Opinion Submission: Reflecting on freedom from an alumni perspective

| Class of 2004

Three weeks ago, I attended my 20th reunion at WashU. It was held primarily at Tisch park, a new addition to the campus that I consider quite beautiful. Nearly a third of my freshman floor attended, something that made me and my wife, also an alum, reflect on how much of a community WashU had actually been for us. I left the event feeling more connected to the University than I had in 20 years.

Since then, things have changed. I have watched videos and images of police on campus suppressing the rights of students and faculty to peacefully protest. Rather than using his influence to engage the ideas animating this protest, Chancellor Martin has chosen to attack and belittle his students. His actions seem more familiar to those of a corporate executive fighting off internal dissent than a leader of a world-class educational institution. 

During my time at Washington University, I engaged in a fair share of protests. I was a student on 9/11 and helped organize protests against the “war on terror.” Our targets, similar to today, were the University’s ties to Boeing. I recall feeling so disheartened that my university, my community, would be connected to these corporations that profit from militarism. I read the history about how previous generations of students at Washington University had protested the University’s connections to war profiteers during the Vietnam protests. While neither my generation nor the previous one was completely successful, I did feel that we were allowed to challenge the powerful Board of Trustees, and we were not met with violence or condemnation. 

When I was at my alumni reception, there was a protest outside Brookings, and I couldn’t help but smile. I was proud to see the tradition continue.

I am aware that some of the critique of the protests is aimed at “disruptive tactics,” not their  message. But part of what I learned during my time at the University is that, when faced with a power imbalance, as students certainly are, sometimes disruption is necessary. 

Another group I helped build at the University, the Student Worker Alliance, also engaged in disruption. I interrupted then-Chancellor Mark Wrighton at multiple community events. I invited members of the community, who were not students, to march on campus with us to demand that WashU use its considerable leverage to build a better St. Louis. Ultimately, that group staged a sit-in for over two weeks in the admissions office. The Student Worker Alliance didn’t win everything we set out for, but we did win over two million dollars in increased compensation for the workers of the University. My work on that campaign — perhaps most importantly, the disruptions of the status quo — is one of my fondest memories of college.

At the time of my graduation, I considered then-Chancellor Wrighton an enemy. He had rejected so many of my demands. But, as I look back, I must admit my analysis has changed. Wrighton allowed, I am sure sometimes to his great frustration, the University to be an environment where students could experiment with ideas and tactics about how to build a better world. We might have been combatants at times, but ultimately, we were part of the same community, the same family. 

I took what I learned, the successes and failures, and have used it to build a successful career as a labor organizer — improving the lives of working-class Missourians. Because of that, and despite my ongoing differences with the University on several matters of public policy, I am finally proud to be an alum.

As I think about the current situation, I wonder if the students that Chancellor Martin is deriding and threatening will have the same reflection at their reunion weekends. Then I think, with the experience they are having, would they even come?

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