Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas Threatens Students with Kent State

At Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado an urgent letter was released altering the Fort Lewis and Durango community about a meeting that took place between FLC president Dene Thomas, Provost Steven Roderick and two students. Concern was raised because of the methods used by the president and the Provost of the college with regards to student input. Not only did the students concerns fall on deaf ears, but we feel there was an attempt to silence us. Most surprising of which is an analogy President Thomas made to FLC and Ken State. Please read the narrative below explaining the meeting in further detail.

Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas Threatens Students with Kent State
November 17, 2010

FLC President Dene Kay Thomas Brings up Kent State Shootings

At Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado an urgent letter was released altering the Fort Lewis and Durango community about a meeting that took place between FLC president Dene Thomas, Provost Steven Roderick and two students. Concern was raised because of the methods used by the president and the Provost of the college with regards to student input. Not only did the students concerns fall on deaf ears, but we feel there was an attempt to silence us. Most surprising of which is an analogy President Thomas made to FLC and Ken State. Please read the narrative below explaining the meeting in further detail.

November 15th, 2010

The following narrative is a jointly written document concerning the meeting held on Friday November 12th, between FLC students, Jake Brettin and Alex Pullen, and FLC President Dene Kay Thomas and Provost Stephen Roderick. As students who were invited by the President to her office to talk, we feel our voices were not heard and, moreover, an attempt was made to silence us.

On the morning of Friday November 12th, Alex Pullen received a friendly email from President Thomas explaining that she would like to chat and continue a conversation that President Thomas and Alex had the day prior walking to her car. Alex responded, accepted the invitation and brought fellow student Jake Brettin to the meeting, assuming she wanted to continue talking about the recent removal of Tina Evans from the Environmental Studies Program. We went to the President’s office, met Dene Kay Thomas and were surprised to also see Provost Steven Roderick at the meeting.

After introductions, the President stated that she received an e-mail describing a peaceful protest that we and other students were planning for Monday, November 15th. We tried to speak on the goals, concerning the desired outcome of the proposed peaceful sit-in. But, instead of having a productive discussion regarding the communication issues between students and administration, a blame-game began. President Thomas started by making an analogy that, we felt, demeaned all students involved in the rally and march held two weeks ago. Her analogy was that the student protests were like contesting a speeding ticket by going down to the courthouse with a large group of friends and screaming from the sidewalk, stamping and waving signs around.

This insulting and unproductive conversation continued and President Thomas focused on the idea that the students had not pursued all the available means of contesting Professor Evans’ removal, even though over the last two weeks students held a rally and marched into Berndt Hall to talk to the administration. The ASFLC Student Senate also passed an Emergency Resolution in favor of Professor Evans’s reinstatement, and numerous letters were written to the FLC administration and the local newspapers. Prior to this meeting, none of the student-led actions above gained even a wink from the FLC administration. President Thomas’ solution to our problem was to look into the faculty handbook and consult the school’s policies.

President Thomas then explained school procedures and asked us if we had talked with Professor Evans about the matter. President Thomas went on to say if Professor Evans has not pursued the grievance policies herself, why are you pursuing them for her? Then she said, does that make you feel like a pawn? We felt that this statement was an attempt to turn us against our professor, mentor and friend, to get us to question our motives and drop the issue.

Most surprisingly, the conversation then turned to the potential hazards of a peaceful protest when President Thomas brought up the shooting that took place at Kent State in 1970. As neither of us were familiar with the details of the shooting, President Thomas and Provost Roderick went on to explain the significance of this event in their lives. Provost Roderick explained seeing a front page newspaper picture of a female student holding her friend in a pool of blood. Then they both went on to explain that to this day the university doesn’t know what to do with the spot where the shooting took place and that the location will forever be a blight upon the campus. They also explicitly conveyed that this tragedy was the students’ fault. They told us that the unarmed students were fired upon by the National Guard because they were told to stop moving and the students disobediently moved forward.

After that gruesome note, the topic was generously changed by Provost Roderick. We responded by trying to re-state our peaceful mission and desire for open communication. While Alex was talking on the matter, President Thomas leaned her head onto her hand and smiled in a very patronizing and demeaning way. Her verbal response to our agenda was playful and curt, yet she seemed not to understand what we had just said. Then Roderick chimed in, stating that our meeting time was drawing to a close. President Thomas and Provost Roderick explained how both of them have open door policies, and if we had any more concerns or questions to let them know. Even though both of these administrators explained their open door policies, we feel that at any future meetings our concerns would not be taken seriously.

We as students feel there is a lack of communication and transparency regarding the future of Tina Evans at Fort Lewis College. We also feel this lack of communication is symptomatic of the general lack of transparency, student inclusion, and input in administrative policies. In talking with the administration, our goal was, and is, to hold an open and public discussion so that these concerns can be heard by all parties involved.

