UVM Students Protest Racism, Demanding President’s Resignation


Burlington Free Press

UVM staff member John Meija, who’s on hunger strike, addressed a crowd Tuesday, Feb. 21.


MIDDLEBURY — For the past week, students at UVM have been engaged in a series of protests regarding racial justice and the administrators’ lack of support and sensitivity towards students of color on campus.

The movement was largely spearheaded by a group of students who call themselves NoNames For Justice and describe themselves as a faceless movement of students dedicated to ending white supremacy. NoNames includes student leaders from several campus groups including the Black Student Union and Womyn of Color Coalition, among others. The group had presented the administration with a list of demands last spring, in addition to a petition from more than 400 UVM students. In a document posted to its Facebook page, the group said that although the university has made some strides, not all demands have been met, and that the group will continue to advocate until each demand has been met with sincerity.

Last Tuesday, around 200 protesters occupied UVM’s Waterman Building to demand the resignation of President Tom Sullivan in addition to Provost David Rosowsky and Vice Provost Annie Stevens.   

NoName’s current demands include: university-wide diversity and inclusion training, increased recruitment and retention of faculty of color and LGBTQA faculty, the renovation of diversity courses, appropriate responses to bias incidents, mandatory fraternity and sorority life training, increased funding for Diversity, Culture, and Religious Student Groups and the Identity Centers, and that the Bailey/Howe Library and the Perkins building be renamed.

UVM student Cat Lawrence ’21 noted that the process of formulating demands was extensive. “We have been working on them for a while, breaking them into further feasible steps and condensed them to 7,” she said. “These demands look very similar to the demands brought forth by students 30 years ago. That’s not a coincidence. We have been in numerous meetings with the President and other executive staff however we (Nonames for Justice, marginalized students and their allies) feel ignored and unseen. I think it was all building up to these protests.”

Students from the group are protesting a culture of white supremacy on campus and the administration’s lack of support. “The students of color at the University of Vermont do not feel safe, welcomed, or included,” NoNames told The Burlington Free Press. They point to a series of incidents as examples of racial injustice on campus, including “it’s okay to be white” and “White Privileged And Proud of It” flyers and posters posted across campus. In addition, the students cited the University’s handling of the theft of the Black Lives Matter flag last spring.

Students also highlighted an incident involving Wesley Richter, a student who was accused of making racist threats, as a “clear case of white supremacy culture.” In the fall, a state judge ruled in favor of Richter, citing a lack of probable cause for charge with a crime. The university also refused to release records that would have provided insight into what Richter said and how the school responded.

Middlebury Sociology professor Linus Owens expressed his support for NoNames for Justice and cited the ongoing nature of the challenges students of color face at UVM. “I went to a teach-in they held during the fall to discuss their work and the demands they were making on the university administration. The recent rash of problems on campus only compound the everyday indignities and issues that students of color face at UVM,” said Owens.

Despite the tireless efforts of many student protestors, many students refrained from protesting alongside their peers. “Some students are jumping into action by supporting NoNames for Justice and attending protests and planning sessions. However, today we faced a lot of irritated students claiming that the University is doing the best they can (ignoring the fact that the Black Student Union put out their original list of demands last spring, and it has dwindled from over 15 demands to a mere 7).  It has been both an empowering and tiring environment. […] Many students of color are exhausted but are somehow continuing this incredible fight.  Many white students are ignoring social and racial injustice and need to reevaluate their priorities,” said UVM student Soledad Sloan ’21.

In addition, last Tuesday evening, David Daigle, chairman of the Board of Trustees, expressed “unwavering support” for the three administrators and said they should be commended by the entire UVM community. “President Sullivan, Provost Rosowsky, and Vice Provost Annie Stevens each have a deep and steadfast commitment to the principles of diversity, inclusion and equality that are important to our University,” he said in a statement. “Their actions to promote a culture of inclusive excellence have been extensive.”

However, the students have received support from staff members, including John Mejia, the Assistant Director of Student Community Relations. Mejia, who uses the pronouns they and them, began a hunger strike until several demands, including those of NoNames for Justice, are met.

“[My role] is to throw my body into the twin gears of white supremacy and anti-black racism that run this university and city,” Mejia said in an interview with the Burlington Free Press. “It is to force them to grind to a halt.”

Mejia presented their own list of demands in addition to those of NoNames’, including a permanently flying Black Lives Matter flag, for UVM police to be trained every semester in anti-racism and implicit bias, and funding for four full-time positions to offer ongoing anti-racism training among other demands.

“We know that the work around these important issues is far from done,” UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera wrote in an email on Wednesday, Feb. 21,“We take the concerns our students are raising very seriously, and we will continue to work diligently to continue to make progress.”

During Tuesday’s rally, student organizer Harmony Edosomwan said the group was just getting started with on-campus activism. She added that the advocacy work happening at UVM was part of a nationwide movement. “Every single campus across the nation needs to join in this movement of destroying white supremacist culture on their campuses,” she said.

This past Tuesday, NoNames began to see progress. In a statement they released, they described how students from every college left class on a march to the Waterman administrative building and their respective Deans’ offices. Groups marching to meet deans came with a letter outlining two demands: mandatory professor training and increased recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color. Students asked deans to make a commitment by signing the letter to come up with an action plan to address demands 1 and 2 by noon on Friday, March 2.

They also met with President Tom Sullivan at noon and arranged a negotiation meeting to meet their demands for 5 pm. From noon until just before 10 pm, students occupied the building to demonstrate the support this campus has for these demands.

“We were welcomed by faculty and staff in the building as they offered up their offices for us to have meetings in; […] we were welcomed with dignity and respect. During this process, we have formed working respectful relationships with many staff, faculty and community members by engaging in a process to a better this community,” said NoNames.

They described the environment of the communal spaces students gathered in as “healing spaces for all students and for students of color specifically, a meeting hall for Intervarsity, study hall spaces for students doing homework and tutoring spaces so students could continue their learning,” said NoNames. They also held a teach-in for over 100 students where they discussed their demands, the issues they were addressing and their experiences at UVM.

Lawrence echoed such sentiments of unity and community in describing the protests, “Protests really reveal the compassion and togetherness within the community of our large university. It is really beautiful I don’t even know how to describe it. It is healing. Protests are honestly one of the only times on campus where I, a queer person of color, feel safe and acknowledged. We have people from all walks of life present […] We are united together fighting the same cause. Each person uses their talents in this movement to be the change we want to see. It is truly beautiful. People I have never met before will offer food, water, a ride home, a coat or a shoulder to cry on,” said Lawrence.

NoNames concluded their statement with a call to action to the community, “Our campaign uses direct action and disruption as an effective means of increasing power and voice […]. While inconveniences like a canceled class or a traffic jam have impacts on people in the widespread community, when the impacts of systemic racism, systemic marginalization of populations and white supremacy are considered in the larger context of people and community, it is clear that those issues need to be addressed immediately. It is the hope of NoNames For Justice to move forward with the community by exposing and ending white supremacy and by implementing action plans to meet our demands.”