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Why are graduate students often at the center of campus protests?

Jerry Wilson and Cortland Gilliam

Jerry Wilson wipes sweat from his face while wearing a noose around his neck at an Aug. 20 protest against Silent Sam, a Confederate monument on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus. His friend, Cortland Gilliam, joined him in this gesture. They both vowed to wear these nooses whenever they were on campus until the statue was taken down. This was intended to represent the oppression and white supremacy they feel the statue represents. The pair did not have to wear the nooses long, as protestors forcefully tore down the statue only a few hours later at 9:20 p.m. on August 20, 2018. 

Wilson and Gilliam put the nooses back on following Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees' Dec. 3 proposal to establish a University History and Education center to house Silent Sam.  

A noose rests around each of the necks of Jerry Wilson and Cortland Gilliam, just like they have for the last eight weeks.

To the unassuming eye, they look like necklaces. The white rope is intentionally finished with Carolina Blue tape to hold together its frayed edges, as if the visceral symbol of injustice is trying to blend into its surroundings. 

Wearing the noose, Wilson said, protests the University’s lack of commitment to changing its unwelcoming racial culture, and represents what he felt when he’d walk through the upper quad.

“If you didn't know what the noose was for, but you saw Carolina Blue and white, this wouldn't disturb you. But if you know the purpose of the noose, and most people do, they'll look at it and say, ‘Oh, that doesn't look right,’” Wilson said. 

By engaging in this activism, Wilson and Gilliam are some of many graduate students in the country and throughout history who’ve taken up the mantle as leaders of campus movements. They join a long list of UNC graduate student activists — including George Vlasits, an anti-Vietnam War protester in the 1960s, and Maya Little, a current UNC graduate student of history who faced Honor Court and criminal charges for staining Silent Sam with red ink and her own blood last April.

This is Wilson and Gilliam’s second iteration of the protest. The first began on Aug. 20, when they pledged to wear their nooses until the Confederate monument was removed from its pedestal in McCorkle Place. The nooses hung around their necks for a couple of hours until protesters toppled the statue that evening. 

Eight weeks ago, though, on the heels of the UNC Board of Trustees’ proposal to relocate Silent Sam into a history center on a different part of campus, Wilson and Gilliam decided to put their nooses back on.

"I'm not sure how much ambitions have changed in terms of wanting to generate widespread visibility of the protest and engagement with its message. If anything, with the landscape being somewhat different now, the question becomes how to best sustain the engagement and dialogue absent the presence of a physical rallying point," Gilliam said. 

This protest, this time, is less of an attempt to obtain a deliverable that shows progress, Wilson said, and more of a show of sustained commitment to changing the culture at UNC. 

“Even if I’m wearing it on graduation day in a year and a half — I would need to see some serious commitments to changing the culture of this place for me to think about taking it off," Wilson said.

The trend of graduate student activism has several explanations. These students don’t have the same layers of association with their university that undergraduates do and their relationship with faculty is often complex and contentious.

Some graduate students, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, fields where it takes seven or eight years to earn a Ph.D., are on campus for much longer than their undergraduate counterparts. They have more time to nurse their grievances — more time to realize how powerful their voices can be.

And in effect, graduate students are among the more active players in a university’s nebulous environment when it comes to advocating for change.

“Students have way more power than they probably realize. Your influence on this particular space and place is really significant, and people do listen,” said Paul Cuadros, a professor in the School of Media and Journalism. 

‘Energy for protest’

In the late 1960s and early 1970s — a time in American history characterized by activism — the social sciences were booming. 

In 1974, according to data compiled by NPR, 40.22 percent of all undergraduate students majored in sociology, psychology, political science, history, English or education. 

By 2011, though, this same group dropped to 21.78 percent. The education major alone spiraled from nearly 19 percent to just over 6 percent. 

William Fitzhugh Brundage, a professor of history at UNC, said that in the 1960s, disciplines like the humanities and social sciences had never been more powerful — and their recent downfall may have something to do with this particular era's robust graduate student activism.

“Now, we’re in the context where the humanities are reeling," Brundage said. "The number of majors have declined. Public officials are openly questioning the value of humanities degrees. I think there has been the sense in the last few years that graduate students in the embattled disciplines are going to join the battle of defending the relevance of those disciplines for contemporary life."

So perhaps, Brundage said, when 79 teaching assistants at UNC across several departments signed a petition to withhold grades in opposition to Silent Sam’s relocation plan, which would have cost $5.3 million to execute, part of the energy came from graduate students feeling unheard. All grades from these graduate students were released by or on Dec. 17. 

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“I think those grievances got tied together. Some of the energy for the protest of Silent Sam came from the sense of an uncaring, unresponsive institution about other things, as well as Silent Sam,” Brundage said. 

‘Pressure to not rock the boat’

Last week, when Wilson heard about Chancellor Carol Folt’s resigning from her post and ordering the base of the Confederate monument to be removed, his noose didn’t come off.

He still feels there is attainable progress to be made. He said his gratitude toward his institution, which stems from his adoration for UNC since he was a kid, doesn't obstruct his obligation to do what he feels is right.

But, as he sees it, the challenges Folt faced as the first female chancellor of UNC are similar to the challenges faced by students from marginalized backgrounds that get admitted into UNC programs every day. Maybe, more so than before, he can empathize with Folt, even though he still has mixed feelings about her tenure.

“She was under pressure that her predecessors hadn’t faced. When we work toward an opportunity, there’s pressure to not rock the boat," Wilson said. 

And this sentiment aligns with why he thinks graduate students are uniquely situated to be advocates.

“There is this burden to demonstrate gratitude toward the institution, and to do so in ways that support the status quo that make white colleagues and administrators and professors feel comfortable. And I think for graduate students, there’s much less of that pressure.

“So we have, in that sense, less to lose by engaging in activism," he said.