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In Focus: Fifty years after Bursar’s Office Takeover, Northwestern reconciles continued parallels in black student concerns

May 3, 2018

Kathryn Ogletree (Weinberg ’71, Graduate School ’76) was just a freshman when she helped mobilize and lead a 38-hour sit-in that would change the course of the University’s relationship with black students.

It was May 3, 1968.

Black students at Northwestern had organized the night before to finalize plans to take over an undisclosed campus building. The protest had been in the works for a while, Ogletree said, and everyone had a designated role: The then-president of For Members Only helped guide students into the Bursar’s Office at 619 Clark St., while some led diversions at the Rebecca Crown Center. Others simply showed up in solidarity.   

“It was agreed that this is what we were going to do, and then everyone who was in support showed up (at) seven o’clock in the morning the next day and we were fed into the Bursar’s Office, and that’s the history,” Ogletree said.

They remained in control of the Bursar’s Office overnight. Ogletree said students chose that location — NU’s business office at the time, home to financial records and cash holdings — because they knew it would force the University to respond.

At about 9 a.m. the next morning, Ogletree and nine other students met administrators and faculty in Scott Hall to begin negotiations. The protesting students had created a list of demands regarding black students’ experiences at Northwestern, including increasing the representation of black students on campus to at least 10 to 12 percent of each incoming class and hiring more black faculty members. Students also called for the University to provide space for a black student union and to publicly acknowledge institutional racism. 

Source: James Sweet/Northwestern University Archives
Northwestern student Stephen Broussard (Medill ’70, Law ’73) exiting the Bursar’s Office on May 3, 1968. Students blocked the entrance to the building to stop police from forcibly removing protesters inside.

Students and administrators were at “polar positions” when the takeover began, Ogletree said, but  the tone had shifted when they convened.

“By the time we actually started meeting with each other, there was some appreciation that they were trying to understand what they didn’t understand before,” Ogletree said.

Later that evening, students approved the terms that the University had committed to — in the “May 4th Agreement”— and left the Bursar’s Office, ending the day-and-a-half protest, Ogletree said.

In their demands, Ogletree said students were not focusing just on themselves, but on bettering the lives of students coming after them. Charla Wilson, University archivist for the black experience, said among numerous impacts, the significance of what she calls the “first major protest” at Northwestern can still be felt today, from its direct role in prompting the establishment of the Black House to the development of the African American Studies Department.

Yet 50 years later, many of the demands Ogletree and her peers advocated for have not been met as black students remain unhappy at Northwestern.

In 2016, the Black Student Experience Task Force report showed black students’ satisfaction with their Northwestern experience lagged behind that of every other racial and ethnic group on campus — and was on the decline.

Only 12 percent of graduating black students reported feeling “very satisfied” with their undergraduate education in 2016 senior surveys — compared to 35 percent a decade earlier. No other racial or ethnic group surveyed reported rates under 20 percent in 2016.  

Echoes of the past

Nearly three years ago, Communication senior Jade Mitchell found herself leading a group of about 300 students as they disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony for the new lakeside athletic complex.  Students were protesting both a lack of representation and resources for students of color and institutional racism at Northwestern as University administrators, alumni and donors gathered to celebrate what would become a $260 million athletic facility.

“That was the first time it felt like they took notice,” said Mitchell, who is co-president of CaribNation, a cultural student group. “They were livid that we were in there. Sometimes you have to move people to anger to get them to listen.”

In 2015, Mitchell said, many black students felt that the University didn’t listen to them. The demonstration occurred amid University discussions surrounding the decision to move administrative offices into the Black House.

Later that November, various student organizations aligned to release a list of 19 demands related to the experiences of students of color — which grew to 34 by its final iteration in January 2016.  

The list included increasing the total percentage of black students to at least 10 percent by 2020, tripling the number of faculty of color by 2025, expanding Black House resources and publicly acknowledging national tragedies within communities of color.

Three days after the protest, the University canceled proposed changes to the Black House. But Mitchell said the issue reflected a continued inattention to the black student experience, illustrating a need for the University to be “more culturally sensitive.”

