Newsweek: “Diversity U. Makes a U-Turn” on Activism and Ideals

Newsweek used this photo in their article to contrast the liberal values
that the school likes to think it has with the conservative mindset it actually practices.

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Maybe Wesleyan University learned a lesson today: Not all press is good press.

Today’s in-depth and certainly unflattering Newsweek article by Katie Baker (who wrote that Jezebel piece in May ridiculing the administration for its medieval Tour de Franzia threats) asserts that “Wesleyan seems to be slinking away from its weird and activist roots to attract rich students and even richer donors.” What could the school have done to deserve this sort of criticism?

As we are quite aware, the answer is: a lot. Baker’s article (following on the heels of two Autostraddle and Youngist articles) begins with the issues over degendering bathrooms, with several trans* students speaking up about their not-so-welcome experiences on campus, both from other students in the bathroom (“Wrong bathroom, fag!” one gender nonconforming student heard) and from the administration as a whole. After the group Pissed Off Trans* People organized students to remove gendered bathroom signs and replace them with “All Gender Restroom” signs, the Student Judicial Board singled out three trans* students (claiming they were the only identifiable ones) and charged them with property destruction, at the cost of $157 per sign— $5,245 total.

After a four-and-a-half hour hearing, the board lowered the fine to $451 and gave each student three disciplinary points (10 earns a suspension or dismissal). “The SJB action was taken because vandalism occurred,” Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Whaley said in a statement. “The board does not strive to determine the legitimacy of a protest/action, only whether such protest/action is done in a manner that violates our community’s standards.”

The three students tell Newsweek they feel they were unfairly singled out for actions committed by many but were most concerned with the symbolism of it all: This was the first time anyone knows of that the administration had punished individuals for LGBT activism.

“We’re talking about economic sanctions on activism at a school that profits off a reputation of being a progressive, activist-friendly space,” says Ben, a Wesleyan junior. “Being trans and fighting for trans justice is not profitable or shiny or appealing.”

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Baker argues that the administration response to the activism – what an anonymous guest post reported on as “horribly mismanaged” – is part of a years-long trend of the school becoming less weird and more conservative. Citing the 2003 chalking ban as a further example of the administration’s uncertain relationship with freedom of speech and expression, Baker talks more in-depth about the sudden discontinuation of need blind and its affect on campus diversity— as well as its sign of a school with shifting priorities. Can the administration ask alumni to reflect on the “This is why” while they actively destroy the radical roots that probably brought most of us here in the first place?

Roth praised This Is Why in a Wesleyan Argus article last month announcing that endowment had gone up 12 percent, thanks in part to the campaign, which had raised $308 million of its overall goal of $400 million, including cash donations from 46 percent of the university’s alumni, totaling $42 million.

However, Vice President for Finance and Administration John Meerts said the endowment was still lower than it was before the 2008 recession – which means getting more is more important than honoring Wesleyan’s progressive past.

“They’re talking about ‘changing the status quo’ and fighting for change, but actually making decisions that reveal the exact opposite,” says Mica Taliaferro, a 2012 graduate.

Many Wesleyan students, faculty, and even some alumni see this tension between a radical past and a financially insecure present being played out in the battle to squelch a few trans students caught papering over bathroom signs.

Baker goes on to contrast Wesleyan with our fellow institutions, like Oberlin. But really the most damaging part of this article is students and alumni alike pointing out the distance between Wesleyan’s words and its actions. Yes, we do need money from alumni in order to make sure we have a sustainable and fair – read: need blind – financial aid system. But we also cannot sacrifice the values that make us Wesleyan University. Administration: Stop trying to make examples out of your students. You’re not giving us a reason to love you, and we want reasons to love our school. But all we see now is a school that just sees us for the money we can provide you, and for the money you want us to provide to you in the future.

Diversity isn’t an ideal. Diversity is a necessity, and it’s the result of actions, not words. “If Wesleyan keeps treating student activists this way,” said Una Osato ’04 in the article, “they’ll end up on the wrong side of history.” Look even beyond student activism for a moment: The way Wesleyan treats its students, period, is putting it on the wrong side of the present.

Read the entire article on Newsweek, and always continue the conversation— not just in the comments, but with the school itself.

Related Links:

Wesleying:
University Reduces Fines Against Trans* Activists Amid Show of Force
“Complete Bullshit”: An Update on the Trans* De-Gendering Bathrooms Situation
Liveblog: Open Forum on Gender-Neutral Bathrooms and Trans* Activism
“All Gender Bathrooms Now” – Pissed Off Trans* People on the DIY Gender-Neutralizing of Wesleyan’s Bathrooms

Wesleyan Argus:
SJB Finds Students Guilty, Students to Pay $451 to Replace Gendered Bathroom Sign
DIY Degendering Follows History of Wes Gender Activism
Why Wesleyan Is My Cause (WesSpeak by Mytheos Holt ’10)
Why I Support “Vandalism” As An Act of Social Justice (WesSpeak by Mica Taliaferro ’12)
Why I Will Not Support “Vandalism” in The Name of Social Justice (WesSpeak by Mytheos Holt ’10)
Autostraddle: Trans* Activists Degender Wesleyan Bathrooms, Face Charges and Fines
Youngist: Students Fined $5,000 for Activism by Wesleyan University
  • WesKid ’15

    My issue with this article is it makes it seem like such trans* hostility on the part of students is the norm, which I doubt is the case. Maybe the administration is the problem, but I feel like — this being Wesleyan — most students wouldn’t care if someone of the opposite sex but identifying as the same gender used the bathroom with them. I know I wouldn’t. I think the opening of the Newsweek piece unfairly equates he reactions of a few student outliers with a (nonexistent) overall trend towards intolerance within the student body

    • almost there

      “most students wouldn’t care if someone of the opposite sex but identifying as the same gender used the bathroom with them”

      that right there, kid. outright intolerance aside, ignorance can also be an issue.

    • ughhh

      sex is fake gender is fake stop using binary-speak

      • Curious

        Sex is fake? I understand your issue with the gender binary, but are you saying biological sex is a construct too? Please inform me.

  • johnwesley

    The bottom line here is that Newsweek apparently thinks this is relevant and important.

  • Not convincing.

    How is paying a fine for damaging property making an example of someone? Civil disobedience usually means taking the punishment gracefully to show the injustice. Instead all we’ve been hearing is this bullshit about being wrongfully fined when there is footage and staff witnesses. I feel like most of this discussion is not helpful in understanding trans* oppression and had instead been a discussion about avoiding a fine.

    • Gabe

      The level of the fines shows that Wesleyan is less concerned about actually repairing damages and more concerned with discouraging that sort of action in the future. Similar to the reasons behind the high costs of Tour de Franzia, except much more problematic.

      • Alsonamedgabe

        It’s the standard fine. If you find it problematic, you don;t understand how civil disobedience works. It’s disobedience. As in, knowing you will be punished for doing something, but doing it anyway.