From 1968 to 2018: remembering the Bursar’s ...

From 1968 to 2018: remembering the Bursar’s Office takeover

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue and follows the events of the 2018 #TakeoverToday protests. Year levels and events do not reflect the present.

bursars office students on steps
Black students sit on the steps of the Bursar’s office on May 3, 1968. On the right, Laura Murray’s sign reads “Black students occupy this building because the administration has turned a deaf ear.” (University Archives.)

The frisbee sailed through the air on Deering Meadow. A white Northwestern student in blue jean cut-offs caught it. On the south beach, an NU coed in a bikini ran along the shore, pursued by her bare-chested boyfriend. 

NU whites yesterday vaguely recalled that Black students were having a press conference about their grievances at Scott Hall. Sophomore Bill Levin, epitomized the views of many NU white students. “I sympathize generally with the Black position,” Levin said. “But they don’t have any right to do what they’re doing. They’re not running the university.” 

This excerpt comes from an issue of The Daily Northwestern printed May 3rd, 1968. Later that same evening, 100 Northwestern students would take over the Bursar’s Office and occupy it for a full 38 hours to protest the University’s treatment of Black students. Their efforts would result in increased enrollment and financial aid for Black students, revised housing policies, and the establishment of an African American Studies Department, among other successes.

Fast forward exactly 50 years to May 3rd, 2018. Northwestern is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover with a day of University-planned commemorative events. Over at the Multicultural Center, the Latinx Asian American Collective (LAAC), Students Organizing for Labor Rights (SOLR), and Black Lives Matter NU.  BLMNU begins unfurling banners for their counterprotest, “#TheTakeoverToday.” 

“Northwestern is institutionalizing and molding the Bursar’s Takeover and fabricating that memory, making it so that Northwestern looks better.”

Isabella Ko

In a list of 47 demands, the three groups are urging the University to departmentalize the Asian-American and Latino/Latina Studies Programs, improve the conditions of Black students on campus, and ensure food service workers won’t face additional exploitative screenings during the University’s transition to its new food service provider. 

Their campaigns flow from a long legacy of Black protests on campus. Their collective struggle forms the To Be Departments (TBD) movement, spearheaded by the LAAC, and arises from the same institutional discontent with the University’s treatment of students of color that Black students confronted in 1968. The movement is at a critical juncture in their efforts to departmentalize both programs because the decisions Weinberg administrators make this quarter will be in effect for the next academic year. 

“It was meant to be a lower-level confrontation,” says Weinberg junior Jess Wang, an Asian-American studies major and member of LAAC. “We put up three different banners for the three different campaigns.” 

LAAC ‘s banner at the MCC read, “Dean Randolph, who do you value?” BLMNU suspended a banner at the MCC at the start of the day that said, “They never met our demands.” The BLMNU banner traveled to a symposium in McCormick Auditorium, where NU President Morton Schapiro sat on a panel with several Black alumni. Schapiro appeared visibly uncomfortable with the demonstration. 

“BLM saw it as a good opportunity to confront Morty,” Wang says. “Even though we’re all fighting for different things, we recognize that our struggles are interconnected.” 

Adrian Randolph, dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, responded to being named by the LAAC. “I guess that got [Dean Randolph] really heated because he literally emailed all of Weinberg [that day] just to be like, ‘Oh, you know…Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean I don’t value ethnic studies,’” Wang says.

 The demands brought forth by these students are certainly not new. In fact, the LAAC is approaching a full academic year of its concentrated efforts to departmentalize the Asian-American and Latina/Latino Studies programs. 

The To Be Departments (TBD) campaign started developing in spring 2017 when Schapiro and then-Provost Daniel Linzer condemned several student protesters involved in strategically preventing a visiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representative from speaking on campus. The University took disciplinary action against the students and subsequently instituted a more stringent policy against student protests. Another student protest ensued in response to this with a list of demands; departmentalization for AASP and LLSP was one of them. The Latinx Asian American Collective materialized in Fall 2017 to focus specifically on this goal and TBD formally kicked off, insisting on increased autonomy, resources and more from Weinberg administrators. 

