Always in Motion: a dive into social movements on campus through the past decade
“To exist in a campus space is to always be in movement”
May 18, 2023
Note: while this story details larger social movements on campus, it does not encapsulate all student-led protests. This is not to place priority on some initiatives over others, but rather provide a summary of recurring protest themes in the past decade. More protest and student movement coverage can be found on our website.
The University of Massachusetts is no stranger to a protest. More than double the size of the surrounding four colleges in the Five College Consortium, the large campus of over 20,000 undergraduate students is tuned into the happenings of the world around it.
UMass’s social justice history has spanned decades. Political, social and economic injustices occurring on a local, national or even international scale engage young minds, and many students are ready to act at any moment. Students and staff members have led the charge on a multitude of fronts, such as when Black staff members established the W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies in 1970, or when students participated in a national strike against the Vietnam War that very same year.
Although the general idea of revolutionary, bigger movements may be majorly associated with the 1960s and early 1970s, many UMass students continue to trailblaze student-led protests and initiatives. Some even make national news, allowing the country to witness the activist-hub that is the University.
Whether it’s concerning issues like racism, police brutality, international affairs, climate change or tuition raises, student movements are ingrained in the very tapestry of UMass. But a common thread lies through each – the collective goal to hold the University’s administration accountable and work towards sustainable progress.
A look at various social movements during Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s position from 2012 forward provide a strong picture of the unrelenting peace train that the students conduct, while asking where that train is heading next. It ebbs and flows, but one constant remains – it’s always stirring.
A timeline from 2012-2023: common themes
The Daily Collegian has covered a wide range of protests in the past decade. The major recurring themes seen throughout recent years follow a pattern centered around human rights and equity, rather than a sole focus on politics. The two concepts are deeply intertwined yet directed in a lens more so concerned with fair treatment of individuals instead of a sweeping political agenda or affiliation.
Climate justice is one example of this. Student-led protests surrounding environmental causes increasingly persisted as a staple, cementing the priority that students hold for the urgency of climate change and any other infringing harms to the planet.
In 2013, students protested the advancements of the Trailbreaker and Keystone XL pipelines. The Trailbreaker pipeline was proposed to pump tar sand oil through Canada to Portland, Maine, which would effectively harm existing wildlife and waterways. Student signs read, “human health over corporate wealth,” the Collegian reported. Oil sands include bitumen, a black oil that is destructive to the environment.
The Keystone XL pipeline runs from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska. The existing pipeline transports oil sands over 2,500 miles, affecting Indigenous communities and other populations, as well as wildlife. About 30 UMass students went to the capital to take part in a larger protest against former President Obama’s possible approval of the pipeline. The students marched from the National Mall to the White House.
In November 2016, over 200 students participated in a two-day protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline project, where students stood in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who would be harmed by the invasive pipeline. Students later marched to Amherst banks to urge divestment from the pipeline.
Later that year, climate protests were sparked again, but by University doings. Organized by the student-led UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign, the group demanded that the Board of Trustees revoke investments in 200 fossil fuel companies. A week-long sit-in around Chancellor Subbaswamy’s office in Whitmore Administration Building was held, where 34 students from Five Colleges were arrested for trespassing. Approximately 150 students simultaneously gathered outside the Student Union during one of the protest days, while over 100 students participated in the actual sit-in. Former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein spoke at a rally, calling for the divestment.
A UMass Divest petition was issued to the administration demanding full divestment from fossil fuel companies, which was later achieved in May. The UMass Foundation also decided to put forth other efforts in sustainability, such as creating a Social Choice Endowment for donors, and following Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investment criteria.
“It also speaks volumes about our students’ passionate commitment to social justice and the environment. It is largely due to their advocacy that this important issue has received the attention that it deserves,” the chancellor said about the decision.
Another pattern can be traced back to protests regarding international affairs and immigration. International students make up 7 percent of the undergraduate population and 27 percent of the graduate population, according to University Analytics and Institutional Research’s fall 2021 and 2022 enrollment data.
After former President Trump was elected in November 2016, about 600 students protested the president elect and demanded that UMass name itself as a sanctuary campus, meaning that the University will not comply with government agencies like the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and keep community members safe regardless of their immigration status. The chancellor sent an email about the issue, doubling down on the commitment to already-existing university policies of non-cooperation with ICE, but without claiming the University as a sanctuary campus.
Large protests regarding international affairs resumed in 2022 when students gathered in support of Ukraine as the country faced Russian invasion. Yellow and blue flags scattered throughout Amherst Center as students, staff and community members stood out in the cold weather. Some that attended were from Ukraine with family and friends in the country. The chancellor later sent an email to the campus community, calling the Russian invasion an “assault on democracy itself.”
