Students at the University of Rhode Island staged a sit-in protest on behalf of the school’s Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Center. The protest began Sept. 23 and came to an end eight days later on Oct. 1 when the university’s administration agreed to meet the students’ seven demands.
The issues were brought to the forefront in mid-August when a group of students were harassed by a group of males who screamed “faggot” from their car and sped off, according to Brian Stack, a student volunteer for the GLBT Center and the leader of the sit-in.
Stack and other GLBT students met with David Dooley, president of the university, at his house in late August, along with other members of the administration, to discuss their concerns.
“The students were very effective, very articulate in presenting their demands,” said URI Vice President for Student Affairs Tom Dougan, who was also present at the meeting. The students gave the administration a written list of demands after that meeting, he said.
Despite the meeting and a Sept. 7 blog post written by the president addressing recent harassment against the GLBT community, the students still felt their requests were not being met, according to Stack. He added that the post seemed to make promises without following through on them. Stack also said the students wanted to be involved in the meetings the administration was holding to address the issues.
The students’ list of demands included a larger space to accommodate the GLBT Center, a full-time paid employee to address the needs of GLBT students, compensation for student staff members and sensitivity training for faculty, staff and resident advisers.
The protesting students met with several members of the administration on Sept. 30, and the administration agreed to meet the students’ demands. The university is committed to getting the center a new home, and proposed a plan to renovate an existing building, an $800,000 undertaking, according to Dougan. As of Oct. 1, the students had yet to accept the proposal, he said.
The university agreed to hire a new full-time staff member when the new center is completed, generating funds to pay the employee from new student housing that will also be created by the planned renovation.
Prior to the sit-in, the GLBT Center held brief sensitivity training for resident advisors, where “no one paid attention and some people walked away thinking ‘that’s so gay’ is freedom of speech and they don’t have to do anything about it,” Stack said. There will be more educational and sensitivity training for faculty, students and staff as a result of the sit-in.
URI is also going to create an advisory committee to address the issues of the GLBT community that will include students, according to an Oct. 1 press release from URI.
The URI community’s reaction to the protest was mixed. Both Dougan and Stack agreed that the community was largely supportive, but Stack said that after the protest began, a note was placed under a GLBT Center staff member’s door saying “shut up faggots we know where you live.” He added that someone called him a “faggot” while walking to class during the protest.
The university has arrested one student for GLBT harassment related to the protest but “the difficulty is that, as frequently as they occur, it is very infrequent that we can identify the perpetrator,” Dougan said. “We want to make this a welcoming and safe campus for everyone,” he said.
The changes won’t happen immediately, Dougan said. He added that he is going to ensure “students are in meetings with officials to monitor the process and hold the university responsible.”
“It looks like this time they are actually committed to solving these things, but only time will tell,” Stack said. “It looks like we are going to get everything we need for our safety,” he added.