University News

Twentieth anniversary of need-blind protest

By
Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2012

Need-blind admission continues to be an issue of student concern for groups like Brown for Financial Aid even 20 years after a University Hall sit-in that resulted in the arrest of over 250 students in April 1992.

On April 21, 1992, 253 students were arrested after taking over University Hall in protest of the University’s need-aware admissions policy for all students. Now, 20 years later, a new campus group, Brown For Financial Aid, has formed to protest the University’s need-aware policy for international and transfer students. It is in this context that The Herald decided to revisit those original protesters and administrators to hear their stories.

 

More than 250 tired, hungry students sat in University Hall as administrators handed out papers saying they were about to begin arresting everyone. The students, who were protesting Brown’s need-aware admissions policy, had been in the building since 8:30 a.m., and administrators had begun telling them they had to leave at 5 p.m., when the building typically closed. The administrators had handed down similar warnings earlier in the day. But so far, the threats had been empty. The latest papers seemed more ominous. “I remember reading the damn thing. It had my name on it,” said Johanna Fernandez ’93, one of the leaders of the protest. “It said that you had to leave this building. And if you don’t leave, it’s going to be hell to pay – in legal language.”

At approximately 9 p.m. on April 21, 1992, two Providence police buses pulled up.

The details of what happened that day are disputed. Administrators accuse students of violence. Students accuse administrators of lying and policemen of brutality. Twenty years later, the students who were inside University Hall that day have graduated, the administrators have moved on, and their story lingers only in fragments on a campus populated by students who have a four-year memory span and adults who would rather forget some moments.

“There’s a lot of stories about that day that I don’t think were ever told,” Libero Della Piana ’93, one of the student organizers, said in a recent interview.

This is an attempt to recount those stories and reconstruct what happened the day administrators and students clashed in the University’s most famous building. The times listed are approximate, and many of the details are drawn from the 20-year-old memories of eight people who were there.

 

The Main Green, 12:30 p.m.

It began as a peaceful sit-in. A small fraction of the eventual protesters – 20 to 100 students, depending on whose numbers you believe – filed into University Hall at 8:30 a.m. and sat down on the floor, lining the halls connecting the offices of the University’s top officials. Administrators made sure the students stayed pressed back against the walls so that there was still a pathway for people to walk. They didn’t want any fire hazards.

The protesters demanded a meeting with the provost to discuss their proposal for need-blind admissions. The provost, to the surprise of the students who had researched his schedule beforehand, was out of town. And President Vartan Gregorian was at a funeral in New York. In recent interviews, former students said the provost skipped town when he got word of the protest. Administrators denied the charge.

At noon, Della Piana led a protest outside, in support of the people in the building, just as the leaders had planned it. He got on the bullhorn, the crowd began to grow and Della Piana sent messengers to run through campus spreading the word – social networking before Facebook or Twitter. Della Piana had no idea what was going on inside.

By 12:30 p.m., the crowd had swelled to more than 100 people. Someone inside opened a window and called the protesters to circle around. A woman inside began giving a speech. As she explained that the administrators would not meet with them, the crowd continued to swell.

“I forget who was speaking, but she basically cried,” Della Piana recalled. “She said we came to have a conversation and be heard, and they refused. They treated us poorly, and they don’t want to hear from us.”

 

University Hall, 12:30 p.m.

As Fernandez sat inside, she could hear Della Piana’s voice booming over the bullhorn outside. The administrators told the students that if anyone left the building, they would not be allowed to come back in. So Fernandez asked to go to the bathroom.

When she got there, she lifted a window and called the protesters over to her. They circled around, and she gave the impassioned speech Della Piana remembered years later. Fernandez could not recall the words she said, just the feeling she had. “The emotion was about feeling that we were betrayed, that we were lied to and that the ideals that the University holds dear in public discourse are not ideals that they’re truly committed to on principle,” Fernandez recalled. “It’s shocking. It’s disenchanting. It’s radicalizing.”

When Fernandez was done speaking, she told the protesters outside to come join the movement inside. Policemen were stationed at the doors, and there was only one way to get inside – through the window. Della Piana began hoisting students up and passing them through the high window to Fernandez. It was not part of the plan. The plan was for the protest to go on outside, the administrators to agree to a meeting and a discussion to begin. But at that moment, the plan went out the window. A photographer captured the moment, and Della Piana’s mother saw it in the newspaper a few days later.

A policeman came over to stop the people from pouring in. Tensions rose, and another student tried to climb through the window. That’s when the alleged brutality happened. “They grabbed him and slammed him down onto the ground,” Della Piana said. “People just erupted.”

The doorways, 1 p.m.

Tommy Lee Woon, then director of the Third World Center, remembered the story differently. He heard that a student had slipped outside, and students had incorrectly thought he had been thrown down. He did not see what happened because he was inside, but he did see what happened next.

The doors began shaking, and then a rush of students busted through, launching Dean of Student Life Robin Rose into Lee Woon, who caught the dean and stopped her from being trampled.

