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US: University President Now on Flip Side of Protests

by James M. O'NeillPhiladelphia Inquirer
February 1st, 2000

As a student at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in the 1960s, Judith Rodin was caught up in the social activism of the era. Last week, Penn's president found the tables turned as she negotiated with students who spent the entire week staging a sit-in in her outer office.

The students, protesting the possible use of sweatshop labor by companies that make apparel emblazoned with the university's logo, have vowed to continue their vigil through tomorrow.

It looked like a class trip waiting Friday for the bus to arrive in Rodin's outer office. About 30 students had slept on the floor the night before, and backpacks, pillows and blankets were piled up like a small mountain range.

A box of low-fat granola stood open on a table, next to a book titled The Road to Serfdom. A black guitar case stood sentinel, plastered with bumper stickers that said "Save Snake River Salmon."

The students, amiable and polite, dressed in jeans and cargo pants, sporting buzz cuts and dreadlocks, want Penn to abandon the Fair Labor Association, a group of apparel manufacturers, human-rights groups and 131 schools that monitors factories for sweatshop conditions. The students - and peers at schools across the nation, linked to the national group United Students Against Sweatshops - argue the FLA is influenced by the very industry it is supposed to monitor, so its monitoring cannot be trusted.

By midweek, their tactics had turned slightly more radical. They sang and chanted slogans, forcing Rodin's secretarial staff to abandon the outer room for one across the hall.

Political activism on this scale has been rare on college campuses for two decades. Today's students often prefer working for social change in quiet, personal ways, through community service, rather than in large political protests.

Why, has this issue, at this time, sparked such student activism across the country?

The answer mirrors the reason community-service projects appeal to this generation. Students say they can have a discernible effect on a concrete problem.

"We can make a tangible difference through the influence of our university on these companies," said Miriam Joffe-Block, a Penn senior who wears a watch sporting Penn's crest. "There's nothing more tangible than clothing."

Kurt Spiridakis, a Penn sophomore, agreed. "Our tuition dollars go to these companies through Penn's contracts," he said. "There's a direct relation to us and the way sweatshop workers are treated."

That's not all. Student leaders have been well-educated on the topic by U.S. trade unions and human-rights groups, which sponsor student trips to meet sweatshop workers. In addition, schools such as Penn now routinely emphasize community service in their curriculum. And the sweatshop issue serves as a crossroads for students with interest in a wide array of concerns.

Most sweatshop workers are women, attracting women's-rights advocates. Melissa Byrne, a junior at St. Joseph's University, said the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on economic and social justice resonates in this issue. Anna Roberts, a freshman Penn organizer, said her parents, who are practicing Quakers, had taught her that every action has consequences, so she must "live in a morally responsible way." Student environmentalists say companies that run sweatshops are often the worst polluters in Third World nations.

Thanks to technology, the activism also feeds on itself. Today's students know instantly -- via cell phones and e-mail -- what their peers are doing across the country, boosting morale. When the Penn protest began last week, sympathizers at Yale University held a rally. Yale student Amanda Bell said students there had asked Yale's president to contact Rodin in support of the Penn students.

There's another element at work as well. Today's students are the sons and daughters of people who attended college in the 1960s and early '70s, some of whom participated in that era's protests.

As a result, some students drawn to the sweatshop issue have parents whose own activism serves as a model. Maria Roeper, a Haverford College senior who helped prod the college to join the fledgling Worker Rights Consortium, an alternative monitor group to the FLA, said her father taught a freedom school in 1965 in Jackson, Miss.

Lincoln Ellis, a Penn freshman, was raised by parents involved in protests when they were college students. They shunned jobs in the corporate world, choosing instead to work as fruit pickers. "They certainly influenced me," said Ellis.

The Penn students not only want their school to abandon the FLA monitor group. They also want it to join the fledgling Worker Rights Consortium, a group independent of the apparel industry and one they say will cast a more critical eye on sweatshop abuses. So far, only four schools have joined, including Haverford.

Rodin met with the Penn protesters twice last week and told them that she sympathized with their position. She released to the students a 14-page list of factories where Penn-related clothing is manufactured - information Penn itself had demanded from the companies. (The list includes sites in China, Pakistan, Ireland, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Mexico, Thailand and Malaysia.)

But she said she did not want Penn to abandon the FLA until a campuswide committee studying the issue weighed in at the end of February.

By week's end, the central foyer of College Hall was wallpapered with posters from many campus groups that support the anti-sweatshop brigade, and they didn't shy from pointed jabs at the administration. One small poster alluded to Rodin's $500,000-plus salary: "President Rodin you made $1,500 yesterday. A Mexican worker made $4. Geez. Have a heart!"



It's curious that Rodin has grown irritated with the students occupying her office. She told Penn's student paper that the protesters "have exceeded the boundaries of what is appropriate at this university with regard to open expression and are in absolute, complete violation."

While a student at Penn in the 1960s, Rodin was president of a women's organization and helped raise money to send people to the South for voter-registration drives. As a graduate student at Columbia University, she mediated between administrators and students who had taken over the psychology building to protest plans to raze neighborhood buildings for a university gym.

Stephen Schutt, Rodin's chief of staff, took part in antiwar and pro-environment protests while at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., in the 1970s.

As student chants filtered into his office Friday, Schutt was asked whether the scene reminded him of his own college days. "Oh yes," he said, nodding.

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