Student activism meets dead ends

By Glenn Billman and Derek Schuster, news staff

Inside President Joseph E. Aoun’s Beacon Street brownstone, board members, donors and senior administrators celebrate 2016 with a holiday party. Outside, 11 students are bundled up against the December cold, singing traditional Christmas carols with unconventional lyrics.

“On the first day of school Ed Galante gave Aoun / A boat load of oil money,” they sing to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

The disgruntled students belong to DivestNU and are carrying signs slamming Northeastern for giving former ExxonMobil Senior Vice President Ed Galante a seat on the university’s Board of Trustees. To avoid breaking loitering laws, they walk in a tight circle outside Aoun’s door as members of the administration occasionally peer out. The guests send out a caterer with hot chocolate. The protesters send it back. Two hours pass and the DivestNU members finally ring Aoun’s bell to hand Vice President of Student Affairs Madeleine Estabrook a bag of coal with a message for Aoun: The endowment investments have landed him on the naughty list.

During its active period, DivestNU was no stranger to flashy demonstrations — members camped on Centennial Quad for 13 days, disrupted the star-studded opening of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex and overshadowed the State of the University to demand the university withdraw its investments from fossil fuels.

And around campus, faculty and students appeared to be on the same page: A 2014 Student Government Association referendum to divest was supported by 75 percent of students, the student Senate overwhelmingly passed a motion to divest. The following April, the Faculty Senate unanimously approved a measure asking the university to review and disclose its investments in fossil and explore options for divestment.

But in November 2017, Northeastern Treasurer Thomas Nedell announced the board had decided to maintain its investments. According to statements by the university, the endowment is invested in a commingled fund, not directly in fossil fuels. A 2017 article in the Guardian revealed Northeastern was one of several schools with money in an offshore hedge fund which invested in fossil fuels.

Since the board’s vote, the group has largely gone quiet. Divest member Wynne Gallogly said as far as she knows, the group is dead; however, fellow Divest member and Husky Environmental Action Team Vice President Max Wagner said the Divesters are now prioritizing other causes after being shut down.

“There is certainly a feeling that the university isn’t going to change its position, and a feeling that we’ve tried everything we can, and the university really isn’t listening anymore,” said Wagner, a third-year finance major. “That can really hurt the motivation of the people who’ve worked really hard on this campaign and really care about this issue.”

As Northeastern attracts more national attention and raises the bar for its admissions, many current students feel left behind. From sexual assault to housing to health services, university leaders and students consistently appear to be on different wavelengths. Student Body President Suchira Sharma described student policy issues as an uphill battle, especially when the decision is ultimately made by the board.

“If there is a decision that revolves around the board, the university is not willing to engage on it,” said Sharma, a fourth-year business administration major. “Where do you go from there?”

The board is made of 40 trustees responsible for managing the endowment and investments, overseeing academic programs, reviewing university practices and making other high-level decisions. For concerns outside the classroom, such as health services, housing and investments, Faculty Senator and associate professor of computer science Peter Desnoyers said the administration and board becomes less willing to reach a decision that incorporates the sentiments of student and faculty Senates.

“In some ways, it’s a miracle that there’s as much input into what the administration does,” Desnoyers said. “But technically, most things people care about are the decision of the administration and the Board of Trustees, and that’s why it is difficult to change their course. The structure is such that they’re responsible for those decisions, and they have the right to make them.”

Nadav David, a 2017 Northeastern alumnus who was involved with Students Against Institutional Discrimination and other activist groups, said he feels universities across the country, not just Northeastern, tend to care more about their outward appearance than appeasing enrolled students.

“There’s definitely a tendency for university administrations to really care about how they look externally — to funders, to the rankings — but not be actually lifting up student voices or following the lead of students who are being impacted by their policies,” David said.


Student concerns misunderstood

As the president of the Student Government Association, or SGA, Sharma said she has only once met with members of the senior leadership team and never with the Board of Trustees. Her only regular point of communication with any member of the administration is through Marina Macomber, the assistant vice president of student and administrative services.

“There’s been a very unnatural erosion of student involvement on larger university issues,” she said.

The university feels differently. Renata Nyul, Northeastern’s vice president of communications, said she does not believe there is a lack of engagement between the students and administration. She said there are staff members who ensure all student issues are resolved appropriately and efficiently.

“I don’t feel that the premise of your story is supported by facts,” Nyul wrote in a March 8 email to The News. “There are more than 20,000 students at Northeastern, and we invest a lot of effort in surveying and measuring student satisfaction.”

