A student-led grassroots organization fought back against program cuts using chalk and democracy.
As soon as TU’s administration released the True Commitment mission statement, faculty, alumni and students immediately resisted this planned restructuring of the university. Community backlash continued for months following the announcement. From passionate outcries at student protests to chalk demanding resignations, the souring between students and administration felt palpable, resulting in growing resentment and ultimately a vote of no confidence.
On April 12, students and faculty swiftly held a protest meeting in Kendall Hall that functioned as an open-mic rally. The attendees passionately offered testimonies on the benefits of liberal arts education to an equally enthusiastic and disgruntled crowd. President Gerard Clancy’s email stated that True Commitment’s changes only affected 6% of students, and the students who made up this percentage instantly reclaimed this marginalization. “We are the 6%,” multiple speakers at this event had cried, and the slogan made its way onto shirts and protest signs.
“When True Commitment first dropped, everyone was just in shock,” says College of Arts and Sciences alumnus Elise Ramsey.
A petition, titled “Saving the Heart and Soul of the University of Tulsa,” followed True Commitment’s public exposure. The post outlined community concerns and demanded for the administration to reverse this decision. “This dismemberment of the liberal arts studies is nothing short of reprehensible,” wrote the petition’s creator, Michael Orcutt, “and the process by which these departments were gutted was confusing, riddled with false numbers and misinformation.” As of writing, the petition has 8,302 signatures.
Flyers appeared around campus for a funeral walk on April 19. This processional service, complete with a homemade coffin, invited students to mourn the cut programs. Participants wore black, held signs decrying True Commitment and gave speeches expounding upon the worth of the humanities.
On April 16, members of the Student Association Senate, including Cheyenne Green, penned a bill that called for a vote of no confidence in the True Commitment Plan. This resolution, titled “Not Mad, Just Disappointed,” was authored after receiving concern from over 200 constituents. The document condemns the “lack of empathy” from the administration and expresses support for the professors who they felt were undervalued and disrespected. The Senators additionally criticize True Commitment for having “deeply flawed” statistics and justifications that were “more concerned with saving face than being honest.”
SA voted in favor of the resolution. Around this time, votes of no confidence in the True Commitment plan also took place in the College of Law and faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences.
During the following fall semester, protests ignited once more. At the start of the year, faculty and students joined for another assembly in Kendall Hall. The event was designed to inspire the continuation of protests and explain the current situation to freshmen. There, alumni including Green, Ramsey, and Haley Ashworth promoted their protest group called Students for Responsible Change (SRC), an organization that worked to foster student awareness and offer a planning center for more coordinated backlash.
“One of the first things we did was name ourselves Students for Responsible Change,” says Ramsey. “We weren’t opposed to fundamental changes of the university, but we felt that they should be done with the proper values of university-shared governance and consultation of faculty. True Commitment was an irresponsible approach.”
One of the loudest protest methods from the SRC came in the form of chalk; around campus, protest statements criticized True Commitment and the administration.
“There were a lot of statements being made by administration that claimed students supported True Commitment, and those who didn’t were outliers or in the pocket of dissenting faculty,” explains Ramsey. “Obviously, the chalk isn’t a way to combat all of those narratives, but it was a way to get attention.”
Members of the group who were Political Science majors had offered advice regarding civil disobedience and methods of protesting. “They pointed out a lot of successful resistances are multifaceted in that there is a segment of the organization focused on being fundamentally unreasonable — getting attention, drumming up anger and reminding people that this is actually happening,” Ramsey continues. “The other facet of successful resistance was a reasonable body that would swoop in and do the negotiation aspect.”
Ramsey participated in chalking around campus because she deeply cares about liberal arts education and felt indignant toward the proceedings of the university. “It was hard to say that the place we cared about was shooting itself in the foot,” she says.
Chalked statements varied from “TU has world-class faculty looking for new jobs” to “What would you say if an econ professor told you we’re one of the least efficient universities in the country, and we could balance our budget without cutting programs?”
Beginning in January 2020, the SRC began a petition that called for a no confidence vote in President Gerard Clancy and Provost Janet Levit — similar to the earlier votes held by faculty and SA. One of the members of the SRC realized that any student can propose a referendum if they could receive a certain percentage of the student body to sign off on it. The group spent days collecting signatures and ultimately received over 300 names.
“Our biggest obstacle in collecting signatures wasn’t that students didn’t know or didn’t care. It was the fear of administration retaliation if their names were listed on a petition,” claims Ramsey.
In February 2020, students could digitally vote whether they had confidence in Interim President Janet Levit. The student body ultimately voted no confidence by a margin of 805 to 264, with a total of 1,069 students voting. The turnout rate, 26%, may seem underwhelming, but at the time, the vote was the highest participation rate on record for student elections.
Chalk statements around campus reminded students of the results from these various votes of no confidence, but multiple members of the SRC, including Ramsey, repeatedly witnessed the Physical Plant hosing the chalk. The response? Protestors chalked an accusation in front of the entrance to Collins Hall, writing, “We were censored for speaking out!”
Despite graduating in Fall 2020, Ramsey remains passionate about the SRC’s mission. “If you’re going to sit on a board of people for the university, you should listen to the students and faculty that you’re going to represent,” she says.
Ramsey continues, “While True Commitment was scrapped and administration has largely changed hands, the board still has members that did not talk to students, failed to listen to the people they represented and did not seem to care about the organization with which they’re entrusted.”
In a written statement, Green says, “It’s been so nice to see liberal arts proponents in the new administration and university leadership. The work is far from over in ensuring that tenure track faculty who retired in the True Commitment era are replaced and faculty retirement benefits — which were cut in the Plan — are restored. Students cannot effectively learn when their teachers aren’t properly advocated for. For a university with a $1.36 billion endowment, TU still has significant work to do.”
Though the resistant campus climate during True Commitment has largely faded, the backlash serves as a reminder of the devotion from passionate students and faculty who advocated for liberal arts. Issues brought forth from True Commitment, especially with the administration’s upcoming vote on faculty retirement, are still relevant and deserve recognition. Further retrospective reading — a list of alumni statements, criticisms from professional associations in higher education and more student outcry — is presented on tuplan.org.