“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” While not delivered so succinctly, this was essentially the message relayed by GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg in an e-mail to all students, faculty and staff regarding the University’s decision to close Sept. 29 to Oct 2 during protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. By canceling classes, closing residence halls and encouraging students to return home during the planned protests, GW administrators wisely placed student and staff safety before other concerns.
Still, the timing of the decision leaves many students with few options and little time to make travel plans or find a place to stay. Knowing about the planned protests for months, seeing examples of protester violence in July and discussing a GW shutdown for at least five weeks, the police and GW officials should have anticipated a school closure and kept students better informed.
Police estimate 100,000 people will descend upon Foggy Bottom. As a result of violence employed by anti-globalization protesters in Quebec City, Canada last fall and in Genoa, Italy at the July Group of Eight summit, the Secret Service and the Metropolitan Police Department intend to erect a nine-foot high security barrier around an unspecified swath of downtown. Plans call for this wall to enclose all or part of GW’s campus, but the actual location of the barrier has yet to be released. MPD requested GW close during the demonstrations and the secured area will likely include most of GW’s residence halls. As a result, the University ordered all students to vacate their rooms for the duration of the protests, and has strongly advised everyone to leave the Foggy Bottom area.
Evacuation of the residence halls is certainly an emergency measure, albeit one students legitimately question. The residence hall license agreement students sign to secure their rooms allows hall closures only for the “University vacation period between the fall and spring semesters, and at the end of the academic year.” Without compensation for students, GW may be violating its contractual agreement. If so, the University should take whatever steps necessary to rectify the situation while still protecting the safety of students.
Most students, though, are not upset about leaving their residence hall rooms. What is annoying to many is the timing of the announcement. According to The Washington Post, D.C. police expected more protesters than they could handle alone as early as July 10, when they requested 3,600 additional officers from other agencies. Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer estimated the protests to be the largest in the District since the Vietnam War saying, “It will very well be the largest protest group with potential for violent overtones.”
The police were not the only ones anticipating a large, violent gathering during the IMF/World Bank conference. GW’s Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services, Robert Chernak, said GW officials had been in talks with the District government regarding a University shutdown for five weeks prior to Trachtenberg’s announcement.
With so much lead-time, students should have been better informed. GW already experienced protests that forced the cancellation of classes in April 2000. Reason would dictate that the upcoming demonstrations – expected to be far larger than the last gathering – would require at least the same response. Classes should have been cancelled and rescheduled much earlier, even before the start of the semester. Doing so and encouraging students in August to leave campus for the long weekend would have spared everyone the headache of arranging travel on short notice.
GW officials could not anticipate a request from MPD that they close the residence halls, but police certainly could have paid more attention to GW during the early planning of their response to the protests. The MPD request should have come sooner than Aug. 30 to give everyone much more time to prepare.
All of these preparations will be expensive. GW is allowing police to use the Smith Center as a command post and J Street to serve meals. Plus, GW may incur other incidental costs including property damage. Add this to students’ individual expenses, and GW’s bill for the demonstration could be very high. So future students do not bear these costs, GW should ask the D.C. and federal governments for appropriate compensation.
The University’s primary mission is to educate its students. GW cannot accomplish this goal in a dangerous or violent atmosphere. Closing the University is the right decision. Encouraging students to leave is a necessary security and safety measure.
But in the future, the District and GW administrators must plan better and keep students and the public better informed of important pending decisions. With more forethought, these safety measures could have been instituted with less inconvenience for everyone involved.