Wesleyan solicits donations from alumni year-round to support the many fundraising campaigns that keep Wesleyan afloat (but somehow still not need-blind…). Over the summer, I spoke with Cade Leebron ’14 about her own campaign for alumni to speak up about the many issues that students and alumni alike see at the school. She began Text Wes Back to collect actual responses that she and other alumni sent back when Wesleyan texted them to donate money to the school.
Read below the jump for the full interview.
Content warning: This interview discusses sexual assault.
We saw that you made this blog, Text Wes Back. How you came up with the idea?
CL: I don’t know how aware students are of this fundraising campaign that Wesleyan was doing, where they would text alumni. It was really strange, because the texts would come attached to a name, and the name would be an alum. So it was alumni-to-alumni texting, but it would be with the Wesleyan area code. So it’s clearly a Wesleyan phone, but it has someone’s name attached to it, so I don’t know if those people are volunteers or if they’re paid. And these texts would come in, and they would be like, “Hey, it’s so and so, could you donate to Wesleyan?” plus a little bit more information.
And then I saw that a lot of the people who I knew who are alums were posting screenshots of responses that they’d sent to these people. A lot of them were along the lines of “Hey, it’s not cool for you that you have this [Scott Backer] scandal, that we find out this dean is a pedophile, and then for you to text us asking for money.” And I think people had various concerns, as they usually do with Wesleyan. Like, “Your institution has problems with racism, problems with sexual assault, problems with disabilities…” All the usual suspects.
And I was thinking it would be really nice if there was a place where all of these screenshots could live on the internet, because as much as those texts are really satisfying to send – and I sent my own responses to people who texted me – who knows if that goes anywhere? I wanted to do something that might start to hold Wesleyan a bit more accountable and start to catalogue that feedback. Like, “You can’t say you haven’t heard from alums. You’ve been getting all these texts.”
What impact are you hoping this project will have? Are you planning on sending it to administration?
CL: I’m thinking about it. Not to self-aggrandize, but I am kind of a more annoying alum – I email [the administration] semi-often, more often than they might like. I’m waiting to get a little bit more traction. Right now, I think we have 13 or 14 posts up and I’d like to get to 20 or 25. That’s a pretty small goal, but I think the more the better, to say, “Hey, it’s not just me. And also, this is public on the internet, just so you know. People have these concerns.”
Also, I had a Facebook conversation yesterday with someone who was not happy about the project, and she was saying, “If you want Wesleyan to change, you have to donate, because how are they supposed to make all these changes without money?” I’ve heard that argument, the argument of “money talks.” But I think, first of all, that not all of us have money, and also I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that Wesleyan will change, or that they have a plan to change. Their fundraising campaign is not, “Give us money so we can fix our problems.” It’s, “Give us money so we can keep doing what we do.” And I take that to heart.
When people say what they’re gonna do, I believe them. If we’ve learned anything from Donald Trump, it’s probably that. So I’m like, “Okay, if I give you money, that goes to not supporting sexual assault survivors, that goes to not having accommodations for disabled students, that goes to perpetuating institutional racism – I hear you, I’m not giving you my money.”
So in terms of what I hope the effect this will have, I hope it’ll maybe start to hold them accountable, and say, “People are really asking for change, and you can’t keep telling the lie and saying, ‘Give us money because we’re a worthy cause!’” Sure, you educate a lot of people, but how many of us have PTSD from our time at Wesleyan? There are a fair amount of us.
Are the people submitting mostly recent alums, or are there any older class years you’ve seen?
CL: Most of my network is recent alums, and most of the people who’ve submitted so far are people whom I’m friends with on Facebook. And I’ve seen a few people share it, and I’d love to get more of the people I’m friends with on Facebook to submit to it. There was a person who is a Class of ’93 or ’94, who commented on one of the screenshots, and he was like, “I love this text, I basically sent them the same thing.”
So I think that there are older alums who are saying things back to them, who are saying the same kinds of things with the same concerns. I’d love to get submissions from some people who are not just Class of 2012 and beyond. That’s sort of where my network stops – I’m Class of 2014.
Do you have other ideas of ways that alums can participate in campus activism? From the students’ side, there was a lot of discussion, especially last fall, of leveraging alum power to help make the changes we are trying to make.
CL: When I was a student, I had some problems with alums who tried to [participate] – I felt like their way was kind of like, “Wesleyan was this lovely place where I have a lot of nostalgia, and I’d love for it to continue being that way. So please don’t co-educate the frats, don’t get rid of the frats. I went to such great parties.”
I think the student idea of alumni [back then] was, maybe stay out of it, or listen to current students and see what they want, and get in on their side. Don’t try to step in and keep the status quo, because the status quo is hurting people. I only graduated a few years ago, so I’m torn between two minds, one that’s like, “We have this alumni base, we give a bunch of money from what I understand, we have a lot of power, how can we use that power?” But I definitely still feel some resistance, like, “Hey, let’s step back and let the current students speak.”
If there was a way to get alumni more in conversation with current students and say, “What do you want? What can we do for you to make this place better?”…because honestly, we don’t know what’s happening on campus right now. For the first few years after I graduated, I was still reading Wesleying, I was still reading the Argus. But those tapered off. Most of us don’t have a lot of current student contacts. So I think if there was a way to get that conversation going, that would be really great, because alumni do have power, and we do have money. I mean, not me, but other people. And if we could hear more about where that power and that money should be going, where those voices should be going, that would be really great.
