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  • Reverend James Squire

Classism And What Would Have Been Helpful At The Protests


I looked at the protests through the lens of a working-class kid. I was a product of the late 60(s) and 70(s). I think that it is great that students are protesting the plight of those in Gaza. But I want you to notice something. The initial schools to have the protests were from elite universities including one of my own, Yale. As we have taken in the protests on the news there have been, comparatively speaking, fewer protests at state colleges or community colleges. What is motivating the protestors is a commitment to an important cause beyond their own well-being. According to positive psychology that is the goal to feel purpose and happiness.


I received an email from Duke today updating alumni on what was happening there. There is not as much as other schools. The whole article was about Duke’s role in civil rights. Not much was indicated about present protests or the plight of those in Gaza. People need to remember that Duke is a northern school situated in the South. I remember pulling into a parking lot when I first arrived at Duke and Duke Medical Center, and few cars had North Carolina plates. This is because the state university system such as North Carolina State or UNC Chapel Hill are outstanding. You would be foolish to pass them by as well as the significant lower cost of your education. It is affordable for most people.


The initial protests were in universities where being elite also meant affluent. $80,000 a year isn’t chump change. I am the pot calling the kettle black for my kids went to elite schools. I am grateful that Amy Gutman, former President at Penn, attempted to correct this perceived injustice.


Two observations. I think classism is the underlying cause of the tension and division in our nation. Inflation is at the top of the peoples’ concerns. When I arrived at Berkely at Yale, it quickly dawned on me that many of the people around me were affluent. They criticized me for not joining them in the protests. The issues were the Vietnam War, racism, women’s issues, and poverty. The dilemma of being a working-class kid is there was no category for us as we slipped between the cracks.


The causes that I saw protested were very important, but what bothered me was when students finished protesting and went home and went home on vacation, they were welcomed into their multimillion-dollar homes. I, on the other hand, was waiting on them during meals with starched white coat and all. What a visual of classism!


My first question is, “What skin did these students and faculty have in the game?” Some have risked a lot, but I want to know about the others. One student who is the daughter of a politician complained that she was locked out of her dorm and had no place to sleep. I played next to a kid on the football team in high school that didn’t get a bed until he was in high school. He slept on blankets. The cause of what is occurring in Gaza as well as the conflation of Israeli politics with antisemitism is there as well. All students need to feel safe.


I learned in working class culture that the best revenge is to do well so my protests were long hours in the library which paid off. It paved the way for my time at Duke. At one level they were protesting for me but couldn’t see that the working class was overlooked which is so true today. We ignore this economic divide at our own nation’s peril like whistling to ourselves in a dark room hoping that there are no ghosts around a corner.


The answer to having constructive protests is a second observation. I have written a blog on an overt racist issue that occurred in chapel and my response that I will be posting as well as a model from Gordon Gee, one-time controversial president of Vanderbilt and Ohio State who was the highest paid president in the nation.


College presidents and administrators don’t know their students. They are removed from them. Hence, they have no credibility with them. What is needed is a change of structure of their administrations. Have a president to do things presidents have historically done but have people in the administration that have direct contact with the students. Faculty won’t do as students depend on them for a grade. It must be a structure where relationships are developed, and students know and trust the person bridging the gap between administration and students. Deans come to mind or dorm parents. Monk Malloy, President of Notre Dame, use to have his room in a dorm.


Penn State has this structure. I had a student who died when she was at Penn State. The family commented that their structure created a small college feel with a dean who knew their daughter. A huge university can create a small intimate campus interaction with students to create trust.


I had a family at EA who asked if we would invite Gordon Gee to speak in chapel as their daughter attended Vanderbilt. He was at the height of his controversy as people didn’t like the amount of money that he spent on refurbishing his residence on campus at Vanderbilt as well as his wife who was a member of the faculty was caught smoking weed. They declared it was for medical reasons. The Wall Street Journal kept the issue alive which made my life interesting.


Before the invitation was extended, I called a former student and asked her how Gee was regarded by the students. She said, “We love him! But leave the wife at home!” He comes to our dorms on a Friday night and brings us chocolate chip cookies. He is super visible on campus. H talks to all of us when he sees us. Invite him!


Gee navigated all the controversy because he knew the students and they knew him. They respected him. That’s missing in every school today where there are protests. To avoid shooting yourself in the foot, don’t allow a right-wing Republican to come to campus to tell you how bad you are, that he will fire your president, and withhold funding. When I think of the lack of social emotional intelligence in Washington, it makes me shudder. Lastly, never forget that a student can figure out things quicker than the speed of light. If I didn’t believe that I would never have resolved an issue of racism that occurred right in front of me.


Stay tuned!



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