July 18, 2024

On Thursday night, board members made small-talk over crab tartes in Geil Lounge while dozens of students surrounded them with picket signs and protest chants.

“I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Molly Wood, professor of history said.

The board of directors invited faculty and staff to a catered mixer from 5:15-6:15p.m. Student protesters surrounded the railings above them in response to the non-renewal of several faculty contracts. 

Posters displayed messages such as, “Professors=Retention,” “All in for Your Money,” and “Having Light, we Pass it on to Others” with an image of The Steemer and Myers Hall in flames.

For 25 minutes, the board and faculty socialized over 16 bottles of wine, bins of beer and a spread of hors d’oeuvres without interruption. Some faculty did not acknowledge the protesters, others offered thumbs-ups to the students from below, some stood at the railings with the students, others stood behind everything in the closest space they could find to a neutral zone.

“I hate to cross picket lines,” Brian Shelbourne, professor of computer science said. He was one of those standing at the back of the student center. “Both sides have good points.”

At 5:40, the chanting began. “Our professors matter” became the anthem of the evening as students filed down the stairs and stood around Geil Lounge, inches from the board members. Most of the faculty and board conversations continued over the chanting.

Face-to-face, protesters saw the board members. They saw the faculty. But they did not see their president. At 5:59, a new chant began: “President Frandsen, come down.” At 6:01, he did.

Frandsen’s few words to the protesters were to introduce the chair of the board, Rev. Jonathan Eilert, who addressed the group.

“We hear you, and we agree with you,” Eilert said. “Our professors do matter.”

He explained the desire of the board to make Wittenberg sustainable for future years “because we love this place,” he said. “It takes a lot of work, and it’s going to take sacrifices that none of us want to make.”

Following Eilert’s speech, students and faculty engaged directly with board members.

“How can you all sit down here and drink wine and eat fondue, or whatever, while your students are out here chanting?” asked Erykah Andrews (’20). “How can you ignore that?”

Janet Jackson was one of the first board members to speak. “If this board doesn’t take care of these issues, this university is going to close,” she said. She told students to ask their professors about the process of tenure in determining the faculty cuts and to better understand the process.

In immediate response professor of English Sha’Dawn Battle and professor of philosophy Julius Bailey said that the real issue was not the tenure process, but administration.

“This isn’t a tenure question. This is a mismanagement question,” Bailey said.

The word “mismanagement” appeared again and again during conversations on both sides of the railing.

“It was decades of poor management that have led us to this place,” Rachel Wilson, professor of business and economics said after the mixer. “There’s potential for your accreditation to be at stake if you don’t get your house in order. There’s no winning.”

Several faculty members stated that the current crisis has been the result of 15-20 years of financial mismanagement. Eilert also said that these financial issues have been ongoing for “several years.”

Regardless of the cause or the blame, the board and faculty expressed that there was more to the full financial picture than protesters realized.

“I appreciate the students’ concerns, and I wish they had all of the info in detail,” Ray Dudek professor of chemistry, said. “We’re staffed for a university of 1,800 students. We’ve got closer to 1,600 or 1,500.” Dudek said that students and the board seem as though they are pitted against each other, when in reality they are working toward the same goal.

Associate professor of communications Katie Warber agreed.

“Making sure [students] have accurate information is important. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case,” Warber said.

She recommends that students find this information from student representatives who serve on committees where students have representation.

To aid in information accessibility, Eilert told the protesters he “would be happy” to meet with Student Senate and to hold an open forum for students. Student Senate executives had lunch with the board earlier that day.

The confrontation lasted nearly eight minutes, and afterward, chanting of “our professors matter” resumed until the board and Frandsen left the lounge. By 6:15, all that remained in Geil were protesters and platters of unfinished tartes. The leftover spread quickly became a reception for students, who walked away with plates of potato dip and entire trays of garlic bread.

“If you needed any more proof that our students are learning the right things at this university, all you had to do was come here tonight,” Scot Hinson professor of English, said.

Despite the disputes, Thursday night served as a reminder that empathy exists on both sides of the issue. Board members hugged Nikki Howard (’20) as she handed them a nine page letter expressing her disagreement with the cuts. They also comforted Jessica Pinkerton (’21) after she stated during the confrontation that the faculty cuts had given her excessive panic attacks. 

The protest also allowed the board to see the people impacted by these cuts. “The board necessarily deals with spreadsheets and numbers and the bottom line,” said Wood, “and they don’t see the human side of the effect that their decisions have. It’s the real situation–decisions based on finances alone have real human consequences.” 

The protest was initiated by several students, including Olivia Riddle (’21), Andrews, Pinkerton and Nathan Schwartz (’20). Riddle, Andrews and Pinkerton helped to organize the protest with less than one day’s notice before the event, and Schwartz raised awareness through an open letter he manually sent to every student and faculty member on Thursday afternoon. 

Following the protest, Eilert said that the board welcomes opportunities over the next several months to engage in constructive dialogue with students. He will be holding a meeting with faculty on Thursday, Feb. 13, and according to Eilert, Student Senate is trying to coordinate a student forum for that afternoon. 

According to Riddle and Pinkerton, student statements such as this are far from over.

Note: The Torch is currently following up with board members, Student Senate and faculty regarding the issues raised at the protest, such as the faculty manual and the questions of mismanagement and diversity prioritization.

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