Students Unheard; UMW’s Communication Problem

Op-ed for the Blue and Gray Press

Last year, during the Spring semester of 2015, I was at a rally outside of the Jepson Alumni Center, were UMW Board of Visitor members were meeting, and purportedly discussing issues which were brought up by members of a student body group called Divest. The protest, as many of you reading this likely already know, was with regards to arrests which were made on campus at the instruction of the school’s administration. Two students and one Fredericksburg community member were arrested for refusing to leave a student sit-in organized by Divest, whose demands to the school revolved around divesting from fossil fuels for the sake of the environment. Frustrated by the administration’s decision, members of Divest and many other UMW students, myself included, went to the Board meeting only days later to protest not only the arrests (all three arrested have since been found not guilty in Fredericksburg’s court), but to protest the Board’s refusal to take divestment into consideration. It was at this protest that I was witness to some of the most disappointing actions I have ever seen, perpetrated by school administrators and board members.

Our Vice President of Student Affairs at the time, Doug Searcy, came out of the building soon after we arrived. We started chanting at him, and continued to do so as he got into his car, going to pull out of the parking lot. His window was open, at first, for what reason I don’t know, but as he drove past the mass of 100 or so students, he rolled his window up.

These were students who felt voiceless; who felt that their school’s administration was failing to listen to them, or even care what they had to say, and instead of taking a few minutes to hear what they had to say, our own Vice President rolled his window up, and drove off. Unfortunately, he was not the only person to disappoint me that day. While we were there, the two students who had been arrested both stood up to speak. Each of them, in turn, directly called out the school’s administration and board of visitors as members of those groups were nearby. In each of these situations, the staff member walked away from the students while they were being addressed. One of these men was Marty Wilder, UMW Chief of Staff and BOV Clerk. The other was our university President, Richard Hurley. Of the other board members who were at that meeting, none but Edd Houck spared a moment to talk to the students gathered there that day.

At another incident, in which members of Divest spoke with President Hurley, he said something that for me, caused a lot of frustration. I was not present for this occurrence, but multiple people have relayed the general events to me. During the course of conversation, when students asked if he would continue to stay neutral on issues such as divestment, he replied; ‘I think that’s what I’m paid to do.’ In that same conversation he mentioned that his loyalty is to the board, thereby implying that it is not, in fact, to the students whose university he presides over. Both of these responses solidified in the mind of students present that their voice does not matter to the administration, and they had almost no power within the university.

Earlier that same semester, a controversial party was held by members of the student body, in which students dressed up as racist stereotypes of Mexican Americans. Now many of these students likely did not understand the harm they were doing, and many of them later apologized, and some of them completed community service as restitution. The issue I take now is not with them, despite the potential harm of their offense. This party took place sometime in February, and the administration found out fairly soon after. Instead of communicating to the student body about what had happened, they decided to keep the incident under wraps. I myself did not hear about the incident until weeks later, and only then because I was highly involved in student groups on campus. In fact, the only public mention our administration made about it was an email sent out mid-March by President Hurley. The email was referring to both this incident and another, but discussed them in no clearer terms than “recent situations in which our students (groups and individuals) have engaged in behaviors that” President Hurley found “repugnant and highly offensive to members of our community” (Hurley, 2015).

The second incident referred to in this email was of course the now infamous chant performed by members of the men’s rugby team. The chant itself referred to and glorified mutilation, rape, necrophilia, and violence against women, and had taken place the semester before, in November of 2014. The email above was the first time the school ever publically addressed the incident, and was written in such vague terms that none who did not already know what had happened could have no idea of what it referred to. That same day, students on campus asked the president that he be more clear about what had happened, fearing that a lack of transparent communication would result in retaliation against women on campus. I was in that room, and I recall very clearly President Hurley stating that he would prefer the information being spread ‘through the student grapevine.’ As I’m sure most of you remember, our fears proved true almost immediately. Only a day later, President Hurley did send a follow-up email going into more specific detail about the incident, and announcing the suspension of the men’s rugby club (and making no mention of the racist party), but it was too little, far too late. Each of these incidents were evidence of racist culture and rape culture on campus, and although thankfully, neither incident involved physical violence, such cultures often result in decreased safety for women and people of color.

Given this fact, students have the right to know about incidents like these on their own campus. Students have the right to know about the environment they are paying to live and learn in, and the school has a responsibility to inform them. Over the past year or so, each of these incidents I’ve spoken of have stirred some controversy amongst students on campus. Despite this; regardless of your opinions about divestment or about how the school ought to handle incidents that violate school policy, one thing is clear; communication is key. Communication can be nothing but beneficial, and certainly, better communication by the UMW administration may have resolved these recent issues with far less difficulty and frustration on either ends. The University of Mary Washington is a public university, and therefore, its priority is its students. Its priority should be listening to what its students have to say, and being honest, open, and communicative in return. Hopefully this fact is taken into consideration as the school searches for its next president.


Works Cited

Hurley, Richard M. “Re: Message from President Hurley. Message to Undisclosed Recipients. 18 March 2015. e-Mail.