Students rally against Johnson, angry at protest policy

By Molly Burke / The Jambar 

Around 25 students, alumni and community members gathered for an “End of Year Rally” against Youngstown State University President Bill Johnson at noon May 3. 

The protest, also called “A Community Reflection on Johnson’s First Semester,” was hosted outside the Pollock House, Johnson’s university residence. Senior Rose McClurkin, a protest speaker and organizer, said the rally included the burning of actor Ed O’Neill’s honorary degree from YSU.

“Today we joined with students, alumni and community members to burn Ed O’Neill’s honorary doctorate that he received from YSU, and the reason we did that is because he asked us to. He sent his degree back to the students because he was in protest of Johnson’s appointment and unjust appointment from the board of trustees,” McClurkin said.

A community member burns O’Neill’s honorary doctorate. Photo by Molly Burke / The Jambar

Junior Grace Persing, another speaker at the protest, said she believes the university has unfairly cut educational costs while providing Johnson and his staffers of the Government Affairs Office generous salaries. She added she believes the administration has “dehumanized” its students. 

“The university is far too important to be viewed as a business. We’ve heard time and time again Johnson refer to this institution as a business,” Persing said. “This university I pay to be at and it services me in providing me with an education. I do not want to be viewed as a product in a very dehumanizing context.”

Two days before the protest, YSU Policy Development sent an email to the university community outlining a new administrative policy for protesting on university grounds. It prohibits:

— Blocking traffic

— Amplified sounds and loud noises

— Staking signs or structures to university grounds

— Tents and temporary structures

— Open flames

— Leaving trash, litter, materials or pollutants on university grounds

The policy also outlines quiet hours, which includes a 24-hour quiet time during finals week. It also states any violations may result in suspension or expulsion as well as any applicable criminal charges. 

With the policy’s guidelines and the protest taking place on the last day of finals week, McClurkin said it was strategically scaled back to avoid putting students at risk for punishment. 

“We’re on public property. So, I’m hoping that no risk was taken. We had a community member burn the degree so that students physically did not have part in any open flame or anything, and we tried to keep volume down. We didn’t bring any megaphones, so we tried to align with the policy,” McClurkin said. 

While the rally was scaled back, protestors spoke out against the policy and said they believe it is unconstitutional. 

“These rules are very clear constitutional violations. You cannot — you should not preemptively condone this type of speech that people do, and saying that you basically — you can demonstrate but you can’t be loud or attract attention to yourself or be disruptive — that’s the point of most demonstrations is to disrupt the current status of whatever is happening on campus,” McClurkin said. 

Persing said she believes the policy was created to put pressure on the students as they planned the protest.

“This is really what we were afraid of with Johnson’s presidency here,” Persing said. “He said that he didn’t want this college to feel like indoctrination, he wanted it to be education, but this feels like exactly that. It’s unconstitutional, it’s a repeal of our First Amendment rights.” 

According to 21-WFMJ, Johnson said the policy had been a work in progress as Gov. Mike DeWine’s expressed concern for campus safety amid large protests on other college campuses responding to the Israel-Hamas war. 

McClurkin and Persing have been involved in planning other protests at YSU since Johnson’s appointment, including a walkout of around 50 people that took place on his first day at YSU. McClurkin said she believes the protests have had more impact on students than administration. 

“The positive that has brought is that students realize they’re not alone in their beliefs. When they think the board of trustees is being kind of shady, not listening to students, or they’re upset with how they’re campus is being run — the solidarity that we have built, people are understanding that they’re not alone in this,” McClurkin said. “The administration has been pretty consistent in not listening to anything we have to say, but we’re not going to stop.”