Round one, Hereford

Hereford students are role models for successful student activism

I’VE BEEN writing this column for three years now. And, to be honest, I’ve grown weary of composing the typical University article. You know, the one that rails against a sinister or inept administration for 500 words then broaches a hodgepodge of reforms in the next 200. That this University oscillates between being a bungling bureaucracy, a heartless corporation, and (if you’re lucky) an entity with student welfare at heart is “dog bites man” in the news business. It’s trite and easy to write. But it’s not news.      

But every once in a while, the budding journalist comes across a “man bites dog” story. It’s often hidden in the rubble of banality. In my case, it was the administration’s rash decision to designate Hereford Residential College as a first-year-only housing option.

I had already read the rants and skimmed the sobbing on Hereford’s demise. Students who had previously equated “displaced” with refugees or vagabonds now saw their own compatriots suffer this same fate as they attempted to renew their housing arrangements. The administration predictably fell back on excuses of staff illness and the unpredictable nature of construction, despite the fact that years of planning that involved more than a handful of individuals went into this. Aggrieved students, autocratic administration. So far, so trite.
But as I wolfed down Thai food with my high school friend and Hereford resident Mia Choi on Friday night, a different angle emerged. A grassroots student effort was flourishing in Hereford in response to this decision, and its story had not been fully told. What started as a light bulb moment at Lemongrass blossomed into fruition as I conducted several interviews. The story was Hereford’s response, not the University’s policy. And Hereford’s student mobilization is not only an epitome of grassroots action rarely seen at this institution, but also one that played a pivotal role in changing the administration’s policy.

Crucially, the Hereford Student Senate’s first step on hearing they were to be “displaced” was to demonstrate to the administration that Hereford was not taking this sitting down. It roused residents to flood University administrators with e-mails and phone calls to demonstrate how important Hereford was to them. It encouraged residents to attend its weekly Tuesday meeting on October 28. And it huddled into a committee in charge of conversing with the administration. “Displaced” notices on housing screens and ambiguous statements simply would not do.

But an initial spurt of discontent is a necessary but insufficient condition for grassroots activism. A movement could lose steam very quickly. So, it was admirable that this spark was translated into the flames of revolutionary fervor. According to committee member Anna Pfeiffer, the first week of November saw a wide assortment of grassroots mobilization efforts by Hereford residents. The weekend was spent coating Beta Bridge and chalking Grounds. Residents donned Hereford T-shirts which, on some days, read “I am Hereford”, and on others, displayed the rich stew of activities the college conducts.

If the administration was trying to test the cohesion of Hereford’s community, students  passed with flying colors. Appalled at the wave of disgruntlement, the University backed down on Nov. 6. After a face to face meeting with Hereford’s committee, a blanket “reclassification” (read: kicking out) of residents evolved into a stunning compromise: current Hereford members could now return to the college next year if they wished. They would also meet with students to help them crack the coded language in the administration’s e-mails and ease their transition. Hereford’s activism had reigned supreme.

But declaring victory now would be premature. The Hereford Committee and Student Senate should press the administration about the future status of Hereford. Up to this point, it isn’t clear whether the administration is planning to wipe out Hereford entirely or use it as temporary Housing for first years. Humanity suggests the latter, but the administration’s coded language hints at the former. If it is abolished, a community will be lost amidst the stone and brick. Every Hereford resident I spoke to gushes on about their innovative short courses, banquets, Faculty fellows, the herb and vegetable garden, and much more. Students must fight to preserve it; the administration won’t willingly inconvenience itself.

When I interviewed Hereford College Principal Nancy Takahashi, she was awash with praise for her students. “Students mounted their own campaign, and I tried to stay out of it because I really wanted students to find their own voice. I’m really proud of them for doing this,” she said.  

And she should be. This Herefordian activism flies in the face of critics who allege it is nothing but a deserted, desolate and depressing place. It also answers the question of what distinguishes Hereford as a residential college. The IRC has its internationalism. Brown has its creativity. But Hereford will always be remembered for its chummy community and ardent activism.

Prashanth Parameswaran’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at p.parameswaran@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories