Student protesters force out another university leader
Higher Education | Critics bemoan school administrators’ willingness to let students make staffing decisions
by Melinda Taylor
Posted 6/09/16, 08:30 am
Buckling under student demands for more diverse faculty and a “non-Eurocentric curriculum,” the interim provost at Seattle University last week placed the dean of its Matteo Ricci College on administrative leave.
On day 22 of a sit-in by protesting students, interim provost Bob Dullea announced Jodi Kelly would be placed on leave as dean of the Jesuit university’s humanities college.
Despite Kelly’s promise to conduct “a comprehensive review of the curricula, assess the college’s culture, and provide racial and cultural literacy training,” more than 200 students, faculty and staff gathered last Wednesday in the school’s Casey Building and cheered or snapped their fingers in agreement with the leave announcement, according to The Washington Times.
But some alumni criticized the students’ actions and administrators’ willingness to let them have so much control.
“Until today, I have been proud to be an MRC and Seattle University graduate—I am deeply saddened by this response and the support of bullying as a protest tactic,” alumnus Dana Keller told The Times. Keller organized an online petition to voice support for Kelly. As of earlier this week, the petition had 776 supporters.
The petition expresses agreement with students’ freedom to challenge the curriculum but calls Kelly an “open-minded woman” and asks students to engage in fair discussion. Kelly began working at the university in 1984.
But in another online petition calling for Kelly to step down as dean— signed by nearly 1,300 people —students expressed “dissatisfaction, traumatization, and boredom” as a result of their MRC studies. They asked for curriculum that “decentralizes whiteness” to be taught by “staff from marginalized backgrounds, especially professors of color and queer professors.”
Students also said they want professors who will emphasize “racism, gentrification, sexism, colonialism, imperialism, global white supremacy, and other ethical questions about systems of power.”
According to The Washington Times, Kelly was placed on leave partially over allegations of racism. Kelly, who is white, recommended a book—with an inflammatory title—by black author Dick Gregory to a black student. She later said the point of the title, a racial slur, was to reclaim the slur.
In an essay for Inside Higher Ed, Gregory defended Kelly.
“I am pleased that she has the foresight to want to give these young men and women the knowledge, insight, and experience of a civil rights activist that might just help them understand life a little better,” he wrote. “I am disappointed that they seemed to have stopped at the title instead of opening the book and reading its contents.”
University administrators did not respond to requests for an interview. Kelly also was unavailable for comment. But Seattle University is not the first college to give in to students’ staffing demands. Last year, students at the University of Missouri forced the school’s chancellor and the university system’s president to resign. Students at The Claremont Colleges in Southern California also successfully lobbied for one of the schools’ deans to step down.
Undergraduate enrollment at Seattle University was listed at 4,712 in the fall of 2015. The school offers classes addressing social justice issues, gender differences, poverty, and mass incarceration, according to The Times, but students complain they don’t have opportunities to study those topics in the 194-student humanities college.
The protesting students said they will continue the sit-in until the last day of classes on June 10 because they want Kelly to resign. They also rejected the interim dean the university proposed, saying they want “a woman of color,” according to The Times.
“The administration is afraid there will be students all throughout the university demanding changes from their educators,” student Fiza Mohammad told The Times. “But, of course, that’s exactly what we want.”
Melinda is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.