Campus protests are not new to the students at Wilmington College. The current campus discussions include faculty and staff wages as well as student concerns including Title IX and LGBTQ+ campus accessibility.
With reference to faculty, the students fear that if these issues are not addressed immediately, dedicated and qualified faculty will soon seek employment elsewhere.
Here are three examples of earlier student activism on campus:
Some 50 years ago, the college’s Concerned Black Students occupied College Hall and presented the administration with a list of their demands. It was a comprehensive list, including $100,000 for scholarships, a full-time Black recruiter specifically for Black students, the SAT standard test for admission be waived for Black students, a new position created for a financial officer specifically for Black students, and more.
The college’s response was quite soft — when board chairman Wallace Collett joined the small group for discussion on how to respond, he suggested, “Has anybody thought about getting some food into them? They must be getting hungry.” In the same mood, WC President Hinshaw told the local law enforcement officials that he did not require their presence on campus.
After explaining to the students what steps had already been taken, Sterling Olmsted, provost at the time, admitted that, “the administration was unduly complacent and unprepared in the months leading up to the occupation, in spite of demonstrations by African-American students across the country.”
In a retrospective article 30 years later, Randy Sarvis observed, “After discussing the demands — there was give and take on both sides — an accord was reached. The students left the building. The only damage consisted of a few holes where plywood had been nailed and a broken padlock that secured the college’s antiquated telephone system.”
After the students left, Provost Olmsted added, “The place was empty. The plywood was gone. Nothing in our offices was touched. Not a cigarette butt on the floor. The occupation was over. Everything was neat and in good order — it was remarkable when you think of what happened at many colleges.”
A second example of past student activism is chronicled in a short book by Sharon Drees, a graduate student at Northern Kentucky University in 2011. The book is “Step by Step, Rust in Peace: The Quiet Peacemakers of Wilmington College.”
In a response to the book, Dorothy J. Maver, Ph.D., and president of the National Peace Academy, said, “’Rust in Peace’ is a compelling true story of intentional nonviolence and the legacy of peace activism at Wilmington College, through times of peace and war, and serves as a wake-up call for all of us regarding the necessity of proactive peacebuilding in the 21st century.”
The book covers the years from 1940 to 1976 and the evolution of the student body from a clear small-town conservative orientation to a left-leaning orientation prompted by the influx of students from the east coast. The two issues that prompted the most activism were the killing of five students on the Kent State Campus in 1970 and the war in Vietnam including the U.S. incursion into Cambodia.
Quoting Drees after the Kent State shooting, “WC faculty and administration provided guidance and support to student peace activism placing emphasis on nonviolence as the most appropriate means of resistance. When 536 colleges and universities across the nation were forced to completely close their doors … including 51 who held no classes for the rest of the year, WC cancelled classes for one day in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy but remained open. WC faculty and administration gave students freedom to express themselves in ways they saw fit and students generally respected certain limits.”
A good number of students walked the 65 miles to Columbus where thousands awaited at the Capital building to register their dismay at the state’s willingness to take the lives of students. Many more followed in a variety of vehicles, including myself and my 2-year old son.
A third example of WC student activism culminated some 20 years ago and focused on the use of the college’s farms. Three lead articles in the student newspaper between 2000 and 2002 focused on the students’ opportunity for practical work on the farms. College president DiBiasio was threatening to sell the farms and students were certain that such a move would result in the termination of students’ real farm work.
One WC agriculture professor in support of the students mentioned that during his Ph.D. work at Ohio State, implying that WC must offer opportunities that OSU does not, said, “The only time I was ever on any Ohio State farm ground was to jump across a cow pasture to hit a golf ball.”
As with other expressions of student protest, the students, with faculty and community support, marched on campus and downtown to let everyone know their concerns. The farms were not sold.
Traditions do have significance, and even though they can die, they can also have a life of their own that simply emerges at appropriate/opportune times.
To me, the most recent nonviolent movement at Wilmington College is an example of students carrying on the important decades-old tradition of nonviolent protest.
Neil Snarr is a professor emeritus at Wilmington College.