CARBONDALE — A tense scene unfolded Thursday afternoon as Southern Illinois University Carbondale Chancellor Carlo Montemagno addressed students occupying his office in protest of a proposed police academy.
Montemagno told the “No Cop Academy” group, comprised of about two dozen undergraduates and community members, that he planned to table the creation of the proposed Public Safety Institute and would instead leave the decision to faculty within the soon-to-be-established School of Justice and Public Safety.
But that announcement didn’t appease students, who had hunkered down inside the lavishly appointed lobby of the chancellor’s office in Anthony Hall after marching across campus. They said they planned to continue their sit-in until Montemagno announced the academy was definitively canceled. As of Thursday evening, they remained inside the building.
Montemagno first introduced the idea of the Public Safety Institute — then called Police Academy — with the rollout of his massive restructuring plan, which seeks to eliminate the university’s departments and reorganize degree programs by newly formed colleges and schools. In an earlier version of his plan, the School of Justice and Public Safety was called the School of Homeland Security.
The leaderless student movement organized in March in response to the planned formation of the police training institute, and its members contend that police contribute to racial inequality and that universities should challenge the status quo rather than uphold it.
“By occupying black and brown neighborhoods and enforcing laws written by and for the white ruling class, the police are the primary agent tasked with keeping things exactly the way they are. By targeting and arresting and murdering people of color at wildly disproportionate rates, the police uphold and indeed make possible America’s racial order,” the group declares in a video shared on social media.
During the march, students wended through several campus buildings where classes were in session, chanting, “Hey, Salukis, what you gonna do? No cop academy at SIU!” behind a banner that read, “Strong Communities Make Police Obsolete.”
Mikala Barrett, a junior majoring in political science, said that as a black woman and a lesbian, she identifies as a minority student. She said she believes the police system oppresses marginalized people.
“Personally, I feel that if they want to bring that to our campus, it’s going to redirect the purpose of our campus. It is literally rebranding SIU as a white institution,” Barrett said.
Barrett said she doesn’t feel safe around police officers.
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“Don’t get me wrong — I have family members that are within the police system, but the police system as a whole oppresses the minority. I get that there might be individual people that are actually good police officers, but until you address the whole issue overall, we don’t want a cop academy here at SIU,” Barrett said.
Sam Beard, a senior and SIUC’s student representative on the Board of Trustees, told protesters that police only care about control.
“We refuse to sit by idly while we see our school, our home, fall victim to the chancellor’s insidious restructuring plan. What this is, is a people’s movement, a liberatory movement. … These administrators, from the chancellor to the board of trustees, care about one thing and one thing only, and that is control. But they do not control this university. We, the students, we, the community and the staff and the faculty, we control this university,” Beard said.
The faculty’s decision on the Public Safety Institute will take place after the School of Justice and Public Safety is formed, Montemagno said.
“I want to divert that decision to the faculty, and have the faculty who would be engaged to make the decision on whether or not they want a program or they don’t want a program,” the chancellor told the students in Anthony Hall, “and I’m sure they’ll make that decision in consultation with the students, student needs and demands, and that’s the way we should govern. Don’t you agree?”
One student told the chancellor that faculty members in the School of Justice and Public Safety would probably approve the institute, but Montemagno said he didn’t know that. The student responded that he did, but he didn’t want to say it.
“Academic decisions rest with the faculty,” Montemagno said.
“Are we not the actual ones indulging in the academic programs here at the school? As the students, we should have some type of say in what we want our curricula to be. Actually, as the students I feel we should have a large say in what the curricula should be, especially since most of us are taking out loans just to be here,” freshman Jahi Parham said.
Students questioned the chancellor about the purpose of his restructuring plan. Montemagno responded to a few questions and then said he had to leave for a meeting, but that the students were welcome to stay as long as they liked.
In a statement emailed to The Southern on Thursday afternoon, Montemagno said, “I continue to believe that SIU Carbondale can bring together the expertise of its faculty to create an innovative institute focused on training culturally competent law enforcement officers. However, I think the ultimate recommendation about whether we go forward should come from the faculty who would lead the delivery of the institute’s programs.”
While occupying the chancellor’s office Thursday evening, students launched a website outlining the group’s objectives.
“We are happy to hear that the Chancellor and his administration are not personally committed to seeing the construction of a cop academy on the SIU campus, but kicking the can down the road on this matter is not enough,” a portion of the statement reads. “We need a firm assertion that there will not be a cop academy at SIU. We intend to accept the Chancellor’s hospitality here in his office until we get it. We invite everyone else who opposes the cop academy proposal to join us. Bring snacks.”