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Chancellor Syverud Responds to GSO Resolution Regarding University Interactions with THE General Body
In a letter delivered tonight to Graduate Student Organization (GSO) President Patrick Neary, Chancellor Syverud responded to the GSO’s Resolution requesting an investigation into the administration’s response to recent student protests. Below is the complete text of the letter.
In the letter, Chancellor Syverud said he respects THE General Body’s efforts toward engagement and their desire to move the University forward in positive ways. He indicated that he found no instances of disrespectful behavior by his administrative team or by any members of THE General Body. The Chancellor writes, “although our work in addressing the grievances and demands of the protestors is unfinished, I do believe we will find common ground and expect the University will be a better place for it.”
January 14, 2015
President, Graduate Student Organization
I am writing to you regarding the Graduate Student Organization’s (“GSO”) Resolution 15.13. The Resolution requested that I “investigate [my] administrative team’s response to the student protests, and . . . provide a written report that specifically addresses concerns of disrespectful administrative conduct . . . .” I have conferred about this request with senior administrators involved in discussions with THE General Body (“TGB”) and with Anthony Callisto, Senior Vice President for Safety and Chief Law Enforcement Officer, and can provide the following report.
As you know, members of TGB began their protest by occupying Crouse-Hinds Hall late afternoon on Monday, November 3, 2014, and presenting senior administrators with grievances and demands. That same afternoon and into the evening, members of my administrative team listened to and engaged with TGB. I am advised that both TGB members and senior administrators conferred in a respectful manner. At the conclusion of those discussions, the administrators and members of the Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) agreed to the students’ request that they be permitted to occupy the ground floor common area of the building. Agreeing to this demand required the University to engage the support of DPS officers and University fire marshals, which occurred rapidly. In addition, my senior leadership immediately took steps to ensure the occupation did not disrupt the operations of Crouse-Hinds Hall, which accommodates more than 2,000 students a day for classes, and houses multiple faculty and other support personnel.
During normal weekday operations, the building closes at 10:00 pm and opens at 7:00 am. For the duration of the protests, forty students, a number that complied with the fire code, were allowed to remain in the building overnight. The only restriction on movement was that no protestors were allowed to enter the building after the doors closed at 10:00 pm. Overnight occupants were free to leave the building at any time and return, if they chose to do so, when the building opened at 7:00 am. Owing to this liberal access policy, protestors were free to attend classes, access personal belongings, and generally carry on with their lives during the day. The same policy applied on the weekends, except the building closed at 5:00 pm on Friday and did not reopen until 7:00 am Monday. Weekend occupants were free to leave the building at any time and return Monday morning.
As you know, when the protest began I was traveling on University business. In my absence, I directed a number of senior administrators to meet with TGB representatives to listen to their concerns and engage in a constructive dialog. It was very important to me that protestors were able to air their grievances and demands. However, I felt it was just as important to ensure the protestors remained safe and that the educational operations of Crouse-Hinds Hall were not disrupted. To that end, I directed my staff to develop a workable process for discussions that would allow the students to advocate for their positions, but also lead to an orderly end to the protest. I cannot overstate the amount of concern that existed for the safety and welfare of the students occupying the building, particularly overnight.
I returned to campus on November 4 and immediately met TGB representatives in Crouse-Hinds Hall and agreed to a more formal meeting on November 5. For nearly two hours we had an open, unscripted discussion about their grievances and demands, and I responded to many questions. I found the meeting to be very helpful, as it framed TGB’s concerns clearly. I also was impressed by their passion and the depth of the concern they held for the issues they presented. Although their passion was evident, the tone of this meeting, like the November 3 meeting with my senior administrators, remained respectful. As I have said before, I believe the protestors were upholding a long tradition at Syracuse University of students speaking up for their beliefs and for the betterment of the institution. That said, at the meeting I made two points very clear: first, at that point, I was unaware of any behavior that would constitute a violation of the Code of Student Conduct; and second, the occupation was unsustainable and we needed to move to a less disruptive process for engagement.
After that meeting, I directed a number of senior administrators to continue working with TGB to review and respond to the group’s grievances and demands and propose short-term solutions where feasible and, when not feasible, to implement a process to address the concerns on a longer path. To facilitate discussions, I asked Dean Bea Gonzalez to lead the discussions. As you know, the University responded in writing to TGB’s demands, and facilitated a series of other meetings during the 18-day occupation of Crouse-Hinds Hall. On many of the issues, the University was aligned with TGB and already had committed to action. On others we continue to work toward accommodations that make sense for the entire campus community. We remain committed to a respectful dialog with representatives of TGB, while continuing to work with traditional and established governing bodies such as the GSO.