College Activistm

I've seen many professors in Colorado get thrown out for their political 1st amendment speech and activities over the last few years.  (There are many other examples from around the country as well, like David Graber). Usually they only target faculty without tenure (with the notable exception of Ward Churchill, whose appeal will soon be decided) because it's much more easy.  I assume that Dr. Evans did not have full tenure (or else there would be a faculty review before termination).  I went to school in Boulder and usually they'd pressure faculty to resign first, like Lowe of the INVEST program, but one notable case similar to Dr. Evans is that of Adrienne Anderson.  Anderson was a major thorn in the side to CU Boulder's two biggest contributors, Lockheed Martin and Coors.  Students protested for reinstatement but unfortunately were unsuccessful.  On the other hand, Jim Walsh, a labor historian at CU Denver was threatened with termination recently and students there organized in support, and whether or not that had any effect, that is an exact understand of causation is unknown to me, but either way Walsh managed to keep his job.

But the article speaks to larger issues of student activism.  It seems that Fort Lewis might not be used to protests critical of the administration.  The Admin is playing the same game that every administrator plays, although perhaps not very well in this case, with the Kent State reference, which is actually quite off, historically and morally.  The people who were shot weren't even part of the protest, they were just walking by.  I think the people in this campaign are pretty savvy and much of this might seem rudimentary, but allow me to indulge in some advice without condescension or offense.

One campaign at CU Boulder less than 5 years ago where a genuine threat of a sit-in brought the administration to the table and demands won (however, it was for something much less difficult for the admin to swallow than reinstatement of a professor).  Also, that sit-in had the support of the city community, most especially much older activists who might make the university look good when they peperspray and arrest geriatrics in wheel chairs and such (people sympathize with that more than college students).

But on the other hand you can look at the recent sit-ins in California and how ineffectual they were (although they were mostly young and middle aged participants, not much older allies), and how the university did prosecute the students.

But back to my point about the Admin game plan, they have several strategies and rebuttals that they use.  It is important to have a savvy media campaign and also a savvy talking point list to effectively rebut the criticism, as the media will often take sides with the Admin or give them the last word.  This is a well-developed Administration Public-Relations hand-book (metaphorically speaking)  These are by no means exhaustive :

The 1st Admin strategy is to ignore, and not give any impetus to the cause by recognizing it, especially in the media.  This is only done so-long as the university/college does not feel like it has anything to risk in its public image because the activists are too disorganized, small, etc. to be taken seriously by anyone important.

The 2nd strategy is to infantilize the students with ad hominem attacks (a fallacy of logic).  It comes from a cultural tradition of "in loco parentis" where Universities and schools used to act like they were your parents, and exercised some of the same rights, after all back then adulthood wasn't until 21, as 21 was the age to vote and also to be drafted before Vietnam (see the documentary Berkley in the 60s, a MUST for any student activist).  They treat you as childlike in the sense of inability to really have a well-formed judgment or to make your own opinions, essentially less than fully human.  This is patently false, both biologically and legally.  These attacks can be as blatant as calling students spoiled kids, and irrational, or as subtle as making references to youth, emotionality, etc.

The 3rd strategy is to appease the students, making gestures of openness without surrendering any ground.  Open door policies are one tactic, another is the announcement of forming special committees to discuss the subject and "deal with" the subject, but the committees are usually not delegated any real power, instead they are just advisory.  Students from the activist organization try to get on the committees, usually with only one representative or two, the rest are chosen by the admin or faculty, and maybe one by the student government.  Committees are used to waste the students' time and attention, and to distract them.  The main strategy is to sap the momentum of the issue so that students lose all of their support. They can drag on for years.  Even when they do make sensible recommendations, the good recommendations are almost always ignored by the Administration.  Sometimes the 3rd strategy is skipped if the demands of the students are very radical, because to even appear to partially agree to the legitimacy of radical demands makes the college lose face to its conservative controllers and donors.

The 4th strategy is often concomitant to some of the others, but usually not, unless they are already losing the media battle or at least you are already getting some press.  This is to have a formal PR/Media campaign against the student group.  The Admin takes a big risk by doing this, attracting more attention to the activists.  However, if done well, it can completely discredit them.  Usually the admin will get more articles, longer articles, more prominent articles, and the last word in every article.  One reason for this is because for the journalists, the admin is a much more newsworthy source and story than student activists.  The paper also usually has an editor-in-chief who is conservative or agrees with the admin (look at the consolidation of the media if you don't believe me).  Sometimes reporters can be very liberal, but the editor controls everything, and even uses liberal reporters to gain access to weaknesses and problems in the students' groups.

The 1st tactic is the Red Hearing tactic (also a fallacy of logic).  The newspaper writes a story about you, but to be "objective" they have to contact the admin for an opinion. This will usually be the last word.  They don't just quote the admin in response to your accusations/demands/questions.  Usually, they'll also print something else that the admin says, and not go back to you to respond to the new accusation from the Admin.  So say you say that Tina Evans was fired for her politics, the article will state your opinion, then ask for a comment by the Admin to rebuff it, but the Armin’s PR person will comment about something else, say that Tina Evans doesn't want to fight her termination.  Whether or not its' true, its probably irrelevant to the question of why she was fired.  Secondly, you are not given the ability to respond to the new accusation, so the newspaper is not really being objective (but hey, objective journalism is like the tooth fairy).  I saw Red Herring being employed in one article on the FLC paper.

