At 8:30am on Tuesday, February 16, a group of student activists, predominantly students of color, gathered in room 218 of Harkins Hall—the office of the President, Reverend Brian J. Shanley. The students organized this sit-in following an event in November at which between 75 and 100 Providence College students called on their President—referred to within the confines of the private, Roman Catholic college as Father Shanley—to address issues of racism on their campus. At the event, students presented a 10-page list of demands to President Shanley and the administration titled “In Response to Racism and Anti-Blackness at Providence College: Demands for Redress.” These include “an Inclusive Curriculum, Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity, Title VI Coordinator, the establishment of a Center for the Study of the Black Diaspora, and the establishment of a new Multicultural Center in Moore Hall.” The list of demands also called for action by January 11, 2016. On Tuesday, more than a month after this deadline, students staged a peaceful protest in the President Shanley’s office with the intention of sitting in until he signed their demands.
Steve Ahlquist, reporter for RI Future, wrote that this demonstration followed “three semesters of unproductive dialogue filled with political rhetoric and complacency from the President and his administration.” President Shanley has made little effort to meet one-on-one with student organizers to address their complaints. The student organizers identified themselves as The Board of Representatives, according to a post from Marco McWilliams, a racial justice activist in Providence and the founding-director of the Black Studies Program at Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). He told the Independent he was asked to help build community solidarity with their efforts after having spoken in their class last semester.. McWilliams reported the developing story live throughout the day on Facebook and Twitter using #PCBreakingTheSilence. The Board of Representatives has not explained the meaning of their name, though McWilliams believes it offers a sense of legitimacy that “challenges traditional power structures,” he told the Independent.
One student spoke to the Independent outside of room 218, identifying himself only as a member of the Board of Representatives. In the hallway outside of the President’s office, he explained, “honestly I feel a lot of ostracism...there’s a lot of separation ‘cause there’s a disconnect between the people of color and the white students.” He cited examples of racism on campus including a protest last Friday, February 13, at which “a parent put his hand on a student who was protesting”, another white student reportedly mocked protesters and a white parent returned protesting cheers of “black students matter” with an emphatic “all students matter.” A video of these instances were posted to YouTube by members of the Board of Representatives. Earlier this month, five women of color at Providence College said that they were denied entrance to an off-campus party at which, according to ABC News, “people yelled racial slurs and threw bottles at them.” They reported the incident, and held a rally where other students of color shared similar stories. They called on the administration to take action, but their entreaty fell on deaf ears.
But the sit-in organized by the Board goes beyond individual incidents of racism on campus, and positions them within a greater trend of systemic racism. McWilliams told the Independent “there are some institutional challenges that the school had around the diversification of its curriculum...around culturally relevant material, attendance of students of color...silence from the administration.” This is not the first time that Providence College has been noticed for its lack of ethnic diversity. In 2007, Providence Business News reported that the Princeton Review ranked Providence College as having the most ethnically homogenous student population in the country. The school was also ranked eighth for “little race/class interaction.” Lack of diversity extends beyond the student body. College Factual reported that 88.3% of Providence College faculty is white and only 3.4% of the faculty are Black. Their headline for the student life page makes the implications of these figures clear: “One Ethnicity Will Fit Right in at This School. The Rest of Us? Probably Not.” The Board of Representatives isn’t as focused on responding to specific incidents or racist acts on campus. They’re taking on the institution.
A little after 3:00pm, a white man—presumably one of the students involved or at least a supporter—angled a camera on a tripod in the corner of the room and asked those participating in the sit-in to move closer together for the photo, telling them to “look strong.” ABC News reported that afternoon that almost 50 students participated in the event. Three of the students, willing to put their physical health on the line, committed themselves to a hunger strike to pressure the administration to meet their demands.
Associate Vice President Steven J. Maurano told the Independent that, “Father Shanley simply can’t [sign off on the demands] given [their] broad nature.” Maurano explained that President Shanley was “willing to bring those demands to the faculty to begin that dialogue, but that’s not something that happens overnight...the students, for their part, seem to be impatient.”
Protests erupted at universities around the United States last November after students of color at the University of Missouri spoke out to address incidences of racism at their school, leading to the resignation of the university system’s president and the chancellor of Mizzou’s campus. Soon after, students at Yale held a demonstration to hold their own administration accountable for institutional racism after a professor sent an email—weighing in on a campus-wide discussion about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes—in which she wrote: “is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?… Increasingly it seems [American universities] have become places of censure and prohibition.” At Ithaca College, students protested after Black Lives Matter posters were vandalized. The Ithaca Journal also cited an incident dating back to the Spring of 2015 in which a noose was found hanging on campus, invoking imagery of lynch mobs. Similar headlines also appeared at the local level. Brown University’s main student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, issued an apology after consecutively publishing two racist columns, one of which argued that Native Americans should thank Christopher Columbus for the technology and livestock he brought to North America.
The overwhelming thread running through these cases is that universities across the country are not doing enough to support the needs of students of color, whose voices are marginalized at predominantly white institutions. At Providence College, students of color comprise only 16% of the class of 2019. This figure diverges drastically from the ethnic composition of Rhode Island’s capital. The latest US Census, compiled in 2010, puts the number of white people in Providence at 49% while “Black or African American” residents comprise 16% of the population and the “Hispanic or Latino” population was recorded at over 38%.
The students protesting in the President’s office at Providence College set the deadline for President Shanley to accept their Demands of Redress at 4:30pm on Tuesday. This was the same deadline that the administration set for the students to end their demonstration. The Associate Vice President Steven Maurano told students that while the police would not “strong-arm” them, they would be expected to leave the building. “We are waiting to see if Providence College security will begin making arrests. The students continue to maintain that they will not leave until the president of the college signs their list of demands,” McWilliams wrote on Facebook. 4:30pm came and went, but those students remained in the office. President Shanley had still not signed their demands.
Pictures and videos posted on Facebook and Twitter throughout the day revealed images of students scattered throughout the room, some with textbooks on their laps, others sleeping on the ground, working on laptops, or quietly talking with one another. When I was in the room that afternoon between 3:00 and 4:00pm, it was calm and, to an outsider, it even felt relaxed despite the gravity of the demonstration. McWilliam told the Independent that it was a “very comfortable...serious, mature, developed campaign…[the student organizers] knew exactly what they were doing.” The room was filled with students, and movement in any direction risked tripping over a student or their backpack. Someone walked in carrying pizza. The administrative assistant at the desk outside of President Shanley’s office searched for something to help one of the protestors clean their hands. Outside of room 218, the halls were silent, empty.
Father Shanley signed the demands around 10:00pm on Tuesday, 13 hours after the start of the sit-in. At 1:00am on Wednesday, The Board of Representatives released a statement about their plans moving forward: “We are proud of what we accomplished. We will see how honest [Father Shanley] is in his commitment in 20 days and whether or not we believe his plans are substantive enough.” McWilliams told the Independent that the students are “turning their attention toward follow-through” and “holding the administration accountable.” They have a “series of checkpoints...particular goals and deadlines and dates...going into March.” President Shanley’s signing marked a successful end to Tuesday’s sit-in, but it remains to be seen what plan of action he puts forth and what kind of institutional changes students in the Providence College community will experience. But according to McWilliams, the students have made it clear that they’re not resting on their laurels. One student told him: “we’re gonna watch him like a hawk.”
Students who spoke with the Independent in PC's Slavin Center student union building, while overwhelmingly supportive, seemed to have little knowledge of both the sit-in on Tuesday or the events preceding it. One student mentioned they had “been getting a lot of emails lately,” and had heard protesting outside of his window but “didn’t really know what it was about.” Another student said she thought it was “great that they’re standing up for something they believe in and I know there’s a lot going on in society right now.” But the consensus was that the issue of the student-led sit-in was not a large topic of discussion, which is often the case at predominantly white institutions.
The struggle to end institutional racism on college campuses and create diverse environments that better serve students of color and reflect the actual demographics of the United States also involves making other students aware that these problems exist. The shady workings of systemic racism are easily ignored by people whose lives aren’t personally affected by them or who simply aren’t looking for it. The rhetoric of asking students to engage in dialogue seems void when these students have to shout to be heard.
HANNAH MAIER-KATKIN B’18 is listening.