happened at Wesleyan and how Wesleyan was perceived, it really felt like we were accepted into Wesleyan and yet we were expected to be something less than ourselves. That we couldn’t treat Wesleyan as ours. We just were treated as residents.
Can you talk about how people responded on campus to the moratorium? Were there protests?
One of the first reactions was like, “Fuck the moratorium, we’re gonna go chalk.” By 5 A.M. the next morning, it had been erased because the university forced the cleaning crews to come in with these power-washers and they forced the employees to come in pre-dawn in order to make sure that the dangerous chalk wouldn’t see the light of day. And this happened over and over and over again.
How did it play out?
You know, at a certain point, people got tired of it. What can you do? It gets erased and there’s only so much energy you can put into chalking on the sidewalk. The ultimate goal for a lot of students wasn’t to be able to chalk. It was to exhibit control over their environment. So I feel like it was in late 2004 when this culminated in one of the student protests that trapped Bennet in his office. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this.
I’ve read about it before. Did you participate in that?
Yep. The idea was that there was just this growing rift between Bennet and the student body, and the students kept on being like, “There are things that we need from the school and the school won’t listen to us. Why are you treating us this way? Listen to the students.” So a bunch of students went to—they had these open office hours at the old campus center, like Friday at lunch time he’d sit in a conference room and students would come in and he’d listen to them.
So a bunch of students came with a whole bunch of complaints. And he called them an unruly mob and walked out of his office hours. He went back to his office and the students followed him and more and more students joined and it became obvious that Bennet was walking away from students who were expressing concern in an avenue that he opened up for students to express their concern. He said, “If you want to have a dialogue with students, this is the way you do it,” and then he walked out on them. So that wound up looking like some 500 students walking out of their classes that afternoon in order to join the group around South College.
Wait, so his office hours weren’t in South College?
No, his office hours were in the campus center, and he walked out of his listening session and students followed him to his actual office.
How did more students find out this was going on? Did they just see it?
They just saw it, and then some other students just went around spreading the word, you know?
Did Public Safety show up?
Yes, Public Safety was protecting the president, which I found to be very amusing. Bennet insisted that he felt physically threatened, as I recall. He felt physically threatened by people who wanted to be heard when he gave them the opportunity and then took it away.
Was there any disciplinary follow-up to that episode?
No. The follow-up was that Bennet agreed to hold a school-wide public forum in order to listen to student concerns and student opinions over the administration’s work and direction that the administration was going. So the agreement to have that was a sort of—the criteria for “ending the siege,” so to speak. And there was a student forum the next week. And something like a third of the student body showed up to express concern. And Bennet listened to them and argued against them. And nothing happened.
So there were no SJB charges filed against the people who participated in that demonstration?
Not that I know of, no. Also, the students weren’t in his office. They surrounded the building and they blocked the entrances and exits, but he himself was locked in his office.
So from what I’ve read, similar protests took place in 2002 after the chalking moratorium. Do you recall similar demonstrations then?
There was an organized response to the chalking. That organization came in the form of a concerted effort to discuss with the administration why chalking was important. In a variety of ways. Both though chalk, through Wespeaks, through conversations with Bennet. As I recall, students worked with a lot of faculty to get a really significant percentage of faculty signing a letter opposing the moratorium. There was a really loud campus response against the moratorium. Certainly there was also an acknowledgment that there was something that needed to be fixed with the way that members of the campus were communicating with each other. But one of the solutions included in the moratorium was that, you know, being sexually explicit is wrong; therefore, nobody can chalk. And that’s a really limited viewpoint.
One story I’ve heard involves students marching outside President Bennet’s house banging pots and pans. Were you aware of that?
I don’t specifically remember that. I’m not denying that it happened. It if happened, I’d be surprised if it had any effect because Bennet didn’t live in his house on campus.
Where did he live?
I think he lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, which is way out in Fairfield County. An hour or more away from campus.
Did he commute to campus?
Yeah. For the days of the week that he was on campus, he commuted to campus. And he used the president’s house for receptions and events, but he did not live there full time.
