Free Speech and Protest at Wesleyan

There have been many times at Wesleyan when student input, including protests, have convinced the administration to take action – the creation of the Resource Center and additional therapists at CAPS are recent examples. This year, when a group of concerned students raised the issue of hiring additional custodians, we studied all the cleaning assignments and found places to make improvements. The students have asked for five more custodians to be hired, but given the analysis of work assignments, we do not think that appropriate. If presented with more data, we can certainly study the assignments again.


Reasonable people can come to different conclusions about this, and students are free to protest the situation and the conclusions we have drawn. At yesterday’s WesFest event (Wesleyan’s admitted students day), while I spoke with visiting families, about a dozen students held signs and stood on the stage in protest. That was within their rights.


But students are not free to disrupt events. University policy allows members of the Wesleyan community to show up at events to protest, though they may not disrupt the event or hinder the ability of the University to conduct normal operations. Today, students have made it impossible for presenters to speak, and for audiences to hear. They have gone beyond the free speech rights guaranteed to protestors.


Those who attempt to shut down events will face disciplinary measures as outlined in the University’s rules and regulations. These make clear that “demonstrators do not have the right to deprive others of the opportunity to speak or be heard…physically obstruct the movement of others, or otherwise disrupt educational or institutional processes.”


We will continue to protect the rights of protestors, but we will also protect the rights of speakers—even those with whom some students disagree—to give their presentations.

10 thoughts on “Free Speech and Protest at Wesleyan”

  1. Hi Michael,

    It’s been a while since we last sat down and talked. Hope all is well. I am here to address point by point why your statement on the situation is grossly misleading. First, regarding the establishment of the Resource Center. I was actually at a town hall with students of color last week where we discussed the university’s complete and utter lack of support for marginalized students. The Resource Center is understaffed and underfunded. Students of color do not feel supported by you, this administration, or this university. SOC’s struggles are inseparable from the struggles of janitors (all fifty of whom are people of color). Do not try to pit us against each other. We will not be divided. We are together in this struggle and have one common enemy: you. Second, CAPS is also understaffed, underfunded, and totally unequipped to provide adequate support to students with mental illnesses. It has been this way since my freshman year. As a student of color who struggles with mental illness, it is disgusting to see you try to paint this situation as one where we are have to be fighting over resources, when you and I both know Wesleyan can afford a well staffed and well funded resource center, exceptional mental health services, five more custodians, and so much more than that.
    I am honestly so fed up with your comments on data. As my father told me, data does not have a soul. As someone who preaches the benefits of a liberal arts education, you should know that you cannot simply turn to numbers to encapsulate a person’s workload. Students, faculty, staff, and all others in solidarity with workers are both smarter and kinder than you. You can show us every number, every single statistic, every document comparing us to our peer institutions, but so long as workers continue to tell us that they feel overworked, that they can’t have lunch because of their workload, that they see so much trash after a weekend that they feel like crying, the numbers mean nothing. We don’t look at numbers, we look at people. We believe workers. When I told workers about your data comment, many of them said, without fear, that they would love it if you came and did their work with them for a day. Then we can talk about data.
    Picture this: one singular day at Wesleyan without custodians. No one to clean the dorms, the dining halls, no one to fold your laundry and wash your dishes, or pick up trash. It would be chaos. This campus cannot function without custodians. So the fight goes on.

    What do we want? Five more janitors. When do we want them? Now. If we don’t get it: shut it down.

    Emma Lucía Llano

  2. Maybe if you met with the students and treated their ideas with respect this could have been avoided. We are not happy with this current situation and we only resorted to this protest because we are not being listened to.

  3. One of the first things they teach us in data analysis courses at Wesleyan, is that no data is infaliable. The production of quantitative data imbues it with biases and so any reliable analysis of a social system must consider other sources of information as well. If custodial workers at Wesleyan are saying they are overworked and unable to take breaks, it does it matter if their workloads are technically up to industry standards. You have an opportunity to enact the philosophies Wesleyan claims to hold dear. Instead, you blantantly ignore the exploitation of members of our community. Your responses to this dire need are shameful and make it clear to me that I cannot in the future support this institution financially or otherwise. Have you ever spent a whole day cleaning? You are paid nearly a million dollars to schmooze and move money around, your workload simply cannot compare to the backbreaking work of custodians who do not even have time for lunch breaks. If you had a semblance of empathy, you could ask to reduce only your own salary, still make half a million dollars a year, and greatly relieve those who make our campus run. Instead you set a terrible example for your students and the world. Shame on you.

  4. This blog posts conveniently leaves out the fact that all this “data” comes from the exact same company that Wesleyan hired in 2012 to cut costs by reducing the size of its custodial workforce. Of course the company that overworks custodians is going to say that custodians are not overworked! Michael Roth, take responsibility for your role as co-employer of Wesleyan’s custodians and talk to the union. They will tell you that we need more custodians.

  5. “If presented with more data, we can certainly study the assignments again” How about using the workers’ complaints as valuable data, rather than using data provided by the company hired by Wesleyan to reduce the number of custodial workers?

  6. The international struggle for worker’s rights is not a free speech issue. Organizing workers are not looking to enter into an intellectual debate with management, they are making material demands to make their working and living conditions decent and equitable. Bosses have no claim to a “safer space” away from workers’ rights. The exploitation of labor is not an exercise of free speech. Students are engaging with a material dialectical struggle, and are making a moral demand of the institution and community they are a part of. To present this as a free speech issue is reductive and reactionary. Shame on you. Five more workers!

  7. Dear Michael,

    I don’t understand why you are singling out the students on this particular issue, when the custodial staff themselves (that is, the people who actually do the work you claim to have collected “data” on) have asked to hire back five more staff. This blog post doesn’t accurately represent the situation: as Maia notes above, Wesleyan laid off 10 custodial staff (reducing the force from 60 to 50) at the behest of a company designed to cut costs (aka push austerity measures on a university worth more than a billion dollars).

    The laborers who Wesleyan has hired through a contracting company have no recourse against the university, who is functionally their true employer. The laborers themselves have asked for more staff in order to make the work load more reasonable. Instead of listening to the workers who are present on the job every day, you choose to listen to the very same company that advised you to lay off ten workers in the first place, which has resulted in the work loads that laborers are now pushing back against. As Maia and other students note above, your claims for data are playing at being neutral, but the first thing one learns at a university, especially at a top-tear research institution like Wesleyan, is that one must seek multiple forms of data from multiple sources. Talk to the laborers, talk to the union, and you will hear a different story than what corporate analytics tell.

    I’m disheartened by Wesleyan continuing to position itself as a progressive institution when it eagerly selects the most unethical, immoral labor practices such as contracting out service jobs (which create situations in which workers cannot hold their true employers unaccountable due to precariousness in their contracts). You need to listen to your workers, meet with the union, and hear what they are saying. As an alumni of Wesleyan, I find this blog post to be incredibly shameful. Shame on you.


  8. If you really want to promote free speech and open conversation, how about listening to the stories of the workers themselves — the people who do amazing and demanding labor to keep this campus running. Many of these workers have personally stated that they are overworked and that hiring more custodians would make an enormous difference. We know that you can afford to do this, given your nearly $1 million dollar annual salary. If you truly care about rights on this campus, you need to respect the custodial staff by hiring 5 more workers immediately.

  9. Hi Michael. While you have data “disproving” worker exploitation coming from the very people responsible for exploiting our custodians, your students have actually engaged with and listened to custodians, allowing them to present endless qualitative data that you have ignored for years. The WesFest demonstrations were disruptive because you have shown us that disruption is necessary in order for you to consider treating the people who take care of this campus with respect and humanity. Please rethink your priorities. Students and workers are uniting stronger than ever before and we will not stop until at least five more workers are hired.

  10. Dear M. Roth,

    I will keep it short. You were once a student at this very school – you are intimately aware with the ways that even the most sustainability-minded student can generate waste and dirt. You once popped champagne all over Olin’s steps, you once spilled your coffee on the rug here, you once threw out something that fell off the side of the trashbin. Since 2007, you have been President, and you have seen this campus and its buildings grow and take shape. You assert that you continuously have a good and valuable experience here – and all of them have been facilitated by the custodial workers. Every meal, every clean walk, every sanitary bathroom, every experience that has not been marred by dirt or waste is because of custodial workers hard work.

    Custodial workers deserve working conditions that are fair and humane. They have been asking for a minimal change in staffing – simply five more custodians.

    Forget your data. Hire five more custodians already.

    Lex J.

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