Four progressive student organizations joined together last Wednesday to present information about Temple’s history that isn’t typically included in freshman orientation seminars or mentioned during class.
The program, “Temple DISorientation,” was the brainchild of the Black Student Union, Students for a Democratic Society, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Student Labor Action Project.
These groups – now collectively known as the Progressive Student Coalition – each presented on a different topic at Wednesday’s event in front of about 60 faculty members and students at the Howard Gittis Student Center.
The coalition also issued a list of 14 demands to Temple’s administration. They asked the university to stop practices that contribute to gentrification, double its financial support for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, offer the people of North Philadelphia free access to resources like the TECH Center and Paley Library, freeze the cost of tuition and revise its current curriculum to make it more diverse, among other things.
Ibram Rogers, a doctoral candidate in African-American studies and BSU member who was instrumental in planning DISorientation, said he hopes the university will take the demands seriously.
“These demands will benefit the university, they’ll benefit the students, they’ll benefit the community,” Rogers said. “More or less, they’ll bring a better environment to Temple.”
DISorientation began with a presentation from SDS about Temple founder Russell H. Conwell’s famous speech “Acres of Diamonds,” which is often used by the university as an inspirational piece but is “outdated,” according to the coalition. One of their demands is for Temple to stop promoting the university with that speech because many of the comments Conwell makes can be construed as racist, sexist and unsympathetic toward the conditions of poverty.
Joanna Grim, a senior art history major and SDS member who also played a large role in organizing DISorientation, said the university has an “unchallenged nostalgia” for Conwell. During her presentation, she read aloud several passages from the speech that she found particularly offensive.
“The use of this speech exemplifies the dishonest and selective approach that Temple takes toward its history,” Grim said.
One of the main goals of DISorientation was to shed light on aspects of Temple’s history that aren’t mentioned in freshman orientation seminars. The coalition plans to keep holding DISorientation events until they feel like students at Temple are better informed.
“We just want this to become a balancing act,” Rogers said. “Temple, during its orientation, will tell its new students the good things [about the university], and, at DISorientation, we’ll tell them if there are any bad things. Hopefully, it’ll get to the point where we won’t have to do this, because there won’t be any bad things.”
Grim stressed that the coalition isn’t seeking to incriminate.
“We’re not trying to make Temple look bad,” she said. “We want to give a history of the school and a perspective of the school that’s a student perspective, a worker perspective, a community perspective.”
The second presentation at DISorientation addressed Temple’s relationship to North Philadelphia and its efforts over the past 50 years to expand its campus, which, as SDS members explained, has contributed to gentrification of the area.
“From 1959 to 1969, 7,000 families were ousted [from North Philadelphia] due to Temple expansion,” Ian Smith, a senior anthropology major and member of SDS, said.
Keeping the lines of communication open between the community and the students is important, Smith said.
“It’s difficult,” he said, “because we support the university directly with our tuitions. We’re not explicitly building the buildings which are causing gentrification, but we are there supporting it.
“We have to let the community know where we stand, that we want a university that’s going to disseminate knowledge and not just expand and try to get as many as students as possible so they can make as much money as possible,” Smith added.
A presentation by SJP focused on how Temple can influence the situation in Palestine by divesting money from businesses that support the Israeli army. Afterward, SLAP addressed AlliedBarton security officers’ current struggle for better working conditions, pay and health benefits.
Kevin Paris, a junior political science major and SLAP member, encouraged students to put pressure on the university to give the AlliedBarton security officers five paid sick days.
“We have the power to say that you [Temple] have a responsibility to us as tuition payers to ensure that this contractor [AlliedBarton] has higher standards,” he said during his presentation.
The event ended with a presentation from the BSU about Temple’s diversity.
Sophomore political science and communication major LaCole Foots pointed out that African-American enrollment at Temple has steadily decreased since 1998, although the university is still considered the most diverse college in the country according to the 2008 edition of The Princeton Review’s The Best 366 Colleges.This is because, in 2004, Temple began adding international students to their diversity list, Foots said.
“That’s how they remain diverse, by enrolling fewer African-Americans but more international students,” Foots, a member of the BSU, said. “They can have their cake and eat it, too.”
Foots said this needs to change.
Her goal, as part of the BSU, is to get more African-American students into Temple and also increase the diversity of Temple’s faculty, which she said is currently 82 percent white.
“Temple uses the word ‘diversity’ as a tool for the school, but when you look at the classes, the professors, the administration, it’s not so diverse,” Grim said.
In addition to future DISorientation events, the coalition is working on other projects that they hope will inform students, while bringing attention to their demands.
James Kennedy, a junior history major and member of SJP, said he thinks the Coalition will ultimately be successful.
“These are common sense goals,” he said. “We want people to understand what the history of Temple’s interactions with North Philadelphia and with the world and so on have been so that we can have a common vision of what the future’s going to be.”
Anna Hyclak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.