Reconciling parallels  

African American studies librarian Kathleen Bethel, who joined Northwestern in 1982, has served on two task forces dedicated to studying the black student experience at NU — one over 20 years ago and the one in 2016. Not much has changed in that time, she said.

The 2016 study brought up the same concerns as the initial one, which was conducted during the 1995-96 academic year in response to campus incidents surrounding racial issues.

“We could have taken the cover sheet off the first (report) and put it on the second one, because it pretty much said the same thing,” Bethel said.

Source: James Sweet/Northwestern University Archives
Northwestern students gather outside the Bursar’s Office during the takeover. The poster on the left reads: “Black students occupy this building because the administration has turned a deaf ear.”

Though Bethel said she’s recently seen a “really proactive” response from the University to black student concerns, she wondered how much longer it will be until change occurs.

Wilson called the similarities between demands then and now “eerie,” but emphasized the courage of students in the 1968 protest, considering the national context at the time: On other college campuses throughout the country, protesters had been injured and killed.

Still, Wilson said that even 50 years later, students continue to say they feel “exhausted being black on campus.”

Jeffrey Sterling (Weinberg ’85), president of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association, said some current students use the “exact same words and phraseology” as the protesters in the 1960s. Sterling is the co-author of an upcoming book illustrating the evolution of black students’ experiences on campus.  

In a February interview with The Daily, Provost Jonathan Holloway acknowledged that “painful echoes” still exist harkening back to the takeover.

However, it’s essential to recognize campus inclusion and diversity efforts have seen “radical positive improvements” at universities like NU, he said in April.

“Anybody who says we are no further along than we were 50 years ago is just wrong, period,” Holloway said. “However, if they were to say we’re not where we need to be, they’re right.”

Lauren Lowery (McCormick ’89) — former vice president of NUBAA — said the same obstacles persist largely because the University “banks on the fact that the memories are short.”

Earlier this year, Lowery co-founded the NUBAA Archives along with Sterling because she realized almost nothing had been compiled regarding the history of black students at Northwestern after going to the University Archives herself.  

“They didn’t value over the 140 years of Northwestern — or whatever how many years it is now — black students and black experiences,” Lowery said.

Lowery said it is clear many issues are cyclical.

“Unfortunately, no one has people of color’s interests at heart other than themselves,” she said. “So if we continue to come and go and (if) … Northwestern administrators don’t have interest, then the same things continue to happen.”

A matter of numbers

Weinberg junior Dante Gilmer, who participated in the 2015 disruption of the groundbreaking ceremony, said the University often presents itself as more diverse and inclusive than it really is. However, Gilmer said establishing a sense of community for black students is challenging when the total student body is still less than 10 percent black. 

“I’m just wondering how, after all of these years, did we still ask for the same thing?” Gilmer said. “You’re like, ‘Wait a minute. What happened?’”

After the 2016 Black Student Experience Task Force Report was released, administrators and University leaders prioritized three of the 14 recommendations for the 2017-18 academic year, including increasing the number of black students, faculty and staff.

Associate provost and chief diversity officer Jabbar Bennett, who oversees a committee that focuses on this recommendation, said he’s working to ensure the population of black students on campus is representative of the country. In doing so, Bennett said it’s important for the University to concurrently prioritize increasing available resources and financial aid.

Though black students make up one-tenth of the class of 2021 — the highest percentage in recent history, said executive director of Campus Inclusion and Community Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson — only 6 percent of all undergraduates identified as black in fall 2017, with a separate category for multiracial students, according to the Northwestern Data Book.

Many current black undergraduates said they are not represented sufficiently in all majors and programs.

Communication junior Elliot Sagay said that both at Northwestern and within his theater major, the number of black students is noticeably small. In last year’s graduating theater class, he said he remembered there being no more than two black students, and while his cohort feels larger in comparison, it’s still not enough.

“It’s important to celebrate our steps forward, to celebrate our victories, but I think it’s also important to remember that sometimes those victories are just a small step, and that we need to keep walking,” Sagay said. “We need to keep running in order to get to where we actually want to be.”

FMO coordinator Kasey Brown said it’s not only important for the University to enroll more black students; Northwestern must also consider the “other variables” they face — compared to white students — once they’re here. 

