By JUSTIN TONEY
At midnight on Monday, December 7, in the first freezing minutes of last semester’s exam week, the library would not empty, and an irregular process began to change UMW policy.
In the yellow half-glow of the closed third floor, 17 students quietly and obstinately sat at the study desks. Some ate potato chips, others read and all refused to leave. For a half an hour they talked with library staff and police, and then, as planned, they left.
Although police could have charged the students with trespassing, none were charged, according to co-organizer Amanda Gardner.
Juniors Gardner and Daniel Kauffman organized the sit-in via a Facebook group hoping it would prompt the University to allow students 24-hour library access during exam week.
The participants succeeded completely.
Twelve days after the sit-in, administrators in the Student Services Committee allocated funds to keep Simpson Library continuously open during finals week.
Vice President for Strategy and Policy Nina Mikhalevsky brought the sit-in participants’ message to the Committee.
“Fortunately, I was able to talk to some of the protestors before the break,” Mikhalevsky said. “That little group indicated that they only wanted a 24-hour study space and only during exam week.”
Mikhalevsky and Executive Vice President Rick Hurley met with Roy Strohl, director of Simpson Library. The three determined that extending the library hours would cost a mere $2,000 per semester.
Starting this April, Simpson Library will remain open from the beginning of reading weekend until the end of exam week.
The circulation and information desks will continue to open and close at the regularly posted hours, leaving the library in the hands of security personnel.
Gardner said she was “kicked out” almost every night before she was ready last year, and didn’t have another peaceful place to study.
“It’s ridiculous to be kicked out of the library like a criminal,” she said.
Akhil Rachamadugu, junior and participant in the sit-in, said many students had the same complaints.
“The last half hour in the library is hell studying-wise,” Rachamadugu said in reference to the loud bells, flashing lights and reminders from security guards that precede the library’s closing.
While students at the sit-in indicated that other universities in Virginia that remain open 24-hours all semester, Strohl pointed out that the library at UMW is struggling financially.
“It all boils down to people. We’re skimming by right now,” Strohl said. “We have too few people to run this place regularly anyway.”
Multiple library employees left last semester, some only on leave, but the University froze the funds to hire replacements because of state budget cuts, leaving the library short-handed.
“If this institution doesn’t allow us to fill positions, I worry about us staying open for regular hours,” Strohl said.
Recognizing that the library is dealing with funding difficulties, Kauffman and Gardner still want to see talks continue between administrators and students to further extend library hours outside of exam week. Neither feels, however, that they will be personally involved.
Although Strohl said that, given the resources, he would not oppose the students’ goal, he was bothered by the way they brought it to his attention.
“The sit-in itself is inconvenient, to use a disingenuous term,” he said.
Gardner says that other organizers wanted to stay longer, but Gardner urged them to remain peaceful and unobtrusive.
“In our defense, the event was minimal,” she said.
Speaking of Andrea Klopsis, the night supervisor at the circulation desk, Strohl said, “I think the thing that was most distressing to me was that [the protesters] were convinced that the young lady would be paid overtime. We’re not paid overtime.”
Klopsis says that she was not bothered by the sit-in, despite being caught off guard. “Nothing’s ever stressful,” she said. “It’s my job to be here and take care of the students.”
“I think we all agree in hindsight that this was successful to a certain degree, but others might argue that it wasn’t a very nice way to do it,” Gardner said, adding, “Students should do everything in their power to bring their concerns to the attention of the administration.”
“In hindsight I would have done it differently.”
Gardner said that gathering petitions and meeting with SGA President Sean O’Brien would have been better alternatives to the sit-in.
“None of that ended up happening because we were so busy,” she said.
Neither she nor Kauffman knew of the Student Services Committee, an organization that allows students to voice concerns directly to the administration, until after its role in extending library hours.
O’Brien felt that though official processes were in place to enact the policy change, the SGA and other administrative bodies had not made them adequately known to students.
“I think it speaks to the fact that for a long time there hasn’t been a sense that student concerns will be dealt with in priority,” O’Brien said. “That attitude has been changing but with that change, student government has not been out there enough to let students know we can affect the process of change.”
Unlike Gardner, Kauffman would not have altered how he went about bringing his concerns to the administration. “I’m happy with how things turned out,” he said.
While Kauffman saw the sit-in as “purely business,” Rachamadugu said he enjoyed the experience. “While it was a great point to make, it’s something I’m always going to remember about my college experience, that I made a stand for something.”
“It just shows that the students here can be heard. I think the stand was just as important as the message,” Rachamadugu said, “What a great experience!”
Mikhalevsky, Strohl and O’Brien had not known there was a desire for extended hours until after the sit-in. Strohl said that the only mention of the issue last semester was on two anonymous yellow suggestion cards at the library.
Protesters said that last semester they spoke with library employees, filled out suggestion cards and signed a petition to have the hours extended.
“My first thought was to go through the proper channels,” Rachamadugu said. After signing a petition earlier in the semester, he felt that the proper channels had already been tested.
Rachamadugu said he did not know that petition never reached administrators until meeting with Mikhalevsky after the sit-in.
“I hope, going forward, that students have multiple ways of approaching us,” said Mikhalevsky.
Had he been reached directly, Strohl said he would have urged students to consider that a full night’s sleep might be better for exam performance than all-night studying.
“They’re not going to listen to us tell them, ‘It wouldn’t hurt for you to study in the semester,’” he said.
According to Strohl, this isn’t the first time UMW has enacted the policy. He recalled that during the 1999-2000 school year, President William Anderson had requested the library remain open all night for exams.
“We had only three people in the building,” Strohl said, “And the President who was here at the time said, ‘Well, we won’t do that again.’”