University of Vermont

A Takeover at 20

The 20th anniversary of the 1991 Waterman Takeover brought players in the drama back to the stage for a retrospective. (Photo: Sally McCay)

It began with words of advice from a voice of experience. In a dimly lit and grainy video from 1991, Professor Huck Gutman spoke softly to the group of students who had taken over the office of UVM President George H. Davis and urged them to give up their occupation, if not their cause. Gutman had then only recently attended the 20-year anniversary of the “Silent Vigil” at Duke University, when student activists – including him – occupied the president’s residence in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a way, he said, nothing had changed at the institution in those twenty years. What had changed, he said, were the lives of those who had stood up to defend principles larger than themselves. It might be time, he urged the students, to heed some “old, wise, and maybe stupid advice.” Maybe, he told them, it was “time to declare victory.”

In time, those words of wisdom won the day, but not before the “Waterman Takeover” had etched the student activists’ demands for progress in campus diversity and multicultural awareness deeply into the university psyche. The 1991 action was the second time students had taken over the president’s office – the first had come in 1988, and when the perceived lack of progress three years later built first to frustration and then righteous anger, students once again seized the seat of power and demanded action.

April 22, 2011 marked the 20th anniversary of the second Waterman Takeover, and the following day a group of “survivors” — older, wiser, but no less committed to the causes of diversity and social justice — met in UVM’s Waterman Memorial Lounge to reflect on the events of 1991 and their legacy.

Organized by a committee of alumni and former students including Allan Urgent '93 (chair), Garth Allen, Leon Heyward '81, Christy Keith Kuratomi '05, and Lynn Pono '02, the event examined the historical context of the takeover and its impacts over the ensuing decades.

In her introductory remarks, Wanda Heading-Grant '87 G'03, chief diversity officer for the university, spoke of many of those lasting impacts, including the appointment of five Presidential Commissions, introduction of a university-wide six-credit diversity requirement, the creation of her own position, and tangible progress in recruiting and retaining a diverse student body that this past fall comprised ten percent ALANA students for the first time ever. Even so, she said, “there is still a lot to be done” to advance the university’s diversity goals.

Panelists included Roddy O'Neill Cleary, who was a women's studies professor and interfaith campus minister at UVM during the time of the occupations; Karl Jagbandhansingh '05, who was involved in both the ’88 and ’91 takeovers and is now a community engagement and volunteer coordinator with the National Radio Project; Afi Ahmadi '93, a student member of the UVM Board of Trustees during the takeover and today an attorney with Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, P.C. in Burlington and a member of the UVM Alumni Association Board of Directors; Laura Fishman, retired UVM sociology professor who was sympathetic with the takeover movement; Phillip Gonzalez '91, director of grant making with Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA Foundation and a member of the Boston Regional Alumni Board; Pat Brown G'92, director of Student Life, who has been in Student Affairs with the university since 1979; and T.J. Whittaker '91, who as a student was a leader in the Black Student Union and today is a teacher in the South Orange/Maplewood School District in New Jersey.

If there was any presumption in the room that the passions that led up to the takeovers may have faded over time, that notion was quickly dispatched by Karl Jagbandhansingh, whose rhetorical skills drew enthusiastic response. Asked about the roots of the ’91 action, he began, “Five hundred years ago ...” to appreciative laughter. “I think that’s part of how it came about. We know the foundation of this empire. Theft of land and labor, enslavement of folks, genocide, and that chain of events still continues to this day.” There were consequences to the student action, he said, including arrests, expulsions, and delay of educational objectives, “but the consequence of not acting was what really motivated us to move forward ... We didn’t have any special gifts, we were just a bunch of students, but we believed what we were taught, which was that we live in democracy, and for democracy to function you need organized, educated citizens who are going to take a stand and do the right thing, and that’s what we chose to do ... I still believe in the dream.”

Afi Ahmadi said as a student trustee during the takeover, he sympathized with the goals and ideals of student activism, if not the tactics employed. “I don’t know even as I sit here if I agree with the specific actions. I thought then and I probably still think now that there’s a way to get to those ends through different means,” he said. His perception was that he was part of a “silent majority” on campus in holding those views, though he credited those involved in the takeover for having the courage to act as they did.

Laura Fishman agreed that the 1991 events took courage on the students’ part. “It was very risky business,” she said. “But they did it.” At the time, she was one of only two African American faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences, she said, and UVM had very few students of color. “I could go for days without seeing a student of color on campus,” and months without seeing another faculty of color. “No one protested. No one said a word. It was very silent.” The student action, she said, grew out of what they were learning in the classroom about how to conceptualize and bring about nonviolent social change. “They struck out first at silence, because silence will kill you,” she said, and in speaking out and acting as they did, the students succeeded in educating the campus and community about the issues that motivated them.

“This wasn’t a bunch of students just saying ‘Guess what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna get in the paper,’” said Phil Gonzalez, but a commitment to a belief in the need for change. Even so, he said, he didn’t believe that commitment would be remembered for a month, let alone two decades. “I left here bitter. I did not want UVM on my diploma ... I’ve come full circle now.” Gonzalez said he’s active in the Alumni Association’s Boston Regional Board and helps with UVM fundraising. But he’d like to see the university make it easier to direct contributions to support some of the organizations aligned with the spirit of the takeovers, such as the Black Student Union, Asian American Student Union, and Alianza Latina. “All of us sacrificed for the students who were here and who came after us, and I’d say all of us would be willing to continue that support” if the university were to put those groups higher in its fundraising priorities, he said.

Director of Student Life Pat Brown gave heartfelt thanks to those on the panel for what their activism accomplished. “UVM is a better place because of what you all did,” he said. The “silent majority” that Afi Ahmadi spoke of still exists, he said, as does the need to hold a mirror up to the campus and examine the dynamics of multiculturalism and inclusion.

T.J. Whittaker said that Professor Fishman, several other UVM professors, and his peers in the Waterman Takeover movement had an impact on his life that was “no less than profound,” leading to “an activist career that has lasted until this day.” The students’ action in 1991, he said, “was necessary to heighten the contradictions between the university’s words and actions in a more dramatic fashion ... We were motivated out of a sense of love for justice and concern for students who would follow in the ensuing years.”

Among those students was Sonia David ’13, a dual major in political science and religion, who rose to express a sentiment shared by many of the current UVM students attending. “The visibility of people of color on campus is increasing,” she said, with more identity groups added to those that existed twenty years ago. “The work is continuing. I just want to thank you for making history and to let you know that it’s still happening.”