Hundreds of students stormed into the building and ran through the maroon-carpeted corridors and up the stairs. Within minutes, over 300 students had entered the building. No more work was going to get done at University Hall that day.

With the president and provost both out of town, Sheila Blumstein, dean of the college, was left in charge. When the students came pouring inside, she was in a downstairs office, and she heard the commotion from the halls.

“There was a rush of people,” Blumstein recalled. “That was the start of, you know, ‘This is serious, and we’re not going to be nice about this.'”

Blumstein heard that staff members upstairs felt threatened, and she decided to escort them out of the building. When she was done, the few administrators remaining gathered in the downstairs office where Blumstein had been, leaving the rest of the building in the students’ control.

“They evacuated the building as if we were al-Qaeda,” Fernandez said.

Over the next few hours, a community of protesters formed in University Hall. People who had never met each other danced on the tables of the Corporation room and shared pizza donated by a local parlor. When the national news crew came in and turned its camera light on, the students burst into cheers.

“It was a festival,” Fernandez said. “People were having a great time. In many ways, community was built in U. Hall because this really wedded us together, and we were connected, students of different classes and races, by this higher mission. And it was an incredible thing.”

A community was formed in the administrators’ office, too. The chaplain of the college delivered spaghetti and meatballs through an open window, and the leaders of the University discussed how to get their most important building back.

“We’re having conver
sations with Gregorian, who had been in New York,” Blumstein said. “‘What do we do? What do we do?'”

The administrators were not going to stay there all night. They did not want to turn the building, which housed confidential materials including all student records, over to the protesters. They decided to bring in the police.

At 5 p.m., the party ended. The building closed. Everyone inside was liable to be arrested.

 

Corporation Room, 8 p.m.

As administrators handed out the papers to over 250 tired, hungry students, the reality of arrests dawned on most of the protesters. Some people, including Della Piana, wanted to leave and come back to protest again the next day. Others, like Fernandez, wanted to submit to arrest.

“I felt I had nothing to lose but my chains,” she said.

Ultimately, they agreed to allow people to choose whether to leave or stay and be arrested. About 50 people, including Della Piana, who had been selected to be on the legal team before the day began, walked out, and 253 students remained.

 

The stairway, 10 p.m.

Jed Lippard ’95, a freshman, was one of those left. He was not a leader in the movement. He was just one more student in a protest where numbers mattered.

Lippard had been recruited to the cause by a radical graduate student who was teaching one of Lippard’s classes.

“It was a bit of mind control, in retrospect,” Lippard recalled. “As a 19-year-old kid, I was so impressionable. And I had this really cool, smart, passionate radical who was, I think now from a more mature perspective, perhaps preying on young first-year, second-year students.”

The recruiting worked, and Lippard sat in University Hall at 10 p.m. with 252 others.

Blumstein came upstairs and announced that all of them would be arrested – and that she, along with a few other deans, would escort them to the police buses. The administrators had decided to arrest the students themselves rather than have outside policemen storm the building.

Over the next two or three hours, Blumstein and other deans escorted students from the third floor of University Hall, down the stately wooden staircase and out the door.

Some of the students seemed to not understand the seriousness of the situation. Blumstein remembered one student asking her as she was walking the student down the staircase how they would get back to campus from the police station and whether the University would provide buses. “We had no intention of bringing them back up,” Blumstein said. This was not a field trip.

When they got to the police station, the reality of what was going on struck some students. “Some of them said they didn’t realize it was real until they got fingerprinted,” said Beverly Ledbetter, the University’s general counsel. “It wasn’t until they got down to the courthouse that they realized this was no longer a University issue.”

 

The police station, 1 a.m.

All 253 students were charged with five criminal counts: disturbing a public assembly general, disorderly conduct, two counts of willful trespassing and prevention from carrying on employment, according to a 1992 Herald story.

Administrators said when people practice civil disobedience, they often get arrested. They should accept the consequences if it is a cause they believe in, they said.

“They behaved like angry parents and threw us in prison and threw the book at us,” Fernandez said. “And in many ways, we were derailed because we had before us some pretty serious charges.”

The movement never recovered. There were a few more rallies and protests, but the groups spent much of their time handling the charges. The two sides ultimately reached a settlement in which the students’ records would be cleared if they admitted their guilt and accepted a one-year University probation, meaning they could not get in trouble with the school again in the year.

But the issue remained. For the next 11 years, Brown continued to admit students on a need-aware basis.

“Everybody wanted need-blind admissions,” Blumstein said. “People think we’re rich. We’re not rich. And the issue is that you’ve got to have the money to be able to support it. And if you are going to do it on the same budget, something else is not going to be done. And the question is what is that going to be. Or you step up and bring in more money, which is what the students actually had asked us to do.”

But Fernandez contended that need-blind admission just was not a priority for the administration, and it was as simple as that.

When Ruth Simmons finally made Brown need-blind in 2003, Fernandez, by then a professor at the City University of New York, heard the news while she was eating a dinner in New York City. She rolled her eyes and had one thought. About time.