Students chanted phrases like “If they refuse to treat us right, Webster students must unite,” at a protest on Nov. 16. The protest started on the quad before students marched to Webster Hall.
Webster students gathered in protest on campus on Nov. 16, occupying the quad with signs and flags. The protest involved a campus-wide walkout to demand the university address several questions regarding decreases in student benefits.
Some students held handmade signs stating, “Dear Webster, we want answers,” “Bite the hand that doesn’t feed you” and “Where is our money?”
Kieron Kessler, one of the organizers, said the student body is in distress and the university needs to address students’ concerns.
“My goal with the protest is to continue trying our hardest to hold the university accountable,” Kessler said. “My plan is to have this be an elongated student campaign to make the university accountable and be truthful with us.”
Student grievances include Webster taking away student commuter points, discontinuing Adobe applications for personal student devices, miscommunication regarding Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) money, an increase in parking tickets and booting cars.
The grievances were originally listed on flyers spread across campus and a Change.org petition. The online petition had 630 signatures as of Nov. 16. Copies of the list of grievances were also distributed among attendees at the protest.
Kessler said organizers were hoping to make some noise and shake up the average Tuesday processes on campus with the walkout.
“The goal is to make the university pay attention to us and to make people outside the university also pay attention to the fact that our students are struggling,” Kessler said. “We are so in distress we are stopping classes – leaving classes that we pay for – in order to prove a point, that we go to a private institution but do not experience a private education in regard to the benefits around us.”
An estimated 60 to 80 students took part in the walkout, which started in the quad and made its way around Sverdrup Hall on Edgar Road and Big Bend Boulevard before arriving at Webster Hall. Once there, students took turns stating their experiences and perspectives.
Protesters chanted, “Brick by brick, we will get benefits,” “If they refuse to treat us right, Webster students must unite” and “They seem to think that this is funny … where is all our f***ing money?” as they traveled through campus.
Maria Walls, a member of the Webster Scientific Socialist Alliance (WSSA), also helped organize and spread publicity about the walkout via social media and campus-posted flyers. She said these issues weigh down on her and her peers daily.
“The intention of the demonstration is to get the attention of the university and its officials and to show that we will not simply accept the misuse of our funds and mistreatment of students,” Walls said.
The WSSA created a petition this spring against the growing frequency of students being ticketed on campus. However, Walls said the organization’s demands were not met by Public Safety and the administration.
“The number of students whose cars have been booted in recent weeks shows that the problem has only gotten worse,” Walls said. “As part of WSSA’s central committee, I felt that I should continue to fight for an end to not only the excessive ticketing, but also the other methods of financial exploitation being used on students.”
Walls is referring to tuition prices and the fact that students are not given the benefits they once were.
“The most important thing is that Webster students receive exactly what they’re putting into the university through their tuition,” Walls said. “To expect students to continue paying the same tuition rates, while taking away their access to food, parking and tools for success like Adobe, is both unrealistic and unfair.”
Sparking more students’ questions about the HEERF distribution, Webster’s Quarterly Budget and Expenditure Report from last quarter states the university only used $1.3 million of the relief funds to grant to students. Another column lists the university gave $7.9 million to “lost revenue at extended US campus locations.”
Kessler questioned why none of the HEERF money went toward tuition reduction or keeping Adobe for another year.
Connor Hanneken, a Webster Conservatory of Theatre Arts student who is also the media director for the WSSA, said what got him involved in the protest was lack of commuter points, personal Adobe access and the amount of parking tickets given to students. They said they feel as though the university is using students as cash cows.
“In the Discord [chat] for the WSSA, one student alerted us that they could not attend class because of the lack of parking spaces and then had their car booted due to the spot they had found. I was distraught when I learned that students’ class attendance is affected by the fear of parking tickets,” Hanneken said.
Hanneken also mentioned the problem of commuter students not being able to afford to eat on campus now that commuter points have been discontinued, as it comes out of the student’s own pocket.
“My tuition costs remain the same. Yet, the benefits I receive have been continuously cut back,” Hanneken said. “My personal goal of the walkout is to show the university that we’re not going to forget about these injustices; this is more than a petition.”
Patrick Giblin, the university’s director of public relations, shared a statement from the university regarding the administration’s focus on these concerns.
“With the pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn, the University assessed programs and services, collected sound data and made decisions that are in the best interest of our students and the institution,” Giblin said. “As a result, new programs to support students were introduced, such as the two-year tuition freeze, increases in scholarships and grants, and expanded services through University departments.”
Giblin said the university has distributed the Congressional HEERF relief money in accordance with federal regulations and that the distribution of those funds was double-checked by external auditors. He said these reports are available through the U.S. government’s website.
Dean of students John Buck also addressed some inaccuracies within the petition. For example, the petition listed janitorial staff losing their benefits. However, janitorial staff are contracted and unionized workers and their loss of benefits is unrelated to Webster.
While Buck said the university does not have a plan to address the student body as a whole, he said the university has a practice of supporting these demonstrations and wants to let it be known he is happy to talk with any student to clear up misconceptions.
“I met with the organizers and went through all [the grievances] and filled in a lot of information, so I’m involved in most of the things on their list in terms of how we are working with them,” Buck said. “The plan is for Student Affairs and my office to be a main source of information; my staff and colleagues have a lot of answers to the questions they are asking. The door is wide open.”
Kessler said they would continue to rally students until the university is transparent about the issues with the entirety of the student body.
“We’re not gonna stop. I don’t plan on stopping until the university gets held accountable. We’ll keep organizing until we get something out of them,” Kessler said.
The next protest is a sit-in in the University Center on Nov. 30 at 10 a.m. The sit-in will protest the lack of commuter points, as commuter students will sit feet away from food they cannot afford to eat.
Hanneken further expressed the goal of administration accountability.
“I hope Chancellor Stroble and President Schuster can become aware of how upset their students are, acknowledge these injustices and make changes,” Hanneken said. “I hope the student body is able to create a lasting movement that can hold the administration and the policies that affect us all accountable.”