A Student Organizer’s Reflection on the Mansfield Oil Protest and Sustainability on Campus

by | Nov 14, 2015 | Cover Story, Opinion | 1 comment

“At the University of Redlands, we encourage you to become a better citizen of your community and your world—and we lead by example, teaching and demonstrating our commitment to environmental responsibility every day.”

This quote, featured on the University of Redlands website, sits atop a webpage entitled ‘Green College,’ proclaiming an academic institution committed to sustainability. This seemingly small sentence bears much significance, for multiple reasons.

Firstly, the University’s website acts as an advertising platform for prospective students. With the ‘Green College’ page, the University is broadcasting itself as an environmentally conscious institution. This acts as a selling point for environmentally conscious students deliberating among schools. I can personally attest to this, having seen the webpage as a high school senior. I knew I was going to study the environment, and it was very important to me that the school I attend be sustainable. Reading about the University’s environmental commitment on its website was influential in my decision to enroll here, and there are many students who share this experience.

Secondly, the University’s pledge to “lead by example” serves as a guarantee of sustainable action on its part. By “committing to environmental responsibility every day,” our school assumes a self-imposed obligation to promote and foster sustainability on a regular basis.

And lastly, by claiming to “encourage” students to “become a better citizen of [their] community and world,” the University is vowing to take an active role in student behavior, directing students towards actions and endeavors that advance the cause of sustainability, and perhaps even creating opportunities for them to do so.

These commitments have important implications in light of the recent events on campus. On November 5th, the Office of Professional Development distributed an email informing students that companies Mansfield Energy and Niagara Bottling would be coming to campus to “inform students about their organizations and upcoming employment and internship opportunities.” Many students, myself included, were taken aback at the news. How can the University claim to practice and encourage environmental responsibility when it is extending campus invitations to blatantly unsustainable companies; and to recruit our students, no less? This seemed a brazen disregard of the University’s commitment to sustainability.

The collective anger and frustration about these events was large enough that a group of students decided it was necessary to do something. In the short amount of time that we had—the email informing students about the events was sent out a mere five days before the first meeting with Mansfield Energy was to take place—a core group of students organized a protest. We decided we would congregate at a designated meeting spot and head over to Gregory Hall, where the meeting was scheduled to occur. From there, the majority of us would remain outside, while a select group that had rsvp’d to the event would actually go in to attend the meeting.

On the day of the protest, the leaders of this effort were informed by a student that the University has a protest policy, and that we were required to inform the Student Leadership and Involvement Center (SLIC) about it. Upon reading the policy, we realized we faced a conflict in that our assembly space was not specifically designated. Even so, I emailed Vice President and Dean of Student Life Char Burgess to inform her of our plans. She replied by saying that she was “happy to waive the 72 hour notice requirement to accommodate our intentions, but could not “waive the location requirement.” Shortly after this email exchange, I received a call from a P-Safe officer, asking if I was aware of the protest policy and informing me that they’d be present at the protest.

Slightly intimidated, I discussed the news with the group, and asked how everyone would like to proceed moving forward. We talked about the point of the protest, which was to make our voices heard to the organizers of the event, the representatives of the company, and the students in attendance. We agreed we simply could not achieve this goal from one of the “designated spaces,” and decided to push through with the original location.

In the evening, we congregated as planned and marched across campus through Hunsaker Plaza over to Gregory Hall. P-Safe was there waiting for us upon our arrival. We were instructed to leave the area and return to one of the “designated locations” to protest. We respectfully declined, citing the importance of being present for the meeting, and began to rally.

Vociferous chants of “What do we want? Green jobs! When do we want them? Now!” sounded around the hall, while signs displaying slogans such as ”Sustainable Students Need Sustainable Jobs!” waved in the background.

After 15 minutes or so, four of us who rsvp’d tried to get into the meeting. We were blocked by P-Safe. The chants escalated. Head of Professional Development Courtney Carter came out to discuss the situation. He agreed to let us in on the terms that we stayed quiet, and entered without any signs. We agreed to remain quiet, but pushed for the signs because we wanted to somehow convey our message to the attendees.

The four of us who rvsp’d then walked past the officers with our posters in attempt to enter the meeting. We were told there would be consequences for doing so, but we were prepared to accept them in order to advance the greater cause.

We walked up to the doors, and I reached out for the handles. At this point, I was shoved by an officer, who forced us back and proceeded to lock the door. Seeing as we had no other option, the four of us agreed at this point to put our posters down in exchange for being let in. However, Courtney Carter said that we would no longer be let in.

Things became tense. We argued that we had the legal right to attend the meeting, having rsvp’d, and that barring our entry because of our views amounted to discrimination. We asked Carter if he had the authority to let us in, which he confirmed. But he stated that the representatives did not want us in, and as a courtesy to them he was not going to allow us. Many of us became angry. We had been promised entry earlier, and now that promise was being broken.

