Breaking: Whitman Scholars Strike Racial Injustice

Sean Gannon, News Editor

Several Whitman professors — including the entire Politics Department — are participating in a national Scholar Strike against police brutality and racial injustice today, Sep. 8, and tomorrow, Sep. 9.

Types of participation in the strike will vary, including the reallocation of class time for discussions of racial injustice to the temporary suspension of class. Some professors have suggested, and some have required, that their students use their allotted class time to instead watch “teach-ins” on YouTube, organized by the Scholar Strike’s national leaders, that include 10-minute videos on policing, community organizing and systemic racism.

The strike was introduced by two professors: Anthea Butler of University of Pennsylvania and Kevin Gannon of Grand View University. They were inspired by the recent walk-out strike by professional basketball players following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“We’re not so much protesting our individual universities as we are protesting police violence and racial injustice in this country,” Butler, an associate professor of religious and African studies, explained.

Calls to strike were brought to Whitman faculty by Lisa Uddin, an associate professor of art history and visual culture studies and Zahi Zalloua, a professor and director of race and ethnic studies.

“There was enthusiasm about the strike right from the start,” Zalloua said in an email to The Wire. “The question was how to proceed.”

On Aug. 29, Zalloua composed a message to all department chairs and directors informing them about the strike and asking them to share that information with their faculty.

Politics Department Chair Susanne Beechey — a vocal advocate for the strike — brought the issue to the department for an anonymous vote; politics professors voted unanimously to participate.

The politics department released a statement on Thursday, Sep. 3., affirming the vote, and framed their decision to strike as one consistent with President Murray’s anti-racism call to action. 

“On May 30th, the President of Whitman College called on all members of the community to ‘publicly call out and act against racism,’” the statement said. “A failure to honor the call for a national scholar’s strike would be a form of inaction and apathy incompatible with the call to act against racism and police violence.”

Chair of the Faculty Barry Balof said on Sunday, Sep. 6, that Politics, to the best of his knowledge, is the only department to make a uniform statement. He said he did not know what share of the faculty was participating, but those who have spoken about the strike “have done so favorably.”

Professors Beechey, Uddin and Zalloua all stressed that participation in the strike will take many forms, and will be in some part shaped by professors’ individual employment status.

“I think it’s key to underline that what solidarity with #ScholarStrike looks like will be highly variable based on instructor’s employment status and philosophies of higher education,” Uddin wrote in an email to The Wire.

“Across the U.S. educators have different employment relationships and different abilities to strike — to not hold class for example,” Beechey said.

Though visiting professors and those on a one-year contract may find themselves hesitant to suspend their class for social advocacy efforts, they don’t have the no-strike clauses in their contracts like some professors across the country. 

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Alzada Tipton confirmed in an email to The Wire that Whitman professors “have no contractual agreements that would prevent them from striking.”

In a statement released on Instagram on Saturday, Whitman’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) – led by President Lisa Uddin – registered its “vigorous support” for the Scholar Strike. The statement assured solidarity with any professor who chooses to participate and framed the issue as an exercise of academic freedom.

Multiple professors told The Wire that any form of retaliation — either against those who participate in the strike or those who don’t — would be inconsistent with the goals of the strike and its leaders.

“It’s not my opinion that if someone isn’t participating in the strike that they don’t think racial justice is important,” Beechey said, echoing sentiments of professors across departments. “It’s that there are a number of modes for engaging and raising visibility.”

“The challenge,” Zalloua said, “is obviously what happens after these two days of action. I’m hopeful that the adoption of this year’s community theme, Race, Violence, Health by the College this fall will help to sustain this collective desire for racial justice.” 

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