“The problems that come with [not having departmental status] are the fact that you don’t have as much autonomy in terms of who you hire, and then we don’t get to have tenure track faculty,” says SESP sophomore Lillian Guo, a learning sciences major and Asian-American studies minor. “They’re on these contracts where they end up having to leave after several years, and then we lose a lot of our mentors.” 

In a meeting between Assistant Dean Mary Finn, faculty, and student organizers, Finn said that upon the establishment of the Asian-American and Latinx Studies programs, administrators feared they had done so without ensuring the programs would have the proper institutional infrastructure to make them sustainable. 

“AASP has been on this campus for 23 years and LLSP has been on this campus for 9 years,” Wang says. “If they knew eventually the programs might need more support, why [haven’t] they [done] anything about [our needs now]?” 

Weinberg sophomore Isabella Ko, another member of LAAC, says the group has been in dialogue with Weinberg administrators, but the dean refuses to give LAAC a straightforward answer as to whether not departmentalization is a possibility. “They’ve been dragging the issue by taking long with responses, or not replying to our messages at all, which keeps running us to dead ends,” Ko says. 

In a letter to the editor in the Daily signed by LAAC, BLMNU and SOLAR, the groups expressed that Northwestern has taken credit for the work of radical Black students whose demands it never fulfilled, essentially co-opting student activism. “Northwestern is institutionalizing and molding the Bursar’s takeover and fabricating that memory, making it so that Northwestern looks better,” Ko says. 

The letter states, “LAAC recognizes the glaring hypocrisy of the university commemorating the Bursar’s Office Takeover while simultaneously punishing students who engage in similar actions today.” 

Guo says that Northwestern treats the Bursar’s Office Takeover commemoration as “this big success for diversity in the University,” when it was, in reality, a very risky and dangerous decision for Black students to occupy a campus building. 

“[The Bursar’s Takeover] wasn’t like the moment where the University started to care about students more,” Guo says. “Students very much had to force administration to care about their needs.” 

Northwestern students of color have consistently forced administration to care about their needs. AASP’s formation was a direct result of an almost month-long student hunger strike in 1995, the letter to the editor reads, It would be another decade before three years of student activism spearheaded by Alianza led to the establishment of LLSP. It wasn’t until the University co-signed students’ evaluations in the “May 4th Agreement,” which concluded the Bursar’s Takeover, that student protesters and dissenters scarcely evaded the spotlight of criminality. But this agreement could not minimize the fact that the American education system at large is rooted in a system of racial inequality. 

In the book Ebony and Ivy: Race Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, historian Craig Steven Wilder writes that the first five colleges in the British American colonies (Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton and Codrington in Barbados) “were instruments of Christian expansionism, weapons for the conquest of indigenous peoples, and major beneficiaries of the African slave trade and slavery…Students from North America crafted a science that justified expansionism and slavery—a science that generated broad claims to expertise over colored people and thrived upon unlimited access to nonwhite bodies… they redefined truth.” 

In order to truly uphold its fundamental obligations to students of color, the university is presently responsible for disrupting its legacy as a colonial installation whose very origins served to delegitimize nonwhite bodies and uphold white supremacy in academia. 

But even with this colossal task at hand, May 3rd, 2018 certainly remained a day of celebration for many alumni. Roger Ward, a Black alum and Bursar Takeover participant from the class of ‘68, smiled widely as he looked up at the Black House. The House was moved from its original location on Emerson to 1914 Sheridan, where it stands much taller than it did when Ward was a student. 

“Welcome to the Black mansion,” Ward says, laughing and loudly munching on a bag of potato chips. “It’s called the Black House, but I’m renaming it the Black Mansion!” To Ward, the 50th anniversary of the Takeover means progress, because “the Blacks here have maintained the population.” 

I tell him about the protests happening on campus that day, and ask him what his thoughts are on their demands. More potato chips fly out of Ward’s mouth as he laughs, “Well, hopefully they won’t have to take over another building.” He breaks into infectious laughter, and quickly reaches for another potato chip.


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