However, in a survey* of undergraduates on campus conducted by The News, more than 60 percent of students said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “My opinions and concerns are valued by university administrators.” Most students indicated they felt that Northeastern was ineffective as a whole in responding to student concerns, and only 4 percent of respondents said they felt Northeastern responded effectively.

“Whenever you hear about these issues you hear about them from students,” second-year physical therapy major Emily Pisacreta said in Curry Student Center earlier this semester. “I’ve never heard an administrator saying, ‘We need to fix these things.’”

In the 2018 SGA leadership election, 1,942 students, or 24.5 percent of voters, selected no confidence instead of a presidential ticket. Gallogly, the Divest participant and current Husky Environmental Action Team member, said the result indicates how dissatisfied students are with SGA’s inability to create change under university policy.

“They say a lot of things in their campaign, like, ‘We’re going to change all these things at Northeastern and make it a better place,’ which makes it seem like [SGA has] the authority to do that,” said Gallogly, a second-year biology major. “But I don’t think that Northeastern actually gives them the authority to do that. I don’t think the administration really takes them seriously.”

Gallogly said she thinks the administration shuts down students who voice their opinions, making it hard to feel like students have any sway over the direction of the university.

“It’s more of a disrespect thing. They sort of look down on the students who are doing this,” Gallogly said. “I think their opinion is they have all the power … just because they’re the ones with the money, even though students are the ones who provided them with that money.”

With an undergraduate population greater than 13,000 and an eight-person senior leadership team, Faculty Senator Susan Powers-Lee said the ratio of students to administrators makes direct communication between the two groups difficult, but that the university is trying to hear and respond to students.

“I think every human being feels [unheard] at various times,” said Powers-Lee, a biochemistry professor. “Faculty feel that way, too.”

Though communication between students and administrators is not perfect, Powers-Lee said the faculty, college administrators, senior leaders and board members work hard to hear students and address their concerns.

“Without students, there wouldn’t be a university,” Powers-Lee said. “It might not be apparent that people are paying attention to the students, but we want our students to feel that they’ve got a good home at Northeastern. That requires knowing what they’re thinking and listening to them.”


CAMD: A lesson in communication

While 45 percent of students who responded to The News’ survey said they felt their voices were heard by professors, only 15 percent said they felt heard by college administrators.

“The disconnect between professors and the college deans is really jarring,” Sharma said. “The college deans have very little oversight into what individual professors are doing in the classroom.”

The apparent lack of effective communication became a point of contention in the College of Arts, Media and Design, or CAMD, last fall when third-year music industry major Cairo Marques-Neto created a petition asking the music department for more practice spaces, experienced faculty and a broader selection of classes. More than 300 students signed the petition. Music department chair and professor Daniel Strong Godfrey hosted a town hall in response, during which he admitted to music students that he did not know most of the people in the room.

“What wasn’t happening is we weren’t talking to the students about [faculty turnover]. And so they just thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re not listening to us,’” Godfrey said in a March 12 interview with The News. “I think we thought it was enough to just listen through conversations they were having with their advisors and so on … so it’s been really an important lesson.”

Since then, Godfrey said the music department has instituted recurring town halls, created a student advisory board and started a newsletter to strengthen communication.

At the university level, Godfrey said communication gaps probably come about in the same way: Administrators with good intentions are not able to cultivate strong relationships with busy students who have unconventional schedules. While students at other schools spend most of their college career on campus, Northeastern’s co-ops, dialogues and study abroad programs give students and faculty less face time.

“You know what it’s like, when you really try hard to do something, and your intentions are to do that, and then the next thing you know, you’re being criticized for not doing it, as though you didn’t care?” Godfrey said. “There’s something about that that really gets under the skin. I think if both sides were a little more open they’d realize they’re all on the same side, really.”

After experiencing criticism himself last fall, Godfrey said he thinks administrators should engage students instead of becoming defensive. He gives credit to the students who pushed for change within the music department.

“I think there’d be better results if faculty and administrators can just take a deep breath and resist the impulse to respond defensively to this,” Godfrey said. “Students have great ideas about what to do.”


Beyond curriculum

The disregard for DivestNU is not an uncommon response to student advocacy on Northeastern’s campus. When student activists launched the #NEUToo campaign to hold the administration accountable for the way it handles student sexual assault cases, Northeastern University Police Department officers were spotted taking down the group’s posters almost immediately, and the administration never officially responded to the movement.

Rourke Bywater, a third-year history major who has participated in multiple protests and is now active in Students Working for an Accessible Northeastern, or SWAN, said she believes the university has made deliberate attempts to prevent students from voicing their opinions.

“Northeastern’s been very hostile to a lot of the things students have been doing, even things that are relatively tame,” Bywater said. “There’s intentional non-transparency with the administration where the administration doesn’t want students to know where they can voice their concerns, because they don’t want students to voice their concerns.”

