At 7:00 a.m. on Monday, February 6, Chenjerai Kumanyika ate what he knew would be his last breakfast for nearly a week. Kumanyika, an assistant professor of communications at Clemson University, an elite school in the northwest corner of South Carolina, wanted the school to take a strong public stand against the first iteration of President Trump’s travel ban.
He tried polite emails but to no avail. He was willing to stop eating to turn up the pressure, and he was not alone. Two other Clemson faculty members, Todd May and Mike Sears, joined him on his fast. For six days, they ate nothing and drank only water and green tea, while staging a protest outside one of the university’s main buildings.
The fast was followed by daily pickets, regular marches, and lots of community outcry for an entire month. The purpose of their actions was to pressure Clemson to take a stand on Trump’s executive order issued Jan. 27 — both versions of which have now been overturned in the courts. Then, on Thursday, March 9, Kumanyika declared victory after the school sent an email to faculty explaining their plan to actively oppose the travel ban.
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I spoke to Kumanyika about the impact of his group’s actions, the effects a travel ban would have on universities and research, and the politics of resistance on campus.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Will Meyer: Can you quickly introduce Clemson University? Where is it located, and what are its politics?
Chenjerai Kumanyika: It was founded in 1889 in South Carolina, in the upstate part of the state, about three or four hours away from Charleston. It was a military school for a while, and eventually it changed to a regular land-grant university. They get some state money, and they also receive a lot of private money. They’re increasingly forced to rely on private money as the state retreats from public education, which is a thing in South Carolina.
Can you tell me what you did and why?
Everyone is aware, at this point, of Trump’s executive orders to ban people from predominantly Muslim countries. This bans attack universities in particular because so many graduate students are from these countries and other countries under scrutiny. In response, more than 60 universities explicitly denounced the first ban; they didn’t just say, “We’re concerned, and we’re handling it.” They actually spoke out against the ban.
I noticed that the president of Clemson University had not done that. The letter he sent out was extremely middle-of-the-road and merely said, “This is what we’re going to do to help students.” And so, after a series of email exchanges with the administration, we decided to go on a six-day “Fast Against Silence,” to pressure our university — or to invite them — to join the other universities and publicly denounce this ban.
How would a ban affect students?
Clemson has about 2,000 international scholars. We have about 115 students from the affected countries. If you’re from one of those countries and you want to go home — if your father gets sick, if your mother gets sick — do you go right now?
It seems very real that you might not be able to come back. You might not be able to finish your research. And so, with the fast, we focused on getting Clemson to publicly denounce the ban. We’ve been working behind the scenes quite a bit with Muslim students, with international students, and we’ve come to see how inadequate the university’s efforts are.
Tell me about what happened on March 9?
We got news that an email was sent out to some deans and chairs of Clemson, and in those emails, Clemson talked about the ways they’re lobbying United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to reconsider core parts of the ban.
We see that as a victory because, after the first executive order, Clemson said they refused to get involved in any real serious way. They said the president was going to stand in the middle of the road and they were against being political.
And, to me, when you start asking USCIS to reconsider a ban, that’s pretty political.
How are you thinking about this outcome in terms of your activism?
Their decision came after 27 days of protesting, including a Fast Against Silence, a March Against Silence that drew maybe a couple hundred people, and a “Rock Against Silence” event, where we played music from the seven countries targeted in the initial ban in front of the administration building.
Now, mind you, we’re not finished. The fight has not stopped to demand more of the administration.
What are you fighting for now?
I think that the fight is basically to pressure Clemson’s offices for International Services and Student Engagement to serve students better. We currently have a student who I think just got his visa — but it required a whole community of people to pressure those offices to do everything they could do on his behalf. And there’s another student who has not received her visa. Her application was pending and could be cancelled.
What role should campuses play in resisting Trump, in your view?
This is a time for universities, professors, staff, and even administrators — though I realize they may have a different set of risks than tenured faculty, which I am not — to absolutely draw a line.
When Clemson refused to take a stand, it was benefitting while other universities were advocating. So they’re an ethical free-rider in this regard — they don’t want to step out, but they want to benefit from the overturning of the ban. In a way, I think faculty can be ethical free-riders as well; we are still allowing ourselves to be paid and taking university and taxpayer money, but not standing up for what is right.
What else would you like to add about what this victory means and how you’re feeling about it?
I think that one thing it showed is that it took many different phases. We couldn’t have just come out and done one demonstration and gotten this kind of victory. It took a lot of people being involved who applied sustained pressure. I would add, it’s not a perfect victory. We would have liked to have seen the university be even more public.
But, ultimately, when we talk about resistance in this time frame, we’re not going to get perfect victories — they’re going to be messy. We have to recognize the victories we get, so we can recognize that our work does have effects. And change doesn’t come without resistance. We’re pleased with what’s happened so far. It sets us up not to end the fight, but to pressure the university in other ways.