Especially a couple of years ago, when the story went to the alums of my year that went: the Middletown Police arrested a bunch of Wesleyan students at a party, students ran to the president’s house in the middle of the night, woke up President Roth, he came running in his bathrobe to yell at Middletown Police and say, “You don’t have the authority to do this or the jurisdiction here.” When we heard about that extent to which Roth looked out for students, the intense difference between Bennet and Roth came to mind. [Editor’s note: Matthew is referring to the Fountain Avenue incident, which occurred in May, 2008. For more information, see the “Fountain Incident” tag on the old Wesleying Blogspot. Much of the chaos was liveblogged here.]
How did the New York Times article that quoted you come about?
That’s a really good question. Word trickled down that there would be a reporter on campus and a couple of student groups kind of assembled to talk to her. I guess I wound up having a quote. I have difficulty remembering some of the details.
So I mentioned in my email to you that the moratorium was over for a couple hours one day. I think it was fall of 2002, maybe a couple months after the moratorium was initially enacted. All students on campus received an email from President Bennet’s email address with an email saying that the moratorium was over and that Bennet understood the value of chalking and of freedom of expression. And then a couple of hours later it came out that the email was a hoax and that somebody had somehow hacked Bennet’s email system.
And, uh. I had to turn myself in for that one.
Wait. Did you perpetrate that?
Yeah, that was me.
How did you do that?
[Laughs] So I’m not really a computer guy. But a computer guy showed me a way to—well, I forget what program it was, but there was some terminal program where you could initiate a direct dialogue with the email server and tell it to send email from basically whoever you wanted it to. So I thought, “Hmm. I can make it over for good.” And I got my hands on a list of all the email addresses. And I sent the email. Kind of imagining that I was doing a prank in line with the Yes Men’s impersonations of public figures.
In line with what?
Are you familiar with the Yes Men? I guess I would call them political pranksters, and they impersonate public officials and do really great things that the political officials then need to deny. By public I don’t mean governmental necessarily. They would, you know, impersonate representatives from the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. There was one where they announced that they—the World Bank—realized that the economic system causes more poverty across the world and they were going to pursue a poverty-reduction initiative and they got all these capitalists together trying to figure out how to eradicate poverty in the next five years. When the World Bank realized it was being impersonated, they had to come out with a statement saying, “No, we didn’t do any of that great stuff.” That was definitely the model that I was going for.
Is it legal to fake an email like that?
Uh. Probably not. Probably not. The email was traced to somebody else, so I turned myself in.
How did it get traced to someone else?
There was somebody who downloaded a list of all of the email addresses from the email server. They downloaded that for me. Not as an active participant. So the Student Judicial Board got in touch with him, and he got in touch with me and he was like, “Hey, so this is what’s going on.” And I said, “I’ll turn myself in.” And I got a little slap on the wrist and was put on disciplinary probation until I graduated.
Did you think it would be worse?
I guess I was worried about possibly getting kicked out of school. I don’t think that was ever really on the table. But the cool part about it was when I sent the email, I went back to my dorm room and I took a look at AOL Instant Messenger and people’s away messages were filled with, “Oh, moratorium’s over. That’s great.” For a few hours that day, the whole campus thought the moratorium was over. And that made me feel really good.
Did you ever speak with Bennet personally after having done that?
No. I had to send an apology letter. And I sent the apology letter and I said, “Yes, I misrepresented you. However, I cordially encourage you to rebuild your ties to the student body.” And he wrote a letter back to me telling me that he had no faith in my cordial encouragement because my actions were specifically calculated to damage those times. Which I thought was blatantly false. I was not trying to damage Bennet’s ties to the student body. I was trying to demonstrate a path towards better ties. [Editor’s note: You can read Bennet’s letter to Matthew here. The hoax email itself appears here.]
What else do you think is worth mentioning about this?
I want to say two things. One is that the background of chalking was an attempt by Bennet to change the public perception of the University. In doing so, he made a lot of students feel very disempowered as participants in public life. He made a lot of students feel like we were not being given control of the environment. That we were not being given power over our future and our lives at Wesleyan.
And sure, it’s a private institution and they have control over certain of those things, but it’s also a place where, for an educational purpose, young people grow into adults. And they need to be given certain freedoms. And they need to be given the tools of autonomy to build their society. And in the pursuit of a certain type of prestige, Bennet and the Bennet Administration turned away from that. And, in doing so, alienated so many students.