SWAN members organized to advocate for better funding, resources and appointment availability at University Health and Counseling Services, or UHCS. This SGA election, both campaigns included platforms calling for the expansion of resources and accreditation of the center. The Roosevelt Institute also included a referendum on the ballot to make the necessary changes to meet the International Association of Counseling Services standards. Around the world, 202 universities follow their standards, including University of Massachusetts Amherst and Emerson College. The ballot passed with more than 82 percent of students supporting the measure: more than the number of yes votes for both SGA leadership tickets combined.

Michelle Jeffery, a fourth-year behavioral neuroscience major, said she and her friends all have “horror stories” about UHCS. She also said she wished the university took more action to address student issues.

“They seem to just be saying a lot and nothing’s actually changing and getting better,” Jeffery said.

Fourth-year finance major Philip Hechenberger said he has struggled to get vaccines from UHCS, and that as an international student, the university was not communicative about on-campus health or housing details.

“We’ve been here for two years, and some people have just not gone to a doctor because they have no idea how it works,” Hechenberger said.


Paths forward

One major victory for Northeastern activists came when dining hall workers received higher wages and better benefits last October after years of protests and actions by the student coalition Husky Organizing With Labor, or HOWL.

HOWL delivered letters, held rallies and hosted teach-ins to garner on-campus support and pressure the university to advocate for dining service workers, who are not directly employed by the university but subcontracted through school catering company Chartwells.  However, the university ignored calls from the students, dining hall workers and their union to support them in their contract negotiations with Chartwells, and the contractual improvements only came when workers voted to strike if their demands were not met.

Northeastern is sometimes responsive; in some cases the university has met the the requests of student activists and made changes in response to widely-supported student referenda.

After 84 percent of students voted in favor of more gender-neutral bathrooms in 2015, the university added 40 additional gender-neutral bathrooms to campus. And as a result of last year’s Campus Climate Survey, a university-run questionnaire which asses students’ understanding of and experiences with sexual assault, the Office of Prevention and Education at Northeastern and the Violence Support, Intervention and Outreach Network were relieved of their mandatory reporter status, meaning sexual assault survivors can now confidentially discuss their experiences with employees in those offices.

On the whole, however, Sharma said the university fails to collaborate with the student Senate.

“The university touts this model of shared governance, but they perceive shared governance as what they have between themselves and the Faculty Senate,” Sharma said. “It doesn’t include students in that picture.”

Wagner, the HEAT vice president, agreed there was room for the university to improve the way it engages with student opinions.

“When you have a school of some 18,000 voices, your voice gets a little bit lost,” Wagner said. “But we have had a lot of progress with working on specific projects and trying to push specific goals with the university. It’s sort of a mixed bag. But we really like working with the university and we want to work with them, not against them.”

Wagner said he wants to see greater cooperation between students and administrators. Gallogly is less optimistic.

“It’s really hard to be not pessimistic and critical because it seems like when they do respond in a positive way, it’s to placate something and make themselves look better in the news and to other organizations and institutions,” Gallogly said.

Gallogly said she believes more direct communication between administrators and students is necessary to address student concerns.

“By communication I mean direct, someone from the administration coming and talking at SGA meetings so we can disperse that information to our student groups and students in general,” Gallogly said. “If they could just listen to what we want and realize we put a lot of work into this and respect that, that would be great.”

In his years of trying to advocate for change on campus, David, the 2017 alumnus, said the faculty he encountered at Northeastern were formative and helpful. He said the administration, however, did not see students as members of the community and did not include student voices in problem solving.

“They would make promises in meetings, commit to certain things or publicly say that they were committed to living out certain values and then would often backtrack on them or not be held accountable for them,” David said.

SGA Executive Vice President Paulina Ruiz said one way to bridge the communication gap could be to follow other university’s examples and add a student to the Board of Trustees.

“That gives students a tangible vote and a tangible voice in that room,” third-year psychology major Ruiz said. “Right now we’re kind of shut out from decisions.”

According to a 2010 study by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, more than 20 percent of private higher learning institutions have a student on the board of trustees. Northeastern is in the 80 percent of private universities without students at the table. Comparatively, the study found that 70 percent of public universities had at least one student on their board.

“I want students to feel like their money isn’t a waste,” Gallogly said. “We’re paying $60,000 not just to get degrees, but to be a part of this — Northeastern as an institution. But it doesn’t feel like we are.”

*Survey conducted from March 19 to March 25, 2018 on Northeastern’s campus and online, with 152 Northeastern undergraduate students participating in the survey. Results have a margin of sampling error of ±8 percentage points.