Northeastern students chase president, block traffic

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon May 14 09:52:14 PDT 2001

Chronicle of Higher Education - web daily - May 14, 2001

Decision to Raze Building That Houses Black Institute Stirs Rowdy Protest at Northeastern U. By ANDREW BROWNSTEIN

More than 300 students at Northeastern University -- angered over a decision to raze a building that houses the campus center for black students -- chased the university's president to his car Thursday and blocked rush-hour traffic for close to an hour.

The episode capped a month of protests and sit-ins at the John D. O'Bryant African-American Institute. The university has, for the past several years, been demolishing older buildings in an attempt to revitalize the campus. The institute, founded in 1968, was soon to be added to the list. Some black students worried that whatever replaced the institute would decrease the space and stature afforded to African-American programs.

For many students, their fears were realized Thursday. Richard M. Freeland, the president, announced privately that the new institute, unlike the current one, would have to share a building with other programs.

"If there's one thing clear, it's that Northeastern doesn't care about black people," Justin Brown, a sophomore, told The Boston Globe.

After Mr. Freeland emerged from a meeting in the institute's basement Thursday night, a crowd ran after him, but he drove away without addressing students.

Students said they were frustrated with the lack of detail about the new building and angered that the president had not talked with them directly.

After Thursday's announcement, the crowd swelled into the hundreds, chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, President Freeland has got to go!" and "Ain't no power like the power of the people, 'cause the power of the people don't stop!"

Students blocked traffic on Huntington and Massachusetts Avenues -- both busy streets in downtown Boston -- as they addressed the throng through bullhorns.

Attempts to reach protesters were unsuccessful Friday.

University officials reacted to the incident with some frustration, insisting that Mr. Freeland had made many concessions to students in recent weeks. While the institute will not be a separate building, it will have its own entrance and a separate facade. The new institute will also be in the same location and contain the same square footage as the old one, but with more modern equipment and decoration.

"I think I've lost focus of what the bone of contention here is," said Sandra T. King, a spokeswoman for the university.

Despite the protests, it was clear that the students had a significant impact on the president's decision. Mr. Freeland had earlier stated that the building would be destroyed and the institute moved to one floor of an existing building on campus.

The current building houses a technology center, a library, and tutoring and scholarship programs geared toward black students.

On Thursday, Mr. Freeland expressed his support for the institute, saying in a statement that it "demonstrates Northeastern's continued commitment to the African-American community."

Ms. King said the university would not seek disciplinary actions against students involved in the protest, but expressed "keen disappointment" in their tactics.

"I don't think that's commendable behavior," she said. "There are lots of ways to express disagreement, but bringing people to the point that they feel fearful or at risk is not one of them."

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