After days of protests, students occupy building at Occidental College

After several days of protesting Occidental College's handling of diversity issues, students occupied an administrative building Monday, demanding that the school president step down if officials don't take such steps as creating a black studies major and hiring more minority faculty.

The actions come after weeks of student protests throughout the nation, including at the University of Missouri, where the president and chancellor resigned, and Ithaca College in upstate New York and Yale University. The dean of students at Claremont McKenna College stepped down last week after a campus protest and hunger strikes by two students over her email to a Latina student saying she would work to serve those who "don't fit our CMC mold."

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Student leaders at USC voted last week to ask school officials to increase funding for diversity training and to hire more minority faculty. On Monday, school officials announced they would fund more diversity efforts and appoint staff to increase awareness.

"Universities should be spaces committed to showing the promise of diversity and helping everyone recognize, appreciate and respect difference," Michael W. Quick, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, wrote in a letter to the USC community.

Two new funds of $100,000 each will be established to support campus programs to enhance understanding of the issues. The funds will be administered by student government organizations and the religious life office.

At Occidental in Eagle Rock, students have been protesting the administration's handling of complaints about racism on campus and the lack of diversity. Last Thursday, a crowd of students held a demonstration that ended in a march at President Jonathan Veitch's campus home.

After a rally on the steps of the school's main administrative building Monday, several hundred students entered the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center. They have presented school officials with a list of 14 demands they want met by Friday, including the creation of a black studies major, an increase in funding for minority student groups and more diversity training for faculty and students.

If their demands are not met by Friday, students said, they will demand Veitch's resignation.

Veitch, who received a contract extension from school trustees last year that runs through 2020, was traveling Monday.

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Several students and faculty were critical of Veitch for leaving last Thursday's demonstration when students began discussing how administrators have handled allegations of sexual assault. "It made me feel like he didn't care about our students," said Abhilasha Bhola, a senior.

Veitch left the rally when he "realized his presence there was no longer being constructive," said Marty Sharkey, the school's associate vice president of marketing and communications. "He wanted that space to be a safe space and productive space."

Sharkey said students were welcome to stay in the administrative building overnight.

"We're not going to shut anything down," he said. "They've been conscientious and respectful. They'll be able to stay 24 hours a day."

Students delivered their demands to administrators last week, and Occidental officials are reviewing them. "We definitely welcome the opportunity to engage those in a meaningful and thoughtful way," Sharkey said.

Sharkey added that Occidental administrators are interviewing candidates for a chief diversity position this week. Students criticized the $100,000 budget allocation as insufficient, saying it was not enough to pay the position's salary, fund programming and provide services.

In the 1995-96 year, 44% of non-international Occidental students reported that they were minorities. This year, about 42% of students said they were minority or multiracial, according to school statistics.

Several Occidental students said the school's diversity was one of the main reasons they decided to attend, but that after they arrived they found the climate on campus was often hostile to minorities.

Bhola, a senior diplomacy and world affairs major, said many students seemed insensitive to minorities. During one classroom discussion, some of her peers discussed how the Rwandan genocide was "timely" for political reasons.

Rwandans' "suffering didn't seem to mean anything," Bhola said.

And last year, a fraternity party with an End of the World-Malaysian Air-ISIS-Ebola theme was shut down only after students brought the event to administrators' attention. "We had to complain," she said. "They didn't seem aware that it was even going on."

Chance Ward, a black sophomore who majors in critical theory and social justice, said that he has been called the N-word at campus parties. And when he and another student, a white female, complained to a department head that a professor wasn't following the syllabus, the department head criticized him but not the other student for complaining, Ward said.

"I came here because I thought there would be foundation [of diversity] to protect you," he said. "But administration did not protect me."

At USC, officials said the campus would direct new funds, launch discussion forums and appoint several key staff members to spearhead efforts to increase campus understanding of multiculturalism. Quick said USC's efforts in the area also include ongoing programs that fund scholarships, fellowships, faculty recruitment and neighborhood support.

Those steps did not include several demands made by undergraduate and graduate student leaders, however.

USC student body President Rini Sampath hailed the efforts — and Quick's leadership — as important advances. USC received national attention when Sampath wrote on Facebook about an incident in which a fraternity member threw a drink at her and yelled a racial epithet at her.

"It's a day of progress for us," she said. "This is the kind of leadership we need from senior administrators. It signals they are willing to listen to us and embrace student activism. These are definite signs of an optimistic future for our campus."

jason.song@latimes.com Twitter: @byjsong

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on November 17, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "After days of campus protest, a sit-in - Occidental College students occupy an administration building and provide a list of demands." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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