College students often are part of the chronicles of change. They march. They protest. They remove social errors and bring forward their own belief in a better world.
In my time at Hamilton College, we students helped to bring around a change for the college. At the time, Hamilton was one of many colleges who invested money in South African Krugerrands, the currency of a country filthy with state-enforced racism and apartheid. We sat in silent protest on the steps of one of the faculty buildings. When that didn’t advance divestiture, we built little “shantytowns” out of boxes and scrap wood and created a new campus on the student quadrangle. The college’s physical plant workers removed the shantytown rather quickly, but our efforts – at least I hope it was because of our efforts – led Hamilton to eventually divest their funds from that country.
So when someone brought this information to me about a new “secret society” that hoped to bring change on campus, I was curious. I wanted to see what students in 2015 thought needed improvement at Hamilton.
[hdnfactbox title=”Hamilton College”]
- Hamilton College was created in 1812 by Samuel Kirkland as Hamilton Oneida Academy. Alexander Hamilton funded the college, which now bears his name.
- Hamilton was an all-male college until 1978, when it merged with sister school Kirkland College.
- Chuck Miller attended Hamilton from 1981 to 1985, graduating with a B.A. in creative writing. One of his classmates was Times Union arts editor Amy Biancolli.[/hdnfactbox]
And apparently the biggest issue is one that we still face today – not just as alumni or as college students, but as human beings – racism and racial tensions.
According to this article in the Utica Phoenix, there were plans in September 2013 to host a series of discussions on internalized racism. The first meeting would be for non-Caucasian students, the second would be for Caucasian students only; the third meeting would be all-inclusive. Almost immediately, a conservative group known as the Alexander Hamilton Institute took offense to the language advertising the discussions, including using the words “safe zone” for the location of the meeting. Tensions rose. Students posted messages online about their own thoughts and fears and concerns – not only about internal and external racism, but also perceived racism and gender bias. Tensions rose even higher.
And recently, an on-campus society known as “The Movement” have added their own demands to the list. The demands include the following: all students should take at least one semester of classes discussing, among other things, “assimilation, privilege, intersectionality, systemic oppression, internalized racism, and cultural appropriation.” They want the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms throughout campus, update handicapped entrance ramps (several buildings are still not completely handicapped-accessible), increased financial stipends and meals for students who must remain on campus during breaks due to financial limitations; and an increase in awareness of social justice and injustice on campus.
That escalated a few days ago, when “The Movement” added new proclamations to their manifesto. Those demands, which are listed here, starts with this clause: “Hamilton College cannot continue to overwhelmingly perpetuate narratives that center whiteness, able-bodied individuals, colonization, heteronormativity, and cisnormativity. The faculty, administration, staff, and student body at Hamilton College almost ubiquitously encompass a single population that continues the exclusion of historically underrepresented communities.”
And it goes from there.
- “We, the Students of Hamilton College, demand for questions aimed at the prospective President-Elects to center systematic oppression and Hamilton College’s accountability with institutional racism. We demand a President of Color for the twentieth President of Hamilton College. The lack of diversity within our College’s history of Executives has perpetuated these existing systematic problems. We demand immediate transparency in the hiring process. We demand the distribution of the minutes from these meetings with applicants. We demand a student lead forum to ask questions to the final candidates. We demand the review of other colleges hiring practices to have them incorporated into the current system.”
- “We demand an immediate increase in Faculty of Color on campus. We also demand an increase in tenure track hires for Faculty of Color. In order to retain Faculty of Color, we demand an increase in mentorship for tenure track Faculty of Color. We demand the prioritization of Faculty of Color in new hires. We demand the representation of all students by fostering diversity within our classrooms. We demand the active recruitment of Indigenous Faculty, Gender Nonconforming and Transgender identifying Faculty, and an increase of all Faculty of Color in the STEM fields. We, the Students of Hamilton College, demand Black Faculty to make up thirteen percent of Faculty before 2025. This number must exclude members of the Africana Studies Department.”
- “We, the Students of Hamilton College, demand that Elihu Root’s name be removed from all campus property because of his historic role in colonization. We also demand the removal of all other racist hallmarks around campus, such as art and wallpaper in various places. Furthermore, we demand Fall Recess formerly to take on the name of Indigenous People’s Day. In order to create a campus that “embraces differences” we call for the naming of new buildings to honor alumni of Color.“
I could go on and on, but you can read the demands for yourself.
Naturally, the outside world has turned the Movement’s demands and requests into comedy and denigration. The Daily Beast pointed out that some of the Movement’s requests range from absurd to terrifying, including the ban on a social network called Yik Yak due to that program’s ability to promote anonymous hate speech. (Have these students ever heard of 4chan or reddit?)
Speaking of Reddit, my favorite love-hate relationship website was kind enough to post this review of the Movement’s demands in the /r/CringeAnarchy subreddit. Warning. Language is graphic. Other online sites have painted The Movement as anything from misguided students with a tenuous grasp on the English language, to imagining the students of The Movement all wearing Guy Fawkes masks in some sort of V for Vendetta cosplay.
To Hamilton’s credit, the school has increased its diversity and acceptance in the three-plus decades since my matriculation. The number of non-Caucasian students on campus in 1981 was nearly microscopic; today the college boasts a student body of every race, religion, creed, orientation, preference, etc. That progress did take a long time. Longer than most might like.
But it is taking time. And it is moving forward. And whether the Movement’s ideas and demands are the equivalent of a student body recreating Martin Luther’s Wittenburg Cathedral postings, the question becomes – why are these students requesting these changes in the first place? Is Hamilton so hostile that they can’t speak their mind for fear of retribution or expulsion or worse?
I will say this. Change is important, change takes time; change is the advancement of new ideas and the dissolution of outdated ones. We aren’t living in the world of decades past. Our president was elected not for the color of his skin, but for the content of his character. The President of Hamilton College is Joan Hinde Stewart, a woman leading a college that until 1978 was only open to male students.
Progress is coming. Change is coming. I may not appreciate the Movement’s message or its delivery or its grammatical soupiness, but the fact is, the dialogue is there. And the College is listening. They may not agree to all of the Movement’s “demands,” but they’re listening.
Somewhere throughout all the demands and all the accusations and all the conflicts, there is a common ground. It can be reached. I’ve seen it reached before when I was a student at Hamilton.
There are answers. We just have to find the appropriate questions.