The 2nd tactic is a pure media bias tactic, but the newspaper will just either give the Admin more space or state the best arguments from the admin, that are usually sophisticated, while your quotes will be vague and distorted.  Often the paper will write an introductory comment or closing comment in every article taking the Admin's understanding of the facts (such as in Churchill, The Colorado Daily always wrote at the beginning or end, "Professor Churchill was fired for academic misconduct" which in fact was the whole question, and although nobody disputes the fact that he was terminated, the question was always why.  A jury of his peers found that he was fired for 1st amendment free speech, not academic misconduct - see wardchuchill.net)

The final strategy (5) is to criminalize the students.  If the Admin is doing this then you know you've done something right!  This strategy can take the form of ad hominem attacks (name calling) in the media, threats, surveillance, sanction, or even arrest/prosecution (not necessarily for anything more than downloading music, jaywalking, or other bulshit charges).  At this point the Admin has given up on trying to destroy your group from the inside, and can only isolate it or smash it.  Sometimes you can fight these attacks in the media, or legally (a great resources, although libertarian and therefore kind of right-wing, but none-the-less principled is TheFIRE.org, foundation for individual rights in education.  They've routinely helped students who faced sanctions from University officials.  )  Otherwise, you need to make sure that by this stage you have your own media and that you keep your members and allies very well informed of your intentions and the facts so they are not scared off.  Having a very tight-knit movement is the key, and constantly pressing back against the attacks with outrage, if only in print.

Anyhow, to fight these strategies there are several strategies for activists:

1. Now, the FLC media might be slightly more friendly than my experience.  Nevertheless, I recommend develop talking points and sticking to them.  Some of them can be secret.  Everyone in your group should either be extremely knowledgeable about the situation or should ALWAYS defer to a media contact that is.  The person who is should stick to the talking points.  Put these out in press releases before rallies or media events. Feel free to change your talking points as a group when needed.  The Talking points should be simple, clear, and indisputable.  They can be questions or statements, but they should be very short (easier to quote) and backed up by evidence.  However, let the evidence speak for itself.  Don't talk about anything besides the points.  Journalists will become frustrated, and ask you questions. But remember, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO ANSWER MEDIA QUESTIONS.  Often they will ask questions that they will use against you, (like, how did you get started in activism? - the purpose is to psychologically and sociologically isolate you and paint you as fringe or essentially less-than-fully-human.) (  Another example is, asking about who funds your group, what age you are - usually done to isolate older 'professional activists' as not part of the traditional student body and therefore illegitimate representations and other cultural questions meant to make you look different) (Some journalists will even ask one member of the group to comment on the decision of the whole group or answer questions about other people.  Never do this, at best it’s displaying your dirty laundry in public, at worst it's snitching.  )  Journalists may even ask you about the substantive issues, but you should avoid answering unless you have a rock-solid short response based on evidence (and its best to just refer to the evidence by handing them a copy rather than talking), or a quick quip back , like a question answering a question.  Never go into the detailed reasoning for your arguments with outsiders like journalists because it can be taken out of context.  Don't be rude, but after a while of repeating the talking points the journalists will get that you’re not answering their bullshit questions.

2. Be creative.  This is activism 101, but seriously, the media is not your friend, but it still loves anything catchy, funny, or controversial.  IF you can do an action or make a display which says your point for you in a way that the media can't criticize as boring, emotional, juvenile, etc. it's 10x better than any interview or Op-Ed.  The best is to be Ironic, but sometimes being insulting is also great, seriously.

3. Be Bold.  Traditional fliering locations, chalking, or other methods of outreach are ineffective.  If it's sanctioned, don't do it.  Campuses have rules about such things that are really violations of the 1st amendment (see theFire.org) .  The entire campus is a free speech area. Students learn to tune-out messages from sanctioned channels, mediums, and locations.  Putting them elsewhere in different and unusual ways makes them not only standout, but also the medium of your message says that you're not another bullshit club, and that you're serious, skilled, and smart! I'm talking banner drops, spray paint, wheat pasting, and more.  Also, call the Admin on their shit.  If they're infantalizing, say so, if they're using ad hominem, make a point of it.  Know the fallacies of logic. Defeat their arguments with simple one-sentence references to fallacies of logic or references to the facts.  This can be done in media quotes, op-eds, fliers, pamphlets, conversations, etc.

Another part of being bold is not being afraid to do personal attacks.  Bad decisions are made by people, and they'e the ones responsible, not just the group to which they belong.  Calling out individual admin members, rather than institutions, really affects them psychologically, and draws more media attention.  And, damn it’s being real too.  The best kind of attack is to find evidence of a serious contradiction in their statements and/or actions.  The second best is to just focus on one outrageous statement, action, or lack of action (The Kent State threat is a good one in this case).  Be creative with this too, but also be bold enough to take unusual actions as long as you are smart about it (not getting caught).  Make sure that you have some factual basis for your attack and also that you don't push it so far that they fear for their safety.  People don't like to give in when they feel their personal safety is threatened.