Protest of YSU president persists

Small group calls out Johnson over his selection, new policy

Staff photos / R. Michael Semple ... Youngstown State University student Elise Williams of Austintown and others protest outside the Wick Pollock House on Friday to continue the monthslong protest of former U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson being hired as president under secretive circumstances. The students burned an honorary degree given to actor Ed O’Neill, a Youngstown native.

YOUNGSTOWN — Youngstown State University students, alumni and former faculty ended the spring semester with a protest outside the president’s house.

The protest, which included burning the honorary degree presented to actor and Youngstown native Ed O’Neill, came amid new policy changes that students say suppress free speech.

A group of about 20 to 25 people gathered outside the Wick Pollock House to continue the monthslong protest of former U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson being hired as president under secretive circumstances. It was a move that led many to criticize YSU’s Board of Trustees for a lack of transparency and has motivated several former supporters of the university to say they will withhold or rescind donations.

“This is just to keep momentum going on campus and hold the administration accountable, especially in light of them implementing these new administrative policies,” said student leader Rose McClurkin, a senior political science major.

McClurkin and other students castigated Johnson and university leaders for implementing new policies, announced Wednesday, that they felt targeted their protest that had been announced publicly earlier in the week.

The administrative policies forbid open flames on campus, tents, blocking walkways, amplified noises, and affixing signs or banners to any university structure. The policy also enforces 24 / 7 “quiet hours” during finals week, which prohibits loud activities on campus. Penalties for infractions can include expulsion and termination and even criminal charges for littering, disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing.

“Some students today felt the need to exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of speech. As a penguin family, we respect their right to do so. The culture at YSU is built on dignity, respect, courtesy and honoring each other as individuals. We are grateful that our students have done that and continue to do that,” said Becky Rose, YSU director of marketing and communications.

“This policy specifically addresses the appropriate use of university facilities and grounds, in the name of safety, and is meant to supplement YSU’s existing free speech policy. This has been a work in process for some time and is simply meant to clarify our procedures and does not stop anyone from exercising free speech rights,” Rose added.

McClurkin said community members and alumni led the protest to shield any students or faculty from consequences. Brandon Carrion held O’Neill’s honorary doctorate degree, which the actor received from YSU in 2013, while Randy Younkin lit it on fire. The degree was burned in a steel pot, with a fire extinguisher nearby.

Carrion said O’Neill had mailed the degree to McClurkin earlier this year. McClurkin read a statement from O’Neill.

“Unfortunately, since the board of trustees stunned so many members of the YSU community with their polarizing choice for the new president, I’m no longer proud of the award nor of YSU. I’m returning it to the students who fought so hard to be heard in vain. I would like them to do with it whatever they decide is appropriate.”

McClurkin said O’Neill’s suggestions to her included burning the degree.

While the turnout Friday was considerably less than on Jan. 22, when 50 to 75 people showed up to protest Johnson’s first day in office, McClurkin said she was pleased with their display.

“This crowd is pretty good, for the administration putting out policies that have scared students away from protesting and for it being finals week, and a lot of students have already left campus,” she said.

Grace Persing, a junior anthropology major, said the new policies feel like an attack on students’ First Amendment rights. She said she believes they are a reactionary attempt to preempt large-scale protests and encampments like those seen at Columbia and Yale universities in recent weeks as students protest U.S. foreign aid to Israel.

“Which makes sense, because I know Johnson aligns with Israel, and I’m trying to find out if that’s where some of his money is coming from,” she said.

Have an interesting story? Contact Dan Pompili at dpompili@vindy.com


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