Boston University's Long History of Students Fighting for Their Rights

By Hannah Kinney-Kobre 

What words would come to mind if I asked you to describe BU’s political climate? You might say “liberal” or “anti-Trump,” and these things are true. But it also true that is hard to act on these beliefs in the way we might like to. We think: Trump is bad, yes, but I need to finish my degree, and doesn’t this school cost too much money, and anyway, what can I do? There’s no way I, as one person, can make real change. And I can’t fault anyone for thinking this way–– most of us just want to keep our heads down and try to enjoy our college years the best we can under the gun of back-breaking debt. But I would like to present an image of a different BU, one where students and teachers united to change BU––radically change it, even. BU, more so than most universities, has radical politics in its past, and I’m not just talking about Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo Credit: Howard Zinn

You might not know who John Silber is, besides recognizing his name on One Silber Way. John Silber was, once upon a time, president of BU. And at that, he was a particularly notorious one; to say the least, he was conservative. During his reign, one critic described him as making BU “more like Iran under the Shah or Chile under the Junta than like an institution of higher learning.” Silber baited campus activists by inviting military recruiters to campus to provoke a reaction; when the anti-war students staged a non-violent sit-in he called Boston Police on them, who reportedly beat the students. He threatened to expel students who protested BU investments in apartheid South Africa, and he censored student publications. He hired his friends as faculty members at inflated salaries (at a time when a BU professor’s salary was well below the national average), and regularly denied tenure to professors recommended by their departments if he disagreed with their political views or thought their field of study was unimportant.

And so the faculty––understandably displeased––made the decision to unionize, winning a representation election in 1975. However, Silber refused to recognize the results of this election and so the faculty voted to go on strike in 1979. Meanwhile, it turned out BU’s staff, the clerical workers and the librarians, were not pleased with Silber’s treatment of them either; the majority of these workers were poorly paid women who organized unions on campus in order to get fair treatment. Silber, once again,  refused to recognize their unions and so they, too, voted to go on strike along with the professors. The BU strike of 1979 became the only strike of its kind at a major educational institution to this day. And it worked! The faculty won a raise and the clerical workers and librarians won recognition of their unions.

Photo Credit: Howard Zinn

You may think that what happened in 1979 has no relation to where we are today; that BU is a different institution than it was, and that President Brown, despite his exorbitant salary, is no John Silber. But to think this would be to ignore the struggles happening on our campus at this very moment. Our graduate students, who are (to say the least) criminally underpaid and lacking in job protections or dental insurance, are fighting to unionize right now. Our lecturers almost went on strike at the beginning of this academic year after years of BU refusing to bargain with them. And most recently, I have been one of the organizers fighting to get tour guides a fair wage at BU. We find ourselves now at the threshold of what I believe to be immense change––with BU here being a microcosm of the potential change this entire country faces.

Photo Credit: Howard Zinn

It is easy on the edge of such a threshold, looking down the very edge of the precipice, to pretend like it is not happening. Or to pretend that our own ability to make change is so small that it would not matter what you do in the face of something so large and chaotic. And on our own, it is true that we do not have much power. But we do not exist solely as individuals; we always have the potential to connect with others, to exist as part of communities. And it is within these communities that change is possible. When we work together, we win––just as the workers at BU came together in 1979, just as people from all across this country came together in the sixties to fight for civil rights (something particularly resonant on the 50th anniversary of MLK’s death), and just as we can do today. We have a responsibility to fight for and with each other for a better world, and part of this realizing that we have to start by changing our own worlds––no matter how small they may seem––first. You can ask your TAs about the grad union, or talk to your lecturers, or sign the petition to get tour guides paid and walk with me down to Admissions to support them.

Find what you think is worth fighting for, and start fighting for it; the better BU, the better world we all want is a possibility, and it is one we can make real only through struggling towards it together.

Cover photo credit: Howard Zinn

 

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