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Students demand president’s ouster at Occidental

EAGLE ROCK — The student occupation of Occidental College’s administration building entered its sixth day Nov. 18 with student leaders presenting a list of demands they want the school to meet by Nov. 20.

The demands, including the creation of a black studies major and increasing the number of minority faculty members, are meant to recognize the diversity in the student body, a reality that protestors accuse the school of ignoring.

The student protest began Nov. 12, when a group of students held a walkout and teach-in that ended in a march to President Jonathan Veitch’s home on campus. On Nov. 16, after a rally on the steps of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center, students occupied the building.

Alumni and allies have brought in food to show support and some professors have moved their classes to the administration building.

One of the student organizers, Diamond Webb, 21, a senior majoring in sociology, said the movement is “long overdue,” and that students were inspired by similar protests at the University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna College, which resulted in administrators at both schools resigning.

Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch
Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch

In an email message sent to all students and faculty Nov. 18 Veitch said he plans to personally reach out to the leaders of the movement to “restart and maintain a conversation about diversity and inclusion that will be transformative.”

The first demand on the students’ list calls for the removal of Veitch, who has led the campus since July 2009. Webb said she has video footage from the Nov. 12 rally in which Veitch stated that he would be “happy to resign.”

Webb, who said she chose Occidental because of its small size, was “seduced” by the idea that it had many students of color when she attended the Multicultural Visit program for prospective students. But when she arrived on campus, she saw that it was not as diverse as she envisioned.

“I know every black student on campus,” she said. “I’m a senior, and I already know all of the freshmen. That to me is crazy.”

According to the school’s profile, half of the student body is Caucasian. Asians comprise about 12 percent of the students and Hispanics account for 15 percent. Only 4.5 percent of students identify as black or African-American.

Webb said she has felt the sting of marginalization both overtly and in subtler, more everyday ways.

She recounts a 2014 incident when she created a memorial for Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager who was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012.

“It was desecrated by two students, and they suffered no repercussions,” she said. “The administration brushed it under the rug.”

She also reports feeling tokenized when going about the routine task of attending class.

“When there’s a question about Black History Month, for example, everybody looks at me,” she said. “People will ask me questions about my hair. … I feel uncomfortable on a daily basis.”

James Tranquada, Occidental’s director of communications, agreed that “racism is a problem throughout larger society and Occidental is a part of that society.”

He said that Occidental has a long-standing commitment to diversity, and pointed to this year’s College Access Index, released in September, which shows that the school ranks high in efforts to achieve economic diversity compared to other liberal arts colleges.

But even so, “there’s more we need to do,” he said. “No disagreement over that.”

Political science professor Regina Freer is helping mentor the students protesting. She is teaching her classes around the administration building and leading discussions about the larger implications of the stuents’actions.

“I’m one of two black female faculty members on campus, so I feel their pain,” she said. “My students are incredible, thoughtful and creative. They deserve to have their demands met.”

On Nov. 17, Chris Calkins, president of the college’s Board of Trustees, said the board stands “in full support of President Veitch and have no intention of changing the leadership of the college.”

The student occupation of the administration building is expected to continue until at least the weekend.

“The movement happening across the nation at different campuses alerts me that our struggle is not isolated to Oxy,” sophomore Zawadia LeFang said. “The fact that we are not alone is disturbing because it assures me that the marginalization of students of color, especially black students, is a systemic issue.”

In addition to calling for Veitch’s ouster and a black studies major, the students’ list of 14 demands also includes a call for the college to provide funding to a black student group they claim has been denied funds for five years, a 20 percent increase in tenured faculty of color by 2017-18 and the “demilitarization” of campus security.

City News Service also contributed to this story.