Deconstructing the demonstration

April 26, 2000

Judith Zwolak

Student demonstrations: They're a fact of university life, where the free exchange of ideas and debate over issues of moral complexity sometimes end in disagreement between school and student. By nearly all accounts, last month's student sit-in in Gibson Hall protesting the university's membership in a sweatshop-monitoring organization was a relatively orderly affair given the passion the students displayed for their cause.

While peaceful, the demonstration disrupted life on campus, particularly on the second floor of Gibson Hall, where students held a continuous sit-in for 11 days, violating Tulane's Code of Student Conduct when they failed to vacate the building after midnight.

Although students have led the debate on how to prevent the use of sweatshop labor to make Tulane apparel, a number of administrators, faculty members and staff members played a part in the anti-sweatshop debate, sit-in and resolution. (See sidebar on this page for a brief description of the agreement between the students and administration.)

A handful of faculty members from Tulane and Loyola University served as advocates for the students, most notably Maureen Shea, associate professor and chair of Spanish and Portuguese, and J. Timmons Roberts, associate professor of sociology.

"I had a certain obligation to represent and listen to the students," says Shea, who is also the faculty adviser of the Latin American Peace and Justice Group, where the students' interest in sweatshop labor first emerged. "I was quite impressed with the students' commitment. They passionately believe in the betterment of people in horrible sweatshop conditions."

With Roberts, Shea met with the students and President Scott Cowen during the protest to help the two groups get to the negotiating table. Getting the students to vacate the building after hours was central to the negotiation, contends Paul Barron, interim senior vice president for academic affairs and one of the negotiators on behalf of the administration.

"It's a matter of complying with the rules," he says. Barron, a professor of law with a background in mediation, says negotiations began in earnest on Thursday, April 6, after the students agreed to leave the building at night. The following Saturday night, students and administrators came to the agreement that ended the protest.

"The turning point was the concept of the student referendum," Barron says. His office will organize the upcoming educational activities planned before the referendum next fall, he adds. In future situations where students disagree with university actions, Barron says he hopes open communication can prevent a protest that disrupts campus life.

"My hope is that we can resolve intellectual and moral issues with dialogue within the academic community, rather than students having to resort to this kind of demonstration," he says.

As far as their involvement in the decision process at the university this spring, students went through official channels before resorting to a public protest. They brought their concerns about the monitoring group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), to Cowen in January. The student group argued that the FLA is an organization dominated by the apparel industry and one that preserves the low wages, long hours and poor working conditions that define sweatshops.

Cowen then referred the issue to the University Senate's Social Issues Committee. James Jeter, chair of the committee and associate professor of structural and cellular biology, says the committee listened to formal presentations about the issue from Dan Lutz (T '00), one of the leaders of the student anti-sweatshop group, and Vince Granito, assistant director of athletics and licensing coordinator for the university's athletic wear.

The committee, made up of faculty and students, met three times in February and excluded non-members only when it was making its final deliberations, Jeter says.

"It was as open a process as possible," he says. In the end, the committee recommended that Tulane become a member of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a sweatshop-monitoring group favored by the students, as well as the FLA. After a year in both groups, the university could choose whether to remain in both, neither or only one of the two groups.

"The committee thought that in order to affect sweatshop issues we should be in both WRC and FLA and monitor their progress," Jeter says. "We can scream louder within an organization if we want to change it."

Student activists who wanted a complete withdrawal from FLA did not agree and, following senate approval of the recommendations, initiated the sit-in protest. Helping the university go about its business during the protest, Tulane staff members worked to ensure the safety of the students and employees in Gibson Hall and to clean up after the sit-in.

Terry Trahan, environmental health and safety specialist, visited Gibson's second floor to check on safety issues. At his request, students moved their sleeping bags and books away from doorways and out of the foot of the stairways, where they could have blocked exits during a fire.

"The students accommodated our requests," Trahan says. "They were really polite and anxious to know whether they were doing anything that needed correcting."

Even polite protesters required the constant presence of campus police officers, says Ken Dupaquier, director of public safety. For 24 hours a day, a Tulane public safety officer was on site at the sit-in.

"Our duties were threefold," Dupaquier says. "The officers made sure there was no entry into the president's suite by any protesters, they looked out for the welfare of the protesters and they secured the building for lock-down at night."

Officers also recorded the names of any students who failed to leave the building at midnight. These names then went to the student affairs division, where Greg Boardman, associate vice president of student affairs and chief judicial affairs officer, oversaw the disciplinary process. At press time, the 61 students charged with violating the Code of Student Conduct had not yet received their sanctions. Possible disciplinary actions for code violations-decided through either a joint committee of students and faculty members or individual conferences with judicial officers-range from a verbal or written reprimand to expulsion.

The debate continues
Ending an 11-day sit-in protesting the university's membership in a sweatshop-monitoring organization, Tulane's administration and members of a student anti-sweatshop group last month agreed to continue the debate and vote on the issue this fall.

As part of the agreement reached on April 8, Tulane will temporarily suspend membership in both the Fair Labor Association (FLA), the organization under fire from the Tulane United Students Against Sweatshops, and the newly formed Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). An educational process for the entire Tulane community on the related issues will precede a student referendum in the fall. The university formed a special committee that will work through the vice president for academic affairs office to organize those educational activities.

"I believe the agreement has the potential to be a powerful learning and educational experience for the entire student body," says President Scott Cowen. "This outcome is positive given the university's mission. It also was important to uphold the university's code of conduct."

Faculty members on the special committee are social issues committee chair James Jeter, associate professor of structural and cellular biology; Stephen Jacobs, professor of architecture; and John Patton, associate professor of communication. Student representatives are Martha Braithwaite (N '03), Bruckett McInturff (T '03) and Alex West (UC '00).

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000