As they were raising our tuition every year, they were taking things away from us. And at this point, we’re not just customers of an education. We’re not just gonna take our money elsewhere. Because that involves uprooting our ties and our new home and leaving our community. So that was the background of the chalking fuss.
And then the second thing I want to highlight is— and I was talking with a friend about this very recently—that when the administration focused on chalking, we did, too. And parts of the greater debate got pushed to the margins. In doing so, they were able to win some of the larger battles. Because we were busy arguing about chalking and we weren’t always busy arguing about what chalking represented.
How do you think Wesleyan has changed since you graduated?
I don’t really know. It’s very hard to say as an outsider. I went back for my five-year reunion several years ago and I was hanging out with somebody who was a student and this was just one of those things that’s easy to say as a person who’s slightly older, but I was like, “Hey, so are there any activists at Wesleyan anymore or is it just hipsters?” That was my perception after all of 24 hours of being back on campus. But I don’t really know how Wesleyan has changed.
I think the relationships among some of the various institutions on campus have changed with Roth’s presidency. He seems like a very different leader than President Bennet. Other than that, it’s pretty hard to say.
I think in part because of my experience at Wesleyan, I hadn’t felt like a member of the broader Wesleyan community. I am a member of the community of friends I made while at Wesleyan, but I don’t contribute to the alumni raising drives and I don’t have school spirit because I felt that while I was there, the school did a lot against the students.
That’s really interesting. What do you do now?
I live in Minnesota. I’m getting a master’s in public health at the University of Minnesota. I’m a freelance grant writer for the nonprofit sector. And I’m a public health professional. I do diabetes research and community-based health promotion.
Cool. Anything else you want to add?
Oh, here’s another good story. In accordance with everything that we’ve been talking about, students were really pissed. They kept on raising tuition or increasing amounts every year. I’d have to fact-check that. But every year they raised tuition and were taking things away from the student body.
Against that, the financial director, Marcia somebody, was quoted in the New York Times as saying—and this might be almost verbatim—she said, “The reality is that people will pay whatever you charge. If you charge them a lot, they think, Wow, this must be good.” She’d say that about tuition rates. About Wesleyan’s tuition rates to a reporter. And when the story came out, so many of us were like, “WHAT. THE. FUCK.” It was so disrespectful to people whose parents were working really hard to afford their education and people who were working their ass off with scholarships. There’s no way that’s not disrespectful to everybody who’s paying for their time at Wesleyan. [Editor’s note: In addition to the 2004 article in question, it is worth reading Marcia Bromberg’s inevitable follow-up letter. Bromberg is no longer employed by the University.]
And the homecoming football game—this was also back when the new campus center wasn’t built. And what was across the football field from Olin was the Fayerweather Gymnasium. So a bunch of people painted a big banner just with this quote from the university financial person and got onto the roof of Fayerweather and hung it up during the football game. Public Safety was there, and it stayed up for hours because they didn’t know how to get it down, and they said, “Do you know how difficult it will be to get that down?” And the students said, “Yes, that’s the point.” Sometimes you can just point out what the other people are saying.
So yeah, that was pretty badass. I wasn’t on the roof or anything. I think I helped paint the sign. Oh yeah, I was on disciplinary probation at the time.
* * * *
Shortly after this interview, Matthew did some digging and managed to find both the original hoax email, which is here, and the follow-up letter he received from President Bennet, which is here. I asked if Matthew ended up meeting with Bennet. He did not, he wrote:
I didn’t have any confidence that he was interested in a conversation—in talking or listening. He’d definitely demonstrated that in the past—issuing the moratorium so that the campus could come to an agreement about how to proceed with chalking, but then ignoring the opinions of students, the WSA, and faculty. Basically, it wasn’t a good faith invitation to discourse—like so much of his actions.
I also asked if he regretted sending the email. “My only regrets are the typos in the email,” he wrote. “And getting caught. But hey, I took credit, so I also had to take responsibility.”
This gallery of relevant articles is culled from Arguses printed in October and November of 2002:
I’m also including some materials related to the Bennet Occupation, which Matthew references throughout his interview. These are from December, 2004: