A group of University of Pennsylvania students replaced a portrait of William Shakespeare in the school’s Fisher-Bennet Hall with a picture of Audre Lorde. They acted independently, but this wasn’t as simple as a protest: English faculty had voted to switch out Shakespeare’s portrait years ago, but, until this month, no change had come.The Lorde photo is a bit DIY, but it sends the clear message that students want the department to be more inclusive, and that they’re not willing to wait indefinitely. And until the department comes to a decision about what to do with the wall space, Lorde’s picture will stay put.
Student and faculty pushes for change are admirable and necessary, but, as this situation illustrates, schools can agree to progress without actually making any. This complicates the role of campus protest, involving it in bureaucracy, but that involvement is needed when victories can be deferred. This isn’t to say the department was intentionally hamstringing the portrait replacement efforts, but even disinterest can be an obstruction. Direct student action, then, becomes a viable way to make change a reality.
Other campus protests will have to contend with these sorts of questions, even as they succeed. For instance, a movement at Georgetown to get the school to break its partnership with Nike over labor issues has won concessions from the university, but it will remain a symbolic victory until specific action is taken.