With respect to the specific claims in the Resolution, I have reviewed these matters and found no support for the claims of disrespectful conduct by either the administration or TGB. During the occupation, the University took measures to ensure (a) the protestors were safe; (b) the protests did not disrupt classes and admissions tours that occur daily at Crouse-Hinds Hall or interfere with the professors or administrative staff who work in the building; and (c) compliance with the fire code and other legal and safety regulations. Based on my regular briefings and discussions during the protests and my review after receipt of the Resolution, I believe these measures were necessary and also consistent with the spirit and objective of the protests. And senior administrators, including Dean Gonzalez, took great care to communicate these measures to the protestors in advance so they had adequate notice. I also believe the actions of University administrators and staff, including DPS officers, many of which were documented by protestors, campus media and others on video and contemporaneous social media postings, were appropriate and carried out with respect for the protestors and their mission.
First, and to be very clear, at no point were protestors “locked” in Crouse-Hinds Hall. As I explained, the building remained open for business during the entire 18-day occupation and access to the building was restricted only during the evenings and on weekends, according to the building’s normal operating hours. Otherwise, protestors were permitted to come and go as they pleased. At no point was any protestor asked to leave the building (although numbers were continuously monitored for fire and safety reasons and at certain points access may have been restricted for this reason), and this arrangement enabled the protestors to spend the night at Crouse-Hinds Hall, bring food and supplies, but also attend classes and other work obligations. Those protestors who decided to leave the building after closing hours were permitted to return the following day (or Monday, if they left on a weekend). Further, in many cases, exceptions were made to allow access to protestors who were unable to arrive at the building before closing time due to their class or work schedules or other obligations. I firmly believe the University did as much as it could to accommodate the protestors at Crouse-Hinds Hall, while balancing the interests of those who work and study there. I believe this access policy allowed the protest to continue much longer, under much more comfortable conditions, than a typical sit-in. On multiple occasions, I considered and rejected the idea of closing the building and denying come-and-go access by protestors, which would have been more in keeping with the sacrifices that come with a true sit-in. I am pleased we did not need to resort to this action, but the University reserves this option if confronted with similar conduct in the future.
Second, I have found no evidence that notices were delivered on Friday, November 14, 2014, in a disrespectful manner. The Resolution cites “conflicting reports,” but I am unaware of any report communicated to my staff that is consistent with what is described in the Resolution. On November 14 a representative of the University Counsel’s office delivered envelopes containing the Code of Student Conduct and the Campus Disruption policy to protestors occupying Crouse-Hinds Hall. As you may recall, on Wednesday, November 12, the administration delivered to TGB our final position on a list that had grown to include over 50 grievances and demands. At that point, it had become increasingly clear that negotiations with TGB were no longer productive given the constant shifting of positions and the failure of the group to identify representatives authorized to speak or make decisions. From the beginning of the occupation, one demand of TGB was amnesty for their actions. In our response on November 12, the University committed to amnesty up to that point, but made clear future actions would be measured against the Code of Student Conduct. While we remained hopeful that TGB would leave the building without the need to resort to our student conduct process, as the negotiations dragged on, it became apparent to my leadership team that a voluntary departure might not occur.
As a result, in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday break, during which the building would be closed for 10 days, administrators wanted the protestors to be aware of these policies in the event they were asked to leave Crouse-Hinds Hall and refused. I also thought it important that students have access to the Code of Student Conduct before any of its provisions were invoked. I believe fundamental fairness required this notification. The envelopes were handed to a student who had been a regular participant in the occupation, and those present have described the exchange as brief and respectful. I also have found no evidence University legal counsel at any time, under any conditions, “berated” any student protestor.
Third, the protestors were not denied access to legal counsel on Saturday, November 15. I understand from my review of this matter that on Saturday morning University legal counsel did discuss a request that a law professor from the College of Law be permitted to address the student protestors inside Crouse-Hinds Hall. That request was denied at the time for several reasons. As stated above, no student conduct charges were lodged against any protestor, and there were no other pending legal or disciplinary matters relating to the occupation. Most importantly, protestors were permitted to leave the building at any time to seek advice from counsel and return when the building opened. Alternatively, they were always free to use their phones and other devices to consult with anyone they wished while they remained in the building. Professors, advisors, and others from within and without the University community were given access to Crouse-Hinds Hall throughout the 18-day occupation. The only time access to the building was not generally permitted was during regular closing hours, and no exception was made on November 15. This decision was made at the time the request was received on Saturday, November 15. I am convinced, however, that an exception could have been made if we were given advance notice of the request. A similar accommodation was made the prior weekend for a clergy visit, as well as a visit by an employee at the law school who acted as an informal advisor for the protestors throughout the occupation. Finally, in response to this situation, on Sunday, November 16, the University publicly committed to developing a process so that in-person legal advisement could be arranged even when the building was closed.
As I have said on multiple occasions, I respect TGB’s efforts toward engagement and their desire to move the University forward in positive ways. To be clear, I have found no instances of disrespectful behavior by my administrative team, and likewise I have found none by members of TGB. As we move on in the spring semester I look forward to continued dialog with all interested students on issues that impact our campus community and the world in which we live. I trust this letter addresses the issues raised in the Resolution. Although our work in addressing the grievances and demands of the protestors is unfinished, I do believe we will find common ground and expect the University will be a better place for it.
Chancellor and President