Students form Coalition to protest Schlafly
After organizing at a meeting earlier this week, students have created the Coalition for a Responsible Washington University in order to protest the University’s decision to award an honorary degree to Phyllis Schlafly.
Schlafly, a national conservative activist, will receive the award at this year’s Commencement Ceremony on May 16.
The coalition has petitioned Chancellor Mark Wrighton to rescind Schlafly’s invitation. In the event that the University stands by its decision, the protesting students plan to wear armbands to Commencement and to turn their backs to the podium when Schlafly is awarded her degree.
Schlafly’s views, which the coalition calls anti-feminist, include denial of the existence of marital rape and objections to equal rights for women and homosexuals. The coalition says that honoring Schlafly with a degree is tantamount to endorsing those positions and does not serve to foster political dialogue on campus.
In forming the coalition, senior Lauren Bernstein says that students are legitimizing the protest and drawing the campus’s attention to it.
“It’s a way for Washington University students, faculty, staff and alumni to voice their opinions and come together to do what they can to revoke this degree,” she said. “It gives us a way to communicate, to get people involved and to inform people.”
Because of the limited time between the announcement of Schlafly’s honorary degree and Commencement, one of the coalition’s main goals is to educate the senior class-through Facebook groups, emails and word-of-mouth conversations-about Schlafly’s views and why, according to the coalition, those views contradict the principles of the University.
Bernstein says, however, that the coalition’s goal is not to interfere with the events of Senior Week or Commencement, at which activists plan to disseminate information about Schlafly.
“We’re not advocating tactics that would be disruptive to the ceremony,” Bernstein said of the planned protest. “We believe that seniors who are graduating deserve to have a good time. [Schlafly's degree] is a part of [the ceremonies] that is not positive and we want to recognize it.”
Professor Mary Ann Dzuback, who heads the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University, said that she will not attend Commencement if Schlafly will be honored.
“The honorary degree is an honor the University confers on people whose lives have in some way or another been exemplary and should be held up to the students as models,” Dzuback said. “This is not about representing views. It’s insulting to all of us.”
Although several students have considered following Dzuback’s lead and not attending Commencement, Bernstein says that the goal of the protest is to make a statement at the event while still giving students the attention they deserve.
“We want a presence at the ceremony,” she said. “People who are attending deserve to get their degrees. We hope to be able to send a message to the University. There are a lot of people who believe that this is not O.K.”
Dzuback supports the students’ protest, and the faculty of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department has also sent a letter to the chancellor requesting that he withdraw Schlafly’s invitation. In doing so, Dzuback says, the department is taking the long term interests of the University into account.
“I hope something effective comes out of [the protest],” she said. “It would be embarrassing for the University to [rescind the invitation] but it would be more detrimental in the long run not to withdraw the invitation.”
Regarding the coalition’s long-term plans, Bernstein says that though the students’ immediate focus is on Schlafly, she is confident that those members who are not graduating will continue to act on the same convictions.
“We believe in having a more transparent process in the University,” Bernstein said. “This reflects larger issues in the University. I see students who care about this and how the University is represented sticking with this. It’s something the group members care about.”
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