Alex Armstrong leads a budget rally protest on College Green at Ohio University on Monday, November 25, 2019. (FILE)

Alex Armstrong leads a budget rally protest on College Green at Ohio University on Monday, November 25, 2019. (FILE)

Student Movement Struggles

February 2, 2022

Budget-related student movements at OU diminished, other movements currently inactive

By Emma Skidmore, Ryan Maxin | News Editors

In November of 2019, students and faculty crowded College Green with signs reading things like “No OU Without Faculty” and “OUr School Colors are White and GREED,” cheering in agreement with the rally’s speakers as they discussed Ohio University’s finances.

Some of the event's organizers climbed the Civil War Soldiers Monument on the green, creating a makeshift podium on the chalk emblazoned statue, with #FunFacts written on the concrete in bright orange.

At the base of the statue stood then-sophomore Sam Debatin.

In approximently 10 minutes, disgruntled OU students will take to the College Green to protest the recent proposed budget cuts.

— The Post (@ThePost) November 25, 2019

Today, Debatin is a senior studying art history. He was involved with OU Fun Facts and helped organize about 200 students in November 2019 to protest university budget and faculty cuts. Though it was his friend who managed the Twitter account, he joined in on the back end of the movement.

In 2019 and 2020, respectively, OU Fun Facts and Save OUr Profs sprang up as two student-led grassroots organizations whose main purpose was to fight against budget cuts and faculty layoffs affecting faculty and staff at the university. However, these movements have dwindled in recent years as those leading the movements either graduated or lost widespread support. In the movements’ absence, others have yet to take their place.

Debatin said he got involved because of the growing sense of disapproval among students regarding the university’s budget decisions, like the layoffs of numerous staff and faculty members.

“There were already so many factors at that point,” Debatin said. “(There was a) feeling like we weren’t getting our money’s worth out of our education. I think that’s only increased for most people at this point.”

Debatin said because of that, he wasn’t necessarily surprised when the account started gaining traction, but he wasn’t expecting the magnitude in which people showed up in-person.

Debatin said at the time, he was able to meet with former OU President Duane Nellis but said they were “pretty directly told to not make a big deal about it.”

“I don’t think anybody in that meeting felt listened to,” Debatin said. “We felt talked down to and we felt pretty dismissed. There was this sense that we brought all this material to the table … and what ended up happening was we talked for 35 seconds … and then a table full of administrators making upwards of $300 (thousand), $400,000 … managed to, in essence, gaslight us.”

Carly Leatherwood, a university spokesperson, said OU remains committed to the principles of shared governance.

“The university takes student concerns seriously and welcomes the opportunity for meaningful dialogue with student leaders, as evidenced by the meeting in question, which occurred the day following the event,” Leatherwood said in an email responding to those concerns.

Robin Oliver, vice president for university communications and marketing, said at the time of the protest, students were “appropriately concerned” but hasn’t heard as many concerns from students regarding the budget – specifically faculty layoffs – recently.

“I think we're in a different place now as a university,” Oliver said. “We are not looking at any reductions in faculty at all.”

OU President Hugh Sherman said he is focused on the student experience and how budgetary decisions will affect students.

“When people come to me to talk about, ‘Hey, we want to spend money on this,’ my first question is, ‘Tell me about how that impacts our student experience,’” Sherman said. “So for me, it’s pretty easy to make these decisions.”

Sherman said changes in faculty are a result of fluctuating demands in different colleges and are done with improving the student experience in mind. For example, Sherman said 30% of OU students are in health-related majors, and as a result, the university’s goal was to hire more faculty in that area.

“I think part of the university experience is to help students understand the role that they can play in our greater society,” Sherman said. “I think it’s good that students understand the issues that are going on in the local community and the university … I think asking questions and being active is a positive.”

Additionally, Sherman said average class sizes have “shrunk dramatically,” and he has been visiting every college, in addition to regional campuses and student organizations, to address students’ concerns.

“I don’t think there’s a group that I haven’t (talked to),” Sherman said. “If they ask, I come and talk with them and listen to them. They have serious concerns, and it’s helpful for me to hear it.”

Debatin said between student movements losing traction due to COVID-19 and other budget-reduction plans, such as divesting in properties, things are still getting worse.

“Not only are they firing professors, but they're literally physically destroying buildings,” he said. “That is part of this slimming down of a physical campus … I think at the heart of what we’re trying to emphasize way back in 2019 was that OU’s campus is what brings people here.”

Debatin said that isn’t a fight he’s currently fighting, partially due to many of the original organizers graduating and a feeling there is no longer a network of people committed to the cause.

“Everybody only has limited mental energy,” he said. “If you were (a) graduated student, it would be hard to rally people in a place where you don't really know what the current culture is like … Even if there's a sense of collective amnesia, I think it's also just a practicality. This isn't their fight anymore.”

Olivia Gemarro, a 2021 OU graduate, created SaveOUrProfs, a Twitter account dedicated to supporting the university’s professors and faculty, in 2020 after seeing the effects budget cuts and layoffs had on them.

Now that she’s graduated, Gemarro said she’s not able to keep up on current issues affecting OU’s budget. Despite her best efforts and a desire to pass the SaveOUrProfs account on, no one has been interested in taking over for her, she said.

Though she is concerned with the lack of interest from others to continue the account, she’s confident that more student movements will spring up as university issues arise.

“I don't want the administrators or anyone else to get the wrong impression that student movements are ever going to be gone,” Gemarro said. “Even though it is a transient population, there's people coming and people leaving within a specified amount of time, … there will always be that mindset that stays, which is the willingness to organize and speak up for a cause that we care about.”

Gemarro said some students may be apprehensive to voice their concerns with OU’s budget and build student movements like hers because of the time commitment and the possibility the efforts won’t lead to any change.

“I think that that aspect of it can be really discouraging, especially if we think that our actions are going to be fruitless and not have any benefits come out of it,” Gemarro said. “Like why would we put that valuable time into something that might not even garner the results that we want?”

Debatin said in his opinion, alumni can lend their support, but it feels more like an effort that needs to come from within.

“Fighting institutions is a really big task,” Debatin said. “They're unforgiving. They're unrelenting.”

AUTHOR: Emma Skidmore, Ryan Maxin
EDITOR: Molly Wilson, Taylor Burnette
COPY EDITOR: Anna Garnai
PHOTO: Alex Syrvalin