Later that year, Iranian and Persian students organized in support of Iran as part of a protest that spanned 200 universities. The international protests spurred from women rights protests after the government killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for reportedly wearing her hijab in a way that exposed some of her hair. Over 300 protesters in Iran were killed. Iranian and Persian students, as well as faculty and other community members held an emotional demonstration with information about murdered victims. The students also called for Chancellor Subbaswamy to make a statement condemning the Iranian government, but that demand was not met.
Racial movements on campus
Racial justice is a significant recurring theme throughout the last few years on campus, with some major events that have garnered student-wide attention throughout the community. In September 2018, hundreds of students marched from the Whitmore Administration building through campus in solidarity with Black students, after a disturbingly graphic, racist message was written on a bathroom mirror inside the dormitory. UMass Amnesty International organized the student protest.
In 2022, two anti-Black emails were sent from an anonymous email address to Black RSOs, several Black students, as well as a campus office. Chancellor Subbaswamy responded to the emails, stating that the administration and law enforcement are investigating the perpetrator of the hate speech. The same year, a Black student was racially profiled on a campus PVTA bus, where the driver called for law enforcement to handle the stand-off situation between the student and the driver.
Justin Coles, a social justice education assistant professor with a focus on race, started teaching at the University two years ago. He highlighted that these large protests spurred by a “very big thing that everybody sees, that everybody witnesses,” are what his disciplines define as “spectacles.”
Spectacles, while important, can sometimes overshadow the fact that there are subtle, everyday microaggressions of racism that students of color experience on a college campus. “We can kind of become hyper focused,” Coles said.
“I think we must always be attentive to the letter, right, things like that, the bus incidents. But I think we also as a campus have to be attentive to those ones that are a little bit less unseen,” he said.
Earlier in April, Coles was waiting at the bus stop by Haigis Mall when he noticed a message written in chalk, notifying students about a protest to defund UMPD. Coles wanted to know what was happening with the protest and UMPD, but no one was around. Coles took a picture of the message and about a minute later he saw a group of students marching to defund UMPD.
Coles highlighted that while the protest is a direct response to UMPD, incidents from the PVTA racial profiling to the anti-Black emails are “all compounded” to one another.
Another aspect of student organizing that Coles points out is its coalitional quality, which he described as a “beautiful thing.” The UMPD protest, he noted, was not only participated in with Black students, but white, Latinx and Asian students.
“I want to think of movements as always ongoing,” he said. “I think [of] Black students, other students of color, in a way that they’re always primed and a bit ready for a movement just by nature of how race and racism works, not only in society but in university spaces.”
“To exist in a campus space is to always be in movement,” he continued.
The first layer to college campuses being “hotbeds” for social justice, he said, is the forming of opinion through knowledge of society. The physical geography of western Massachusetts and the Five Colleges is another contributor to this, and the nature of UMass specifically contributes to the University’s drive in student-led movements. Another layer is the current state of political unrest the country is in, where students may feel more apt to speak out against racism, anti-trans bills, immigration bans and more.
“[College is] where a lot of students come into their ideas, into their being. And for the first time, many students wake up,” he said.
Coles talked about his experience working with some members in the Office of Equity and Inclusion. He noted that there are limits to working towards Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives. While there are sound ideas and actions taken by the office, there are ongoing efforts that need to be made. “What we’ll need to see is continuing the efforts to have people in place to be directly responsive to the students,” Coles said.
Administratively, Coles pointed to the many stakeholders that may hinder the University reacting quickly to racial incidents. The question that remains is how campus administrators can effectively meet student demands in a timely manner. “Things like racism, and other sorts of violences, they happen immediately … students want to see change immediately, and so there’s always this tension,” he said.
Coles proposes that action can be taken in both fast and slow manners. There can be “overnight” solutions, like hiring in diversity, or slower paths like increasing the student of color population. One constant that Coles is sure of, though, is that there are always possibilities.
Sexual assault and fraternity culture
Significant tensions built when allegations of sexual assault by brothers in Theta Chi fraternity arose in September 2021. The allegations were circulated on the anonymous social media app, YikYak. Over 300 protestors collected outside of the fraternity holding signs and yelling chants. The UMass Police Department and Amherst Police Department stood by in an attempt to control the crowd and deescalate the number of students. The protests were so large that they received national coverage through outlets like CBS and the Boston Globe.
Senior public health major Rachel Weiner remembers attending the first protest on Sept. 19. She and her roommate saw posts on YikYak and Instagram about the fraternity’s sexual violence allegations. That’s when Weiner and a few friends went to the fraternity to protest, which went throughout the day, and turned violent at night when some protesters threw rocks at the fraternity windows, broke the property’s fence and flipped a car.
“That day was so chaotic,” Weiner said.
Weiner cited how the overall campus climate that semester was tense, but the sense of community was supportive, acting as the “silver lining.” At the protest, students came together and shared personal stories, insights and encouragement to others – an act of bravery that is no small feat. “These great, strong people were speaking out and saying things and there were people there to lift them up and to give them a bullhorn and to speak,” she said.
