Twenty years later
On April 18, 1988, a group of UVM students entered the President's wing of the Waterman Building asking secretaries and policy-makers alike to vacate the area
Published: Monday, April 14, 2008
Updated: Saturday, March 14, 2009 17:03
April 18 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Waterman Takeover -- a once infamous event associated with the power of the student body to effect change.
On a campus consisting of many students who pride themselves on voicing strong, often controversial opinions through protest, this historic milestone in our University's past will go uncelebrated, if remembered at all.
The Cynic reported on April 21, 1988, that after months of unsuccessful discussions between the Black Student Union (BSU), the Asian American Student Union (AASU) and then UVM president Lattie Coor, students had grown upset and angry with the University's indecisiveness and inability to cater to the simple requests of campus groups.
Around noon on April 18, 1988, a group of students-primarily members of the AASU - inspired by past UVM protests like those following Martin Luther King Jr.'s death in 1968, entered the President's wing of the Waterman Building asking secretaries and policy makers alike to vacate the area within five minutes, an April 19, 1988 Burlington Free Press article reported .
Among the requests of the students were the following: (1) each department was to have at least one faculty member of color; (2) the student population of color must represent the population of color in the United States; (3) the creation of a required course for first-year students on race studies and race sensitivity; and (4) the recognition by the administration that students of color regularly faced racist attitudes on campus, occasionally from their own professors, according to an April 19, 1988 Burlington Free Press article.
But when the students entered the building, their requests turned to demands. After clearing the President's wing, those students who were not of color were asked to leave in order that the 20 or so students of color would not be overlooked. This was not to be a social event but a dramatic action taken by students who were personally affected by the negligence of the University.
All but one of the employees of the University left without incident. Provost John W. Hennessey Jr. who was the only faculty member to remain, who explained to the students that the president was out of town and that he would not vacate for fear of infiltration by the students into sensitive school documents and offices in which students had no business, according to an April 21, 1988 Burlington Free Press article.
The Burlington Free Press reported that the students had consistently voiced their desire to be non-violent and used lengths of rope in order to close and secure office doors to those other than President Coor's, which had become their base of operations.
Five of the students and Leo Trusclair Jr, an ex-administrator who had recently resigned feeling as though he had lost confidence in key members of the administration's lack of response to minority students, began a hunger strike in order to add urgency to their demands, according to the Burlington Free Press.
By the end of the day, a hundred students had gathered outside of Waterman to show their support for the protestors. Many of these supporters stayed the night.
On Tuesday morning, protestors distributed leaflets identifying themselves as a new, collective group called "Student Action for Equality." The handout stated that "a group of minority students have non-violently taken over the administrative wing of Waterman and commenced a hunger strike in protest of the University's insensitive inaction toward the problem of racism on campus…"
The effectiveness of the handout was its ability to specifically identify the problems of the University and, more importantly, educate students who were otherwise ignorant to the problems that were only apparent to the niche of those who could not ignore them.
By raising awareness amongst both the students and the faculty, the voice of color on campus had positioned their issues so that they could not be ignored.
When President Coor returned to campus on Tuesday evening, he met with strikers to begin negotiations. It seems the original requests of the student groups had been stalled primarily by the Board of Directors at UVM, and not by Coor himself.
At this point, though, the actions of the protestors were so drastic that even the more apathetic on the Board of Directors had swayed in favor of the protestors. Even Madeleine M. Kunin, state governor at the time, voiced her support for the students.
Still, negotiations were not easy. The students and administration each selected a faculty member to act as their advocate in the negotiations. The two groups then mutually selected a third advocate. All parties involved were meeting late into the night, sometimes even early into the next morning.
Details of the negotiations remain unclear due to a confidentiality agreement between the parties.
In addition to the creation of a required course on race sensitivity, the students hoped that the administration would create specific departments for the study of colored cultures. In the past, for instance, students had to take courses on European Imperialism in hopes of learning about ethnic cultures as well as history.
At one point, a black history class was offered, but failed miserably as a professor with no background in the field had been hired to teach it, according to an April 19, 1988 Burlington Free Press article. The complication in resolving this issue in particular was that changes of curriculum are a matter of faculty decision, not administration.
As the week wore on, the effects of hunger and fatigue began to set in. After three nights standing vigil by the President's office, two female students collapsed. When they tried to rejoin the group on Thursday evening, they once again had to be carried off due to exhaustion.
But Thursday evening brought signs of progress. Negotiations lasted deep into the night. When students awoke on Friday morning, news spread that the sit-in and strike had ended.