Protesters swarmed the EMU Ballroom stage last Friday to disrupt University President Michael Schill’s scheduled State of the University speech. Compared to past protests at UO, this was a small one — but it ended the speech before it could begin.
A group of about 45 protesters identifying as “the UO Student Collective” rushed the stage shortly after Interim Vice President of Student Life Kevin Marbury took the podium to introduce Schill. Just a few minutes later administration vacated the ballroom, abandoning efforts to make the formal address.
The protesters sent a press release via email and posted a list of demands on their Facebook page a couple hours later. The list had 22 demands related to a wide range of causes — it included freezing tuition, cutting carbon emissions immediately and creating a Muslim prayer room in the EMU. Protest organizer Charlie Landeros told the Emerald his demands were meant to empower marginalized students on campus.
Schill responded with disdain for the protestors’ methods. “I respect protesters’ rights to share their views, but I do not agree in shutting down another person’s right to speak,” Schill wrote in a university-wide email later that day.
The State of the University speech was intended to exhibit the successes the university has experienced in the last two years, but also acknowledge the problems UO faces — many of the same issues the protesters accused Schill of ignoring.
Schill released a recording of his speech in Friday’s email, speaking about many of the campus’ most divisive subjects.
Friday morning’s speech in the ballroom planned to address the current and future state of UO. Schill’s recorded speech covered multiple subjects, from free speech to enhancing the university’s research programs and the development of the Knight Campus.
It also came after Friday morning’s announcement that an anonymous donor gave $50 million to Schill’s Presidential Fund for Excellence. The money will be used to support ‘new and important strategic initiatives,’ according to the speech. The donation is significant not only because of its size but also because there are no conditions on how it can be spent.
Free speech on campus:
The protesters chanted “nothing about us without us” and accused Schill of pricing out students with rising tuition costs.
The group promoted their demonstration on Facebook as “The State of Reality” protest, a reference to their discontent with the current state of the university.
Landeros thanked all students who came out “to take a stand against the fascism at University of Oregon.” He said that the protest was not just against Schill, but “the entire systems of oppression which exist within the halls of our school.”
The group also accused Schill of having an “ignorantly happy-go-lucky attitude” while attempting to “suppress [UO] students and to create a wage/class gap between the haves and havenots.”
Among the group’s concerns were “the recent acceptance of fascism and neo-Nazis” and “the blatant disregard of the student’s requests.”
While they did not specifically articulate their demands during the protest, the protesters demanded on Facebook and in a press release that the administration condemn Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But Schill said in an email in early September that he was committed to protecting DACA students.
Schill wants to “redouble his efforts” to help the protesters understand what free speech means. He said that if the students had listened to his speech, they would understand that he plans to bring free speech to the forefront.
“I’m not angry at them,” Schill said in an interview with the Emerald. “I’m just sad that they don’t understand the value of free speech.”
This year, in what he says is an effort to advocate for the First Amendment, Schill is working to coordinate public lectures on the importance of free speech with the assistance of all the schools and colleges within the university.
“My hope is what we’ll do is we’ll have a whole array of views expressed,” he said.
Schill was critical of those who use the First Amendment to silence others or spread hateful and hurtful rhetoric.
“Fringe groups use the openness of the university to spread ugly messages of hate, xenophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism,” Schill said in his speech. “They seek to incite a reaction which at some of our sister universities comes all too readily and violently. In other instances and at other universities, students seek to disinvite or shout-down speakers they don’t agree with. Faculty who ask probing questions are sometimes vilified as sexist or racist, creating a chilling effect on campus speech.”
Faculty members are already starting the conversation. UO School of Journalism and Communications (SOJC) Dean Juan-Carlos Molleda initiated a dialogue with students on Twitter Saturday morning.
Past protests on campus:
Protests are nothing new to UO, but few of them have ended in cancelled events. Some have resulted in progressive understanding between the administration and student cultural groups.
“Two years ago we had a protest by a group of black students who ultimately organized themselves into the Black Student Task Force,” said Schill in an interview with the Emerald. “They were outside Johnson Hall and they then were able to convert their passion into discussion. They ended up meeting with me and we ended up making a huge amount of progress.”
The university has raised $1.6 million for the Black Cultural Center, which was one of the demands that the Black Student Task Force listed. Over the next five years the Black Cultural Center will receive an additional $500,000, according to Schill.
“That’s a group of people who are able to convert protest into meaningful change, but today’s [protest] group will never be able to do that, because they don’t want to listen,” said Schill. “I’m always open to discussing with any student in a structured environment where they want to sit down and they want to have a discussion. I didn’t sense that that’s what they wanted. That’s not what they asked for — it’s not the way they behaved.”
The rising student debt crisis:
In 2016, the University of Oregon’s average student loan debt was $25,049 per borrower according to statistics on LendEDU. Nationally, the statistics rank the college graduate class of 2016 as the most indebted in history.
During the demonstration, protesters accused Schill of being a “CEO” who treats the university like “a business firm.” This criticism follows Schill’s comments in March that students can “borrow money” and “ask their parents” for help paying the increased 6.6 percent tuition this year.
Schill told the Emerald that he understands student’s concerns about affording college, but he feels that they should be able to.
“It concerns me that some students can’t, or that some students think that they can’t [afford college],” Schill said. “So I think there’s work to be done to help students understand financial literacy. That’s something we need to focus on.”
The UO Student Collective wants to see a tuition freeze and a plan developed to decrease tuition over the next five years.
“We are doing our best to control costs. We’re doing our best to increase state funding,” Schill said. “We did this year, and that allowed us to decrease the tuition increase. Some of the concerns about taking on some debt are irrational. Taking on some debt shouldn’t be a problem. Taking on a lot of debt is a problem.”