Although NU’s current first-year class is 10 percent black, Brown said it’s important to realize “how little progress” has been made in 50 years.

“There’s so much room we could have grown, but we celebrate that 10 percent because we really don’t know the history,” Brown said, “and the University knows we don’t.”

“We look nothing alike”

Several black students said the erasure of their identities extends to small, everyday instances on campus.

Earlier this year, Sagay wrote a play titled, “What’s in a Name?” for “Black Lives, Black Words” — a campus iteration of an international project aimed at providing a platform for black actors and playwrights.

Sagay’s piece dealt with the subtle biases and ignorances that can manifest when non-black faculty and students mispronounce or forget the names of black students — behavior he said has impacted his NU experience, like when the play “In the Red and Brown Water” opened in the fall.

“When ‘In the Red and Brown Water’ closed, I think I got congratulated by at least five people in the span of a week for being in that show,” Sagay said. “I had made no appearance in that show, but that’s part of the problem.”

When not only his peers, but also faculty members began mistaking him for other black students, the issue became “much more pressing,” he said. Sagay said other black theater students have shared similar experiences.  

“We’re going to an institution where we’re paying for our education,” Sagay said. “Messing up the names of people of color is not the sort of example that any teacher should be allowed to set.”

After the disruption of the groundbreaking ceremony, students demanded the University triple the number of faculty and administrators of color by 2025. Students also separately demanded that special attention be paid to the theater department.

According to the Northwestern Data Book, 3.5 percent of tenure-line and full-time faculty in fall 2016 — including those in graduate schools — were black.

Sagay said one of the “most valuable” aspects of his experience in the department has been having professors of color.

But having so few in the department, he said, has been challenging. When he arrived at Northwestern, there were three black theater professors — Harvey Young, Melissa Foster and Aaron Todd Douglas. Young has since left the University.

Karen Taylor, president of NU’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, said she’s only had one black professor — for an African American studies course — during her time on campus.

Taylor too said she’s been called the wrong name in her engineering classes. Through a number of courses, the McCormick sophomore said, faculty members mistook her for another black student.

“The professor confused us for the whole quarter. It happened again the next quarter with a different professor, and then happened again the quarter after that with a different professor,” Taylor said. “Meanwhile, it’s just us two the whole time. I don’t expect everyone to get everyone’s names right on the first try but … it’s only us two, and we look nothing alike.”

Former and current black NU students both agreed that a higher number of black faculty could increase student inclusion in academic spaces while preventing microaggressions and racially-based incidents from occurring as prevalently. 

Source: James Sweet/Northwestern University Archives
James Turner, president of the Afro-American Student Union, talks to the press on the day of the Bursar’s Office Takeover. Turner was a lead negotiator in the takeover.

Brown-Henderson co-chairs a team focused on strengthening student and faculty relations. The group aims to tackle one aspect of another recommendation prioritized for this academic year: listening to black students regularly, not just in times of crisis.

The team, Brown-Henderson said, understands that black students have had interactions with faculty members that they feel are inappropriate. She said the group has been researching resources available to students in these instances and their accessibility.

Brown-Henderson said what black students experience in higher education is often a product of “systemic and institutional inequalities, and really the institutional racism.” However, moving forward, Brown-Henderson said she’s confident in the potential to create real change at the University as “more structure and capacity” exists internally now than when she first arrived in 2012.

Bursar’s Office Takeover participant Debra Hill, who graduated from the School of Education in the 70s, said she never had a black professor during her time at NU, and she supported efforts to increase representation within faculty.

After Hill participated in a summer program at the university in the late 1960s before her freshman year, she said a counselor questioned whether she was “Northwestern material.”

“The counselor that I was assigned just told me to my face that he did not think that I was going to  be successful at Northwestern,” Hill said. “There was no black faculty for me to go to, to share that with, to say, ‘So, how do I deal with this?’”

An alienating atmosphere

Bursar’s Office Takeover participant Victor Goode (Weinberg ’70) said he never experienced overt racial harassment during his time at NU.

“But some of my friends did, and that created an atmosphere that led me to believe if it can happen to them, it will happen to me at some point,” he said.