I did a fair amount of activist things while I was on campus. Personally, I had a weird experience where I felt like the activism I did on campus was less well-received than the activism I did after graduation. If you do, say, sexual assault activism, which is what I was involved with – if you do what while you’re on campus, and you’re on campus with your rapist, and that rapist is also a student, then people get kind of uncomfortable. And they’re like, “Oh, could you not fuck up our social scene? We want to be able to invite everyone to parties.” And I think once everybody has graduated, it becomes a lot more neutral and easy for people to go, “Oh, you wrote this really great article on rape culture. Great job, we love it, we’re gonna share it on Facebook.”
If there was a way to support current students and say that their voices should be amplified, they should feel empowered, they should not feel like this is gonna have massive consequences just because they happen to still be on campus with this relatively small student body…if there was a way to make people feel like [they could] write an op-ed, participate, write something and send it out to a national paper…we have to make sure that there will not be consequences for that person on campus before we can start to do that.
And I think part of that is lobbying the administration to have better sexual assault response and better judicial proceedings, so that people who commit crimes on campus – by which I mean violent crimes, obviously – are no longer there and won’t seek retribution. I don’t know, I think it’s a really hard system to disentangle and dismantle. How do you say, “Current students, please speak out more”? I feel like there aren’t especially useful or easy answers.
It’s good to know that not just current students are thinking about them, though.
CL: A few years ago, when there were some activists on campus that had websites that were getting attention – it was in reaction to the “This Is Why” campaign – there was the Black Lives Matter-inspired “Is This Why?” campaign. That was really great. Maybe I graduated a while ago and I’m not seeing the current [issues on campus], but I can see that and go, “Okay, how can we help to keep that momentum going?” Not condescendingly like, “Keep doing your activism,” but really saying, “Keep doing activism, and we want to support you. How can we amplify these voices?” It does get noticed, it affects how we donate, it affects how we talk to our alma mater. The main current that I’m seeing is the disconnect between the current students and the alumni.
CL: A lot of administrators, when presented with problems, react as though those problems are totally new to them. I don’t understand how they can pretend that there were no issues in the past, that they need to reinvent the wheel every time they’re presented with a new problem. Part of the reason why things stay the same and why things can feel cyclical is that we don’t have procedures. Sexual assault, especially.
Each case can be treated like it’s about these two specific people, this attacker and this survivor, and we have to really closely look at these two people and the very specific circumstances of the party or wherever they were. And it’s like, no, this is not an anomaly. This happens every weekend on campus. You have to start treating it like it happens every weekend. The rapists are not secret monsters hiding in a closet. They’re a significant portion of your student body, and it would be in your best interest to remove them from campus. There’s a need to enact procedures that would do those things.
I just had a really nice conversation with Debbie Colucci, who’s in the Title IX office, and that was really heartening. Also, it would be nice for alums to know about these new hires and what they’re doing and what the new plans are. I can’t speak too much to what’s happening right now on campus, because we don’t know.
The alumni newsletter that we get is mostly about really nice-looking accomplishments, nothing controversial, the shiniest and happiest alums. A lot of them are doing things in STEM fields, so they’re not controversial, as far as the Wesleyan population goes. If we could get more of a sense of our alumni activists and what they’re doing, our student activists and what they’re doing, what the current state of Title IX enforcement on campus is…What is actually happening? Why should we give to this place?
The administration likes to look a lot cleaner than it is. I used to write for the Office of Admissions, and they had this blog of current students writing posts. I looked at it about a year ago and found that it had disappeared – all those blog posts that I had gotten paid to write. They don’t exist anymore. I don’t know if they have something similar or different that’s replaced it, but it seemed like they want things to get cleaner. They want us to seem more mainstream.
I know Roth has said that or something like it in the past. And I know he wrote that op-ed recently talking about affirmative action for conservatives. He might be – along with whoever helps him make his decisions – trying to create a cleaner and less liberal appearance for Wesleyan. And I think we’re moving there with these choices, like with the admissions website. Things like that seem small, and I’m not advocating for my personal blog posts from 2012 to still be on the internet, because they weren’t very good. But when you start to remove things like that, you start to corporatize the image. Let’s take a look at that and see what it’s actually meaning for the campus and who that’s serving, because I really doubt that it’s serving our students who are most vulnerable.
CL: That’s disappointing that students have that image of alums, but it’s not surprising. That’s how I viewed alums when I was there – people who would like to uphold the institution. Part of the issue, and what we’re seeing in terms of the response to this fundraising campaign, is the young alums who were activists, or even the older alums who were activists. We have less interest in maintaining a positive relationship with the university, and so then there is no framework for a relationship. If all you’re going to do is text them back, “Fuck Scott Backer,” then what?
Part of what I’m hoping to do is create some sort of relationship that’s not just like, “Let’s celebrate and glorify our alumni who donate, and our alumni who support Wesleyan still.” Let’s give a platform for alumni who don’t feel that way, because we definitely get erased. It’s really hard to go back to campus if you didn’t have a great time there. We do some erasing of ourselves. But I don’t think that’s a thing that’s our fault. Why bother returning to a site of trauma and trying to make it a better place? That requires a lot of energy.