Fresno Students Protest with Study-in

December 11, 2009

There has been a resurgence of student activism at public universities throughout California. State budget reductions and rising student fees have resulted in students paying more and getting less. Students have occupied buildings, held marches, and been arrested at UCLA, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz.

California State University at Fresno is not known as a radical campus, but even in this conservative region of the state students are taking action. This is the story of a successful student "study-in" at the Henry Madden Library on the campus of Fresno State.

About 100 students (and a few nonstudents) stayed in the library after it closed at 5 p.m. Friday, November 20. They were located on the second floor north, mainly by the windows but with the overflow at the tables by the current periodicals and microfilm. This was a strategic location so that the protesters could be seen from outside and where they could put up their signs with maximum impact.

Refusing to leave

University staff that stayed with the protesters were Paul Oliaro, vice president for student affairs; Carolyn Coon, dean of students; Peter McDonald, dean of library services, and myself, Dave Tyckoson, associate dean. The university police officer assigned to the library and several student public safety assistants were also in the building.

After closing the rest of the building, Peter McDonald talked to the students, informing them that the building was closed but that we would allow them to stay and study. We told them that since we were closed, no one else could come inside and if someone left that they could not re-enter. For safety, we also asked them to stay in the general area of the second floor. Some students and supporters, including the mothers of two students inside, who did not make it to the library by 5 p.m., remained outside near the front doors. We did allow those outside to pass along food for those inside. A lot of pizzas came in- along with fruit and water.

We were told that the purpose of the sit-in was to be a study-in, so we said that we would help them out. McDonald and I helped most of the students with reference questions. I am not sure what exactly the students he worked with were doing, but the ones that I helped ranged from searching cognitive neuropsychology treatments in cases of autism to finding books on printing in color. By helping the students, we set the tone that studying was really what they were here for and what we expected them to be doing.

At 8 p.m., the students held a spontaneous meeting to talk about their issues and to rally their position for the media. They gathered in a circle and provided testimonials to each other about how the budget cuts were affecting them. This was to solidify their stance, and the university officials watched but did not speak.

At 10 p.m., the students held a preorganized press conference. We allowed the media in and the students read a press release and chanted slogans such as "24-Hour Library!" and "Whose university? Our university!" They had called and texted friends to raise the numbers outside the library. Those on the outside joined in the chanting, often doing a call-and-response through the exit gates and front doors. University staff sat and watched; after all, this was the students' event.

Once the media had left, McDonald talked to the students about plans for the rest of the evening. He and the students agreed that they could stay the night but would leave before 8 a.m. Saturday morning so that we could prepare the building for opening later on Saturday. He also talked to the organizers of the protest about library hours and funding, and he answered their questions.

I left at about 12:20 a.m., and Peter McDonald stayed until around 1 a.m. By this time, some 40-50 stu dents remained. Various shifts of campus police monitored the building overnight. The lights turned off automatically on a timer at 1:30 a.m.

I came back to the library at 7:15 a.m. for the ending of the sit-in, as did Paul Oliaro and Carolyn Coon. Approximately 20 students remained, and they looked even more tired than we were. It was really quiet, and four students had come down to the reference area on the first floor to try to get some sleep.

At about 7:40 a.m., we heard talking and some noise from the second floor. By 7:45 the students were coming downstairs carrying trash bags full of debris that had accumulated during the night. I went with a few of them out the back door and we put the bags in the big dumpster, then came back in so the entire group could leave together.

 Courteous and respectful

 As they departed, what remained of the crowd outside the front door- including the two mothers-cheered and took photos and video clips. Once they were all gone, we observed that the building was cleaner than when they started! All books were returned and computers were turned off. Throughout the entire protest, the students were courteous and respectful. Nothing was damaged and everyone acted civilly. They made their point and behaved well. No one was arrested or cited for any misconduct and all left with a mutual respect between the students and the administration.

Some observations:

First, you have to admire students who stay all night to fight for more library hours. While the library hours were used as a symbol of larger budget issues, it is heartwarming to see students who care about the library so much that they will stay all night to get us more funding. You have to admire even more the six or seven people who did the same thing outside the front doors, including the mothers of two of the protesters. It is one thing to stay all night in a warm building, and it is another entirely to do so outside in the rain and cold.

Second, protests are hard on smokers. Since students could not get back in once outside and there is no smoking area inside, this caused a real dilemma. A few who were inside when I left were outside when I came back because they had to have a smoke.

Third, social networking plays a huge role in modern protests. Students and supporters were in constant communication through phone, text, and other media during the entire evening. I was on Facebook reporting the situation from the staff side, including live chats with a former student member of the board of trustees. Everything that happens in such an event can and will be shown live in real time to the rest of the world.

At a time when you read about arrests at other campuses, our protest was as peaceful as planned. I am very proud of our students, our administration, and especially Dean Peter McDonald for serving as the link between the two groups. What could have been a black eye for the library and campus turned into a proud moment for all of us.

 –Dave Tyckoson, associate dean, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno.