Letter to the Editor: Student activists denounce university’s co-optation of Bursar’s Office Takeover, demand action

This week the university has been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover, when about 120 students occupied the Bursar’s Office on May 3, 1968, in order to demand improvements in the conditions of Black students on campus. Throughout the commemoration process, Northwestern has taken credit for the work of radical Black students whose demands it never fulfilled, essentially co-opting student activism. Converting the takeover into a feather for the university’s cap aligns with its general penchant for tokenizing students of color to superficially appeal to neoliberal values of diversity and inclusion. Meanwhile, they force those same students to endure the white supremacist structures this administration maintains through its decision making. We write on behalf of three student groups who have had enough of the university’s posturing.

The Latinx Asian American Collective (LAAC) was born from outrage over a Northwestern professor’s decision to host a public relations representative of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a class speaker last spring. Students united in response by occupying the classroom and preventing the representative from speaking. University President Morton Schapiro and then-Provost Daniel Linzer subsequently condemned the students’ actions as “disrespectful, inappropriate and contrary to the values of the University.” Administration followed this statement with disciplinary action against a handful of involved students and a stricter protest policy.

LAAC recognizes the glaring hypocrisy of the university commemorating the Bursar’s Office Takeover while simultaneously punishing students who engage in similar actions today. Northwestern’s Asian American Studies Program (AASP) and Latina and Latino Studies Program (LLSP) owe their very existences to such action. AASP’s formation was a direct result of an almost month-long student hunger strike in 1995; it would be another decade before three years of student activism spearheaded by Alianza led to the establishment of LLSP.

Upon these programs’ establishments, however, the administration has refused to support their sustainable operation. Despite the university’s repeated refusals to properly fund the programs; hire sufficient faculty to teach for the programs; and otherwise serve the students, faculty and staff within the programs, LLSP and AASP have continued to attract students of color and serve as spaces for transformative academic work. Since their establishment, every gain made by these programs has resulted from the tireless work of students, faculty and staff of color.

It is similarly with no help from the university that staff and students have mobilized to protect the workers on this campus. Students Organizing for Labor Rights (SOLR) sees how the university has repeatedly proclaimed its support for the undocumented members of our campus community, which includes not just students, faculty and administrative staff, but also the workers who form the backbone of this school. However, the university’s mission to foster community and inclusion directly contradicts with its participation in E-Verify, which electronically verifies the information that newly hired employees provide on Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification.

At the community dialogue on April 30, vice president of human resources Pam Beemer stated that the university is not legally obligated to use E-Verify campus-wide on the more than 5,700 Northwestern workers that comprise our campus community; rather, the university is only legally obligated to E-Verify a small fraction of that figure, specifically workers that are employed through federal contracts. We find it ludicrous that the university willfully neglects to critically evaluate its institutional practices.

For years, students and faculty have been demanding Northwestern halt participation in E-Verify and, thus, our tacit complicity in perpetuating fear and violence. How can we as students celebrate our investment in a university that voluntarily threatens the well-being of its most vulnerable populations, dividing communities instead of bringing them together? How can we invest in a university that refuses to listen to our calls for justice and safety? How can we feel proud to attend a university that claims support for vulnerable members of our community only when it is convenient for its image? How can we feel proud to attend a university that failed to support students — and condemned demonstrators — last spring when they protested a faculty member inviting a representative of a violent state apparatus to campus? How can we justify attending a university that has voluntarily participated in a fear-provoking hiring program for the past eight years?

Most of all, how can the university engage in its celebration of the Bursar’s Office Takeover — attempting to position itself as sympathetic to the grievances of our community’s marginalized members — while its administration continually fails to take action to support them? We are exhausted with the rhetorical flourishes of the university’s statements claiming its commitment to the well-being of marginalized people on this campus; instead, we want action.

Action, however, first requires transparency. NU’s commemoration of the Bursar’s Office Takeover may seem like an attempt to acknowledge the university’s cyclical inaction, but it reflects its use of marginalized bodies and neoliberal multiculturalism. Over the course of 50 years, it has become apparent that when NU continues to “work diligently every day to ensure that our campus remains a place of inclusion and equality,” it does so through empty promises, through brochures plastered with faces of students of color who it otherwise neglects. All the while, NU has maintained and upheld whiteness. Black students must continually fight to not only be in this space, but also to have the ability to take up space. Black students bear the weight of this university’s historical revisionism, negligence and ignorance. Northwestern has no issue allocating funds for superfluous construction projects, but grits its teeth when Black students ask them to invest in their well-being. The legacy of the Bursar’s Takeover is not just the Black House and the African American Studies department; it is the Black students who continually fight to be not only heard, but also answered fully. Black students walking this campus today are living the reality that the demands from the Bursar’s Office Takeover remain unfulfilled.

We demand that this university celebrate the legacy of the Bursar’s Office Takeover by remembering its responsibility to the campus’s Black community. It must deconstruct its white supremacist echo chamber and attend to those who feel an acute magnification of their marginalization on this campus. The university seems to be trying to rewrite its history as a white supremacist institution. If it truly want to make amends for its history, we have presented it with a number of avenues through which it can make reparations. For example, we demand the university redress its original stance in opposition to the Bursar’s Office Takeover by revisiting and publishing to its homepage the original preamble of the May 4th agreement, acknowledging and condemning its hostile and antagonistic racism. In complying with all the demands presented by Black students, the university can finally recognize that Black students are always in crisis and it is action, not listening or speaking, that will absolve this continuous and critical situation.

The university’s celebration of radical Black student action serves its progressive image, masking the reality of the administration’s complicity in suppressing both students and disciplines that seek to unsettle white supremacy at NU. We students reject this narrative built on lies and refuse to be used as tools in its construction. Our demands implore Northwestern to follow through on its lofty rhetoric by making real, tangible and institutional changes to improve the conditions of marginalized peoples on its campus, whether it be those within AASP and LLSP, campus service workers or Black community members. Anything short of these demands is unacceptable.

Latinx Asian American Collective, Students Organizing for Labor Rights, Black Lives Matter NU