Hundreds of Stony Brook students, faculty and staff rallied to support academic programs in danger of being cut at the March for Humanities on Wednesday.
The rally, organized by the Graduate Student Employee Union, kicked off at the Student Activities Center Plaza at 12:30 p.m. and evolved into an unwavering demonstration that lasted nearly three hours.
Protesters brandished handmade signs including phrases such as “#farbehind,” “Think Don’t Shrink The Humanities,” and “Hispanic Studies, More Than Languages.” Another poster equated the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Sacha Kopp and President Donald Trump over their willingness to defund the arts.
The clatter of pots and pans, which are often used in Hispanic countries as a form of popular protest called cacerolazo, set the tone for the demonstration. Protesters chanted, “We want education, not administration,” “We want diversity, not more hypocrisy” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Sacha Kopp has got to go.”
A mass email sent by Kopp on May 4 said this year’s evaluation of enrollment and resources led to recommendations for suspended admission to the theatre arts, cinema and cultural studies and comparative literature undergraduate programs.
In a separate, earlier email sent to department faculty, Kopp said the proposal aims to “reduce our expenditures by $1.5 million.” The email also stated that the European languages, literatures, and cultures department, the Hispanic Languages and Literature department and the cultural studies & comparative literature department would be combined. It went on to add that the doctoral programs in cultural studies, comparative literature, and Hispanic languages and literature would be suspended.
In the face of university budget cuts, the backlash transcended the academic disciplines in danger of suspension.
“The march was powerful – we made the floor shake,” said Chris Atchison, a senior biology major. “I saw so many of my friends of so many different majors. I hadn’t realized that the humanities had reached out and inspired them too.”
Atchison is one example of a student unaffected by the cuts who came to support the march.
“I really feel for the people who are scared a future in the field they love isn’t plausible anymore,” Kaitlyn Colgan, sophomore English major and copy chief at The Statesman, said. “I can’t imagine how upset I would be if it was my program being defunded. And realistically, if the school is going after programs in fields related to mine, my program’s future isn’t looking too secure either.”
Visal Thalawe Arachchilage, a junior chemical engineering and chemistry major, said the march was a good way to tell the administration that the campus community should be involved in these decisions.
“If people do not stand up for these things, administration in the future would not hesitate to make even more worse decisions,” Arachchilage said. “If your fellow students and people around you gets affected negatively, I think as a part of the campus community everyone should worry. After all, in here we’ll only have each other to help out.”
After speeches at the SAC Plaza by representatives from the affected programs, the protestors marched toward the Administration Building and gained momentum as the crowd looped past the Staller Center, continued up the steps and packed into the Melville Library atrium.
From there, they marched to the third floor, where Kopp’s office is located. After a 30 minute sit-in in the hallway, Kopp refused to meet with the group. Protesters then marched back to the Administration Building to Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael A. Bernstein’s office. They noisily poured into the lobby and filled the upper balcony, but the provost did not appear to address marchers.
“It’s frustrating and upsetting that the people who are supposed to be here working for us will lock us out of their offices and call the police on us,” Colgan said. “We were civil, we had organized demands, and they barricaded us with police officers?”
For a final demonstration, the group rerouted to crash an ice cream social being held in the Wang Center for donors and alumni, where the march eventually concluded.
Anna Sitzmann, GSEU campus organizer and a philosophy Ph.D. candidate, said the administration’s reaction was disappointing but not surprising.
“We expected Sacha Kopp to refuse to face the students and faculty affected by this decision, and that’s exactly what he did,” Sitzmann said. “We also expected them to skirt the issue by saying it’s just a proposal and nothing is decided because that kind of uncertainty is the easiest way to prevent people from mobilizing. The important thing is that none of those tactics worked. The turnout was amazing considering we received this news, not by coincidence, the last week of school, forcing us to organize a rally during finals week.”
Sophia Basaldua, a comparative literature Ph.D. candidate, said she has already felt the effects of the proposed cuts.
“It means major upheaval, and this kind of upheaval distracts all of us from our mission of educating undergraduates, performing research, and distracts faculty from mentoring the Ph.D. students that they are still responsible for,” Basaldua said.
The proposal reflects “a complete disregard for research” in the humanities, said Alejandro Chacón Cárdenas, a Ph.D. candidate and language instructor in the Hispanic languages and literature department.
“Serious research is not restricted to ‘hard’ science and technology, but a premise as basic as that seems to be absent from the frame of mind that is behind this decision,” Cárdenas said.
If these programs are cut, course offerings will be limited, and some professors, especially those who do not have tenure, could be laid off, Cárdenas said.
“It also means that the degree I would eventually receive will be devalued, since it is going to be granted by a school that disregards the department that confers it, and from a program that is not ranked because it no longer exists,” Cárdenas, who proudly carried a large Venezuelan flag during the march, said. “My colleagues and I will have a much harder time finding a position in the job market.”
These proposed cuts represent a serious threat to the cultural diversity of the Stony Brook campus, Sitzmann said.
“It mimics the national trend of disrespect for non-western, non-white cultures by suggesting that the Hispanic academic presence on campus is most readily disposable,” Sitzmann continued. “In general, this decision reflects ignorance and disrespect for the value of a well-rounded education and higher learning.”