By Fleming Smith and Anna Mann
On February 22, more than 200 students, faculty, seminarians, and community members gathered in the University Quad to protest the Board of Regents’ decision to maintain Charlie Rose’s honorary degree after allegations concerning years of sexual harassment emerged against the former CBS reporter.
At the protest, many students and faculty members laid their gowns on the steps of All Saints’ Chapel, and student leaders encouraged those present not to wear their gowns until the degree is revoked.
The protest was organized by a Leadership Coalition formed this week in response to the decision by the Regents. The coalition includes students Eliana Perozo (C’18), Lala Hilizah (C’21), co-director of the Bairnwick Women’s Center Sydney Peterson (C’18), Student Government Association President Brandon Iracks-Edelin (C’18), Cotie San (C’18), and seminarian Bernadette Hartsough (T’20).
One participant in the protest, community member Linda Heck, said to The Purple, “I certainly have never even fathomed that such a [protest] was possible. I thought it was both beautiful and necessary. All the letters and speeches lately have been well-articulated and inspiring.”
The protest began with two statements read by Peterson and Perozo. “The Sewanee we seek is represented by us,” Peterson said. “We protest that the decision made by the Board of Regents to maintain Charlie Rose’s honorary degree is not reflective of the values we uphold as a University.”
During her speech, Peterson cited the University’s EQB Guide, which states that “We must all hold each other to our shared standards of honor.” According to Peterson, “The 1,000-plus members of the Sewanee community who have signed this petition share the same standards of honor. However, the 20 representatives of the Board of Regents, through their refusal to revoke Charlie Rose’s honorary degree, have shown that they do not share the sense of honor with us.”
Peterson continued, “Those who signed the petition, and those who are standing here today, outnumber those 20 people. We condemn the acts perpetrated by Charlie Rose and we demand to be recognized.”
The crowd applauded in response to Peterson’s words and many echoed her sentiment in the signs they raised above their heads. Youjin Sung (C’21) held a sign that read “SpeakUpSewanee” and “EQBullshit,” both common hashtags for the campaign. “When I first toured Sewanee, I was drawn in by the sense of community,” Sung explained. “I think [the protest] is another way to be a part of that community. It’s great to see Sewanee come together and be active.”
During the Leadership Coalition’s speeches, students challenged the authority of the Board of Regents and Vice-Chancellor John McCardell to make decisions on their behalf. “Our students, faculty, staff, and community members must set the precedents for decision,” Peterson said.
Peterson further explained that, in her perspective, the Board of Regents and McCardell “do not represent us,” she said. She described the Board as isolated from the student body; according to Peterson, the Women’s Center was contacted in the summer of 2017 by McCardell’s office to learn the date of their event Sewanee Monologues so that the Board of Regents’ meeting would not be scheduled for the same week.
“If the Regents are shielded from these stories and from the student body, how can they represent us? If Vice-Chancellor McCardell doesn’t realize this discrepancy, how does he represent us?” asked Peterson.
Peterson and her fellow Leadership Coalition members criticized the “unbalanced” systems of power that they recognized at Sewanee. She connected today’s system with Sewanee’s founding and the institution’s ties to slavery. Peterson described these systems as reinforcing “patriarchal whiteness.”
Alum Lily Davenport (C’16) closely echoed Peterson’s sentiment, stating, “For as long as Sewanee has been established, they’ve depended on blaming survivors and keeping powerful white men safe.”
Davenport traveled three-and-a-half hours from the University of Alabama to attend the event after seeing her social media feed overflow with responses to the Board of Regents’ resolution. “My mom graduated [from Sewanee] in 1987 and was dealing with the same issues,” articulated Davenport. “It’s important for me to come out today. It’s important to understand the power of people who have lived and loved Sewanee coming back together.”
Perozo’s statement began by expressing a desire for her and other students’ concerns to be heard and recognized. “We have finally found the strength to speak up in the face of fear, the face of power, the face of privilege, the face of whiteness, and the face of everything that we are not.”
She explained the Leadership Coalition’s website, speakupsewanee.com, as a platform for students to speak up on any issue, not only the revocation of Rose’s honorary degree.
“We as students have taken up our responsibility well and proudly on this campus to do something about the sexual assault injustices. All we are asking is that our Board of Regents and Vice-Chancellor do the same,” said Perozo.
Perozo clarified that she did not wish to attack the character of individuals such as McCardell, but needed to criticize his “actions or rather lack of actions.”
She added, “We are done following rules we did not write by men who do not wish to protect us…Until our Vice-Chancellor acknowledges his lack of transparency and Charlie Rose’s dishonorable deeds, we will not stop fighting. It’s time to speak up, Sewanee, and that’s exactly what we plan to do.”
San then directed protesters to peacefully walk to All Saints’ Chapel and lay their gowns at the base of the front steps. She explained the reasons for this action as “one, to show that symbols do in fact still matter, and two, to show that we are not going to continue to wear one of those symbols while we believe that it does not reflect honor anymore. I’ll ask that you continue to not wear your gown either to class or while teaching or during comps if you’re a senior or, should it come to it, graduation, until this degree is revoked.”
One by one, students and faculty laid down their gowns, and the steps soon became obscured by black cloth. After each gown had been added to the steps, Hartsough commented, “As your fellow students, we stand here with you. It is easier to be quiet than to speak up.” She then called for a moment of silence throughout the crowd.
The protest ended with Hilizah’s reading of the poem “Do Not Be Ashamed” by Wendell Berry, which had been forwarded to the coalition by former professor Gerald Smith.
McCardell attended the protest and listened to the students’ statements. He could later be seen talking to students, including Iracks-Edelin, after the protest’s end.
One faculty member in attendance, Professor Kelly Whitmer, commented to The Purple, “I just wanted to come out and support the students. I think this is an important moment for our institution.” Whitmer also brought her nearly two-year-old daughter to the event.
“It’s her first protest,” Whitmer said with a laugh.
Look on Friday for another online story in The Purple detailing further the Sewanee community’s reaction to the Regents’ decision and what steps faculty, students, and alumni plan to take moving forward.
CORRECTION 2/23/18: While The Purple originally reported that “more than 70” individuals attended the protest, a closer count appears to be “more than 200” individuals. The story has been updated to reflect this change.