A sense of “alienation” from the greater NU community, he said, was palpable throughout the University and had differing impacts on black students.

Ogletree, the Bursar’s Office Takeover leader, recounted incidents of white students throwing beer cans out of windows at black students, unfair disciplinary action toward black students and being treated as an “object” by the University to culturally educate others.

Half a century later, the feeling remains. According to the 2016 Black Student Experience Task Force Report, less than half of respondents agreed that NU is welcoming for black students.

Justin Clarke (Weinberg ’13) said a lot of racially-based “nonsense” also occurred during his four years as an undergraduate.  

The former FMO coordinator said incidents like the “Racist Olympics” largely characterized the environment at the time. In 2012, members of the Ski Team hosted a “Beer Olympics”-style contest in which attendees wore culturally insensitive costumes, including Native American headdresses.

While overt discrimination has become less common, he said “subtle forms of racism” and “identity-based aggression” remain issues.

“You may not have someone walking up to you and calling you a racial epithet on Sheridan. But I had people during my time here walk up to me like, ‘Hey, oh are you an athlete?’” Clarke said. “I was like 5’9”, maybe 120 pounds, like, do I really look like a Division I football player or basketball player?”

Weinberg freshman Taylor Bolding said efforts to make campus more diverse and inclusive first require a committed “changing of the campus culture” to address the systemic issues existing within Northwestern.  

Earlier this year, the University sent a Campus Climate for Diversity survey to undergraduate and graduate students. Brown-Henderson said its insights will be valuable in moving forward to tackle these concerns.

But Bolding said Northwestern’s environment, in a lot of ways, can be “very off-putting” for students now. For example, she said, when a friend and prospective student visited campus during last month’s Wildcat Days, he quickly knew NU wasn’t the right fit for him because he sensed there was an isolating atmosphere for black students.

“I was walking across Sheridan and I just got so angry and fed up,” Bolding said. “My friend’s only been here for a day and he’s saying nothing but truth: This place wasn’t built for students like me, or students of color in mind.”

Feeling heard

Bennett said the University has prioritized engaging with black students since the 2015 protest.

He cited the establishment of community dialogues, a Northwestern initiative created to address concerns from the protest. The sessions continue to provide administrators valuable opportunities to examine issues salient to students, he said.

Brown, the FMO coordinator, said the dialogues feel less for students themselves, and more like a way for the University to continue “checking off boxes.”

Brown said conversations regarding the Black House and black student experiences should have been held at the Black House. Moving forward, she said if the University wants black students to attend the sessions, administrators should be more intentional about advertising them.

Gwendolyn Gissendanner, who participated in the 2015 protest and graduated from SESP in March, said she’s seen “clear communication” between black students and upper-level University leadership in the last three years.

Still, as many of the students who interrupted the groundbreaking ceremony have left or are about to leave campus, Gissendanner said she’s concerned as to whether the University will continue to focus on improving black students’ experiences with less accountability.

“I fully understand that … all of these things do take time,” Gissendanner said. “I do get worried about the amount of time that Northwestern spends doing dialogues and doing listening sessions and that it’s really just a way to appease whoever started the momentum until they’re gone.”

Leaving a legacy  

Brown, the FMO coordinator, said despite continued concerns among black students, she tells her peers that she feels it is “a great time to be black on this campus” because of the possibility to create change in their experiences.

Though it can be easy to become complacent and believe issues will remain, she said understanding what student activists fought for 50 years ago shows current undergraduates they don’t have to settle.

“The fact that (we) know all this history and (we) can see all the imperfections this University has, pushes us to do more,” she said. “(We can) leave an impact and make this place better for the next black students that are going to come after us.”

Clarke said while most black students knew about the takeover of the Bursar’s Office when he was a student, it is “really disappointing” that the current student body’s awareness has now decreased.

Still, while contexts may be different, he said for current students, the Bursar’s Office Takeover illustrates that they can have a say in what their experiences on campus look like.

“This is something that should never be forgotten, just to … hold the University accountable moving forward, but also to keep a sense of pride in that this is what was fought for, and this is what you get to have,” Clarke said. “This is why you still get to demand certain things of the University. Because those people came before you, and they did it first.”

Twitter: @troy_closson