A debate triggered over whether UMass should abolish Greek life and fraternities on campus after the assault allegations. Weiner, who is part of a music fraternity called Sigma Alpha Iota, noted how there should be stricter regulations in place to hold fraternities accountable. “There should be more regulations, and just making sure that these guys are not hurting people and not harming people and getting away with it,” she said.
Clinical social worker and adjunct professor Veronica Everett has been at UMass since 2013, where she works with students in social justice spaces. Outside of teaching sociology courses, she has a local private practice where she sees lots of students. Everett attended the Sept. 21 protest outside of Theta Chi, where she spoke to the crowd after she realized that she was the only adult in attendance.
“If I don’t speak as the only adult here, then I’m doing a disservice to this moment,” Everett recalled thinking before she stepped up to the megaphone. “The most important thing for me to convey when I stood up there was that change really happens with the students, no matter whatever the administration is going to do.”
Everett cited how bureaucracy plays a large part in major institutions, where students act as a catalyst with grassroots movements. “Things just don’t change unless there’s student movements.”
She also attended the open forum in the Student Union Ballroom later that week, where Chancellor Subbaswamy, former Vice Chancellor Brandi Hephner LaBanc, Dean of Students Evelyn Ashley, Vice Chancellor and Chief Human Resources Officer Bill Brady and Associate Vice Chancellor for Equal Opportunity Kerri Tillett sat on the panel. Students came up to speak before the stage to administrators, voicing their concerns – a physical structure of power that Everett did not like.
The task at hand is hard when systems are put in place, though. “Building trust is part of it,” Everett said. “But the reality … when we belong to systems or institutions on any level, we think that the system itself will always belong to ‘the man.’”
Everett attributes this societal and symbolic quality to a feeling of distrust that some students may have towards the administration.
The fight for accountability was, and still is difficult. Everett watched as groups like the Survivor’s Justice Coalition and Explain the Asterisk had different approaches to achieving justice. “I was watching these movements with the same, honestly, literally the same goal, to get the administration to move on things, to have people be held accountable, and for students to be protected. But the methods were differing,” she said.
Actions were taken in large part due to student work. A Change.org petition was issued by students, which accumulated over 30,000 signatures. The SGA passed the Survivors Bill of Rights the following months and a Title IX Student Advisory Task Force was created to address sexual violence on campus.
“That was absolutely the students,” Everett said.
A look into the administrative process
Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Sid Ferreira has been at UMass for 36 years. His office oversees student engagement and leadership, as well as RSOs, the SGA and GSS. Ferreira’s role is to hear student concerns and “then make the vice chancellor understand how students are feeling and how all of this is interconnected.”
“I want to be kind of that bridge between the student voice and the administration voice to bring people together,” he said. “I think sometimes the students may not understand all the processes.”
Ferreira points to a similar sentiment that social justice education professor Justin Coles echoed, being that students want immediate change, which is usually not feasible. “[Students] want to see some, you know, action being taken while they are here so that they can see substantial change. But as we all know, not all actions, or not all changes happen overnight,” Ferreira said.
His goal is to meet the administration halfway on students’ “very legitimate concerns,” while also trying to find solutions. Multiple players involved make this task harder, as the students, faculty, staff, Board of Trustees, alumni and more are part of this “huge system,” Ferreira said.
“What do you want to do … is make sure that people are heard, and that the message is getting across,” he said. The key for Ferreira is to build relationships, which help to establish trust. Although not everyone may agree on different political, economic or social issues and their solutions, “we as human beings, we have to have trust with each other,” he said.
“Accountability is important on all aspects. Protest is part of the fabric of UMass Amherst,” Ferreira said.
Tangible change and looking ahead
The UMass campus has seen many social movements this past decade, stretching from racial justice and sexual assault to environmental initiatives and international affairs. This past decade has shown that Generation Z and millennials are known for their vibrant activism in social causes.
With the rise of social media, individuals across the globe are plugged into the injustices all around us, making injustice more visible and accessible for others to witness. Weiner thinks students are “more willing to speak up and to speak out and to protect others,” and Everett believes that social media has fueled an increase in protest and activism by the “speed with which things travel and information travels.” Ferriera agrees, too, that social media has thickened the volume at which campus movements occur. While this can be overwhelming, it is imperative that political, social and economic issues both nationwide and across the world are exposed; at UMass lives a diverse population of many backgrounds who are affected.
“There’s always a way to create different futures. But what that does take is bold, sort of action,” Coles said.
It may be up for debate whether the student population is unique in the sense of student protest, or if tangible change can be made through student activism and how differing approaches are able to find solutions. But there is an aspect of social justice at UMass that’s probably not up for debate – the simple fact that the student voice will always be heard.
“They’re not shouting into the oblivion, someone’s always listening. There’s always someone who’s listening,” Weiner said about students.
Caitlin Reardon can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinjreardon.