Mendelson: the Sanctuary Campus protesters owe Chancellor Zeppos an apology


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Campus of Vanderbilt Unversity in Nashville, Tennessee.

Joshua Mendelson

While many rejoiced at the anticipated shakeup that a Trump presidency would bring, a large portion of America perceived his win as both a threat to American democracy and to personal security. Many, particularly college students, were spurred to action. Though Vanderbilt’s campus is sometimes thought of as politically passive, Trump’s win has elicited two protests and a strong condemnation from over 200 faculty members and hundreds of students. The second protest, on Wednesday afternoon, was a direct response to Trump’s promise to crackdown on illegal immigrants and to create a database of Muslim Americans.

At 1:00pm Wednesday, about 100 students stormed into Kirkland Hall. With a letter detailing their goals, they demanded a meeting with Chancellor Zeppos. In video of the protest, students are seen chanting “sanctuary” at a line of campus administers and security who block entrance to the Chancellor’s office. Several times students can be seen getting within inches of the faces of administrators. Repeatedly, Associate Vice Chancellor Washington explained that Chancellor Zeppos would be more than happy to formally meet with the students to discuss the issue. Eventually the Vice Chancellor yielded to chants to make a phone call. After stepping outside to contact the Chancellor, Washington placed the phone on a table in the center of the seated students. The ensuing assault on Chancellor Zeppos was presumptuous, entitled, and uninformed.

The call began with “we were wondering where you are Mr. Nicholas Zeppos.” This type of condescension and disrespect set the tone for the rest of the conversation. The Chancellor tried to apologize for being out of the office but was cut off by another protester. One of them asked, “Who is the meeting with,” and another confidently proclaimed “Chancellor Zeppos is meeting with Mayor Megan Barry right now,” as if this was some sort of despicable act. Another protester said “apparently Megan Barry is more important than your students.”

The protesters went on to read their list of demands. Upon finishing, they posed their repeated question: “Will you declare Vanderbilt a sanctuary campus?” Chancellor Zeppos answered that he will carefully review their demands, which did not satisfy the students. The back and forth continued for some time until finally Chancellor Zeppos explained that equality and inclusion are paramount to Vanderbilt’s identity and that he will continue to fight for these values in collaboration with the students. Eventually a student shouted that the Chancellor’s reply is equivalent to a “no,” eliciting a resounding “no justice, no peace” chant from the crowd.

Yelling at and taunting the administration and security is disrespectful and misplaced. The protesters were shocked that the Chancellor was not idly sitting in his office waiting for them. Once they read their lengthy demands, they were angered that he wouldn’t accept them on the spot, as dictated. There is serious intensity in this movement, but can’t this energy be channeled in more productive ways? Whether that means formal meetings with the administration or student outreach to gain wider support on campus, surely there are more effective ways to convey this message.  

By bullying those who do not immediately acquiesce to them, the protesters blur the line between the bigotry they are protesting and the tolerance and equality they desire.

The accusation that Chancellor Zeppos is opposed to protecting Vanderbilt students from immigration enforcement is both untrue and unfair. The Chancellor has demonstrated that he wants to work towards an open and inclusive Vanderbilt. Just over a year ago, Chancellor Zeppos stood outside his office to personally receive the letters from hundreds of students demanding an increased focus on diversity and inclusion. It is easy to understand the fear and anger felt by the protestors, but it is far more difficult to understand the expression of these feelings against Chancellor Zeppos.

The protesters should welcome the fact that the chancellor refused to make a hasty and unilateral decision over the phone, especially when that decision, as the protesters note, will directly affect the lives of Vanderbilt students. Berating the man tasked with improving our increasingly diverse campus diminishes the very goals they are working towards. By doing so, the protestors alienate many who share their opinions. By bullying those who do not immediately acquiesce to them, the protesters blur the line between the bigotry they are protesting and the tolerance and equality they desire. Portraying Chancellor Zeppos as an enemy is unhelpful; it is unity that must be sought. Ready or not, the Trump presidency begins on January 20th, and with it students will continue to protest. My only hope is that the protesters act in a manner that is as noble as their cause.