What proceeded was half an hour of negotiating between myself, the other three students who rsvp’d, Courtney Carter, and the various P-Safe officers. Carter appeared to sympathize with us, but so long as the representatives did not want us in, he was not going to allow it.  All the while, the rest of the group continued chanting in the background, advancing closer to the doors.

When it became clear that we were not going to be let in, the four of us returned to the larger group, which was now but feet away from the door. We all sat down and began a vigorous chant. At this point, P-Safe officers threatened to call the police. We continued chanting. Many of us were prepared to be arrested if that’s what it took for our voices to be heard. We sat down in defiance and continued. Then, P-Safe proposed that if we just moved a few feet back, the police wouldn’t be called. We complied, and an intervention by the police was thankfully avoided.

The protest continued for a while longer, as some students began to depart due to the cold weather and other obligations. After some time, a P-Safe officer approached us and told us that if we agreed to stop chanting, we could line up along the pathway and display our signs to the attendees, whom P-Safe would personally escort past us. We were told the attendees were expected to depart within 15-20 minutes. This was at 8:00PM.

After some debate, we agreed to the terms, and stood quietly in the cold waiting for the attendees to exit. Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty minutes passed. Half an hour passed. Finally, at 8:45, a group of students came out through the doors. But to our shock and disappointment, they immediately veered off to the sides, with P-Safe standing idly by.

Our group became indignant, and resumed our chanting, walking towards the crowd and then right up to the doors, where we formed a line that would force anyone exiting to walk directly through us. We stood there quietly but resolutely for another half an hour, and finally, at 9:15, the Mansfield representatives exited.

They walked past us as we followed them out. One offered us drinks, remarking, “you’re entitled to your opinion, but by all means have a soda.”

After declining, I managed to speak with them for a brief moment. They thanked me for my opinion and departed.

Reflecting on the events of Wednesday night, those who participated were in good spirits. We stood up for what we believed in, despite the potential consequences, because we had the conviction that what we were doing was important, and that what we were doing was right. Moreover, we did so in a dignified manner, avoiding violence and keeping hostilities to a minimum. In fact, there were even points during the protests where students and P-Safe officers were exchanging pleasant words and laughing together. We were able to strike the difficult balance of being stern in our beliefs while at the same time maintaining an air of civility. And for that, we were proud.

Moving forward, students such as myself intend to continue putting pressure on the university to make good on its commitment to environmental responsibility. Specifically, this would mean ending the practice of bringing inherently unsustainable companies to campus, and increasing the internship and career opportunities it offers in sustainable venues. So far, contact with the administration has been mixed.

Char Burgess, in our email exchange, brought up the University’s mission statement, asking me to “carefully consider whether you want the University ruling on who will and can employ students,” stating, “I do not believe we would consider that to be within the purview of providing you with a ‘personalized education that frees students to make enlightened choices.’” Instead, she suggested I contact the companies themselves to voice my grievances. Courtney Carter, on the other hand, told me at the protest that if there are students who are concerned with the types of opportunities Professional Development is offering, he is absolutely willing to engage in a dialogue with us about the issue. We look forward to this.

The fact remains that the University of Redlands, in keeping with its own professed commitment, ought to be teaching, encouraging, and demonstrating environmental responsibility. Now, this doesn’t mean that the University should prevent students from pursuing certain careers. Students are obviously free to seek employment opportunities in any venue they wish to on their own time. But for the University of Redlands to personally invite unsustainable companies to campus, they are signaling a tacit approval of such practices, and arguably even encouraging students to pursue career paths in unsustainable venues. This contradicts their commitment to environment responsibility.

As far as writing to these companies goes, I’m afraid such an act is futile. By facilitating the consumption of fossil fuels, or perpetuating the use of plastic, the business models of these companies are inherently unsustainable. And they are not going to shut down their businesses in response to one student’s plea. The only way such businesses can be phased out is if other institutions stop supporting them. Seeing as universities have historically played a role as educators of the next generation of civic-minded individuals, I believe that they have the responsibility to lead the fight against environmental degradation, and by extension to reduce support in industries misaligned with sustainability. This applies to the University of Redlands, especially considering its purported sustainability ethic.

In absence of this desired action at the University of Redlands, we as students feel the need to push the cause. Whether that means continuing to protest, scheduling meetings with administration, or encouraging dialogues on campus (or all three), we are prepared to do what it takes to bring light, and hopefully solutions, to this important issue.

<a href="https://www.theredlandsbulldog.com/author/austin/" target="_self">Austin Tannenbaum</a>

Austin Tannenbaum

Austin is an environmental activist, writer, and musician from Montclair, NJ.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    I was one of the students interested in employment with Mansfield Oil. I’m at the U of R to get an education and get a good job in order to create the type of life I want for myself. You are entitled to your opinions. And if you don’t want to work for Mansfield Oil, then by all means don’t. But don’t prevent fellow students from pursuing options they’re interested in. Please have respect for your fellow students.