By Amanda Richey, Assistant News Editor & Ben Longnecker, Contributing Writer
Twenty-two students conducted a sit-in style protest in the Dining Hall and the breezeway between Furman and Johns Halls Dec. 8 to raise awareness about the treatment of multicultural professors on campus.
Students held signs saying “Equality for Multicultural Professors” and “Diversity is a Promise. Not an Advertisement,” in protest of what student leaders call “dismissal of many multicultural professors at an alarming rate.”
The sit-in protest was not the first time that student leaders rallied to support multicultural professors. Yiming Hu, a junior Asian Studies and Political Science major, first submitted a letter to President Davis’ office in early November.
The letter asked President Davis to personally look into the reasons behind recent tenureship denials for multicultural professors. According to Dean of the Faculty, John Beckford, four departments will lose faculty in the coming years as a result of tenureship denial. These departments are Political Science, History, Business and Accounting, and English. Two additional departments saw faculty resignations. The student protest leaders claim that some of the professors who are leaving have cited discrimination as an underlying cause for the dismissal.
“The difficult thing about Furman is that it’s a private institution, so most of the facts are closed-door; everything else is usually hearsay,” Nicholas Lau, protester and vice president of the senior class said. “We know for a fact, because two of the professors told us in person that they feel they have been racially or religiously discriminated against.”
Students submitted a second letter later in the fall term including signatures from leaders of 15 student organizations, including the Student Diversity Council and SGA. This letter requested that Furman administrators form an external investigation committee to look into the tenureship review process. It urged university officials to conduct an unbiased investigation into systematic racial and religious discrimination as well as microaggressions in the Furman community.
Involved students stress they are not asking for preferential treatment for sub groups but are asking for the university to take steps to foster an equal and open environment where different perspectives, religious and otherwise, are welcome.
“Diversity is very important for creating a good academic environment. It’s actually like a small world for the students. In the real world we have all types of people, not just white or just Asian or just black. You know? Professors are the key for students to understand what the real world looks like,” Hu said.
Mouayad Abu-Shanab, a junior involved in the Muslim Student Association, organized the sit-in protest in response to what he saw as inaction from Furman administrators in response to the student letter campaign.
“The reason I organized it was because every time I would ask them about the letter they would say that the administration did not reply. Yiming sent a letter. The group sent a letter. It had been a month or so and they still did not reply. We thought ‘the semester is ending, so we might as well do something before it’s too late,’” Abu-Shanab said.
The most active student leaders said that the first time they received any response to the letters from the administration was when President Davis addressed the protesters at the Dec. 8 sit-in.
“We didn’t just organize the sit-in abruptly. We exhausted the avenues of submitting letters,” President of Student Diversity Council, Yangbo Hau said. “President Davis dropped by and that was the first time she acknowledged the issue.”
At the sit-in, President Davis said that the issue regarding tenureship and multicultural representation would be addressed in the Spring semester. She thanked the protesters for their commitment.
“I do really appreciate what all of you are doing because there are things that an administration can do, but a lot of the change has to be where we’re willing to challenge our own peers. So faculty have to talk to other faculty if they see something happening that’s not right and students have to be willing to say it to other students,” Davis said.
Many faculty have commended the students for protesting, noting that the sit-in was the first time they had seen students visibly supporting faculty in recent memory.
“Regardless of how well or not well-informed the students’ argument was, it was clear that they deeply cared about their professors, so much that they stood up for them,” Dr. Akan Malici, professor of Political Science, said. “These professors seemed to have so much of an impact on these students that they were willing to stand up for them publically – something very, very unusual at Furman.”
Questions regarding the validity of the protesters’ claims concerning tenure remain, though.
The tenure review process at Furman goes through several detailed steps when considering whether or not a teacher should be given tenure or a promotion.
“Every single tenured professor in a department has an opportunity to give their opinion on a certain individual’s profile,” Political Science chair, Dr. Danielle Vinson said.
After the department has come to a unanimous decision, the profile will be sent to Dean Beckford, who will have the opportunity to either approve the department’s recommended choice of action or make his own decision concerning an individual’s reappointment status.
“I want to emphasize that Furman takes its review and evaluation processes quite seriously,” Beckford said. “The separation of a faculty member from the institution is a major decision for all parties involved and given extensive review by multiple entities built into our performance evaluation process.”
The protesters have raised many questions regarding the objectivity of the current tenure review process as well as Furman’s attitudes toward diversity. This has sparked wider debate among Furman’s administrators, students, faculty, and staff.
Student leaders say they will continue to protest and work to inform the wider student body about multiculturalism.
“As Furman students, we all want Furman to be a prestigious college. In order to do that, diversity is really important, not just for students but also for administrators,” Hua said. “If we really want to be better, a responsible response to this issue is very important. Addressing diversity is important for Furman and its future.”