OPINION: “Where’s Todd?” reveals students’ dissatisfaction with university’s handling of threats to their lives

Lyndsey Brennan Reporter

Last semester I conducted an interview with a May 4 survivor that chilled me.

I had gone into the interview naïve, hoping to hear about healing and forgiveness. Instead, what I heard was disbelief, disgust and outrage—still present, still raw, even 50 years later. And still fully warranted.

Emeritus art professor Brinsley Tyrrell was not involved with the campus anti-war protests in the spring of 1970, though he wanted to be. A British native, Tyrrell was arrested during demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy in England. He knew he could be deported if he got arrested again, so he waited to see what the other faculty would do. He waited to follow their lead, but they did nothing, he said.

When Tyrrell returns to May 4 in his mind, he sees the scene at the Victory Bell so clearly: the demonstrating students here, the national guardsmen there. The faculty circling the perimeter, watching from a distance, as though it were theater.

Then, the shots. Then, students coming down the hill in a panic, incoherent, in tears. Then, veteran students who were studying on the GI bill screaming at the guardsmen, calling them a disgrace to their uniforms.

What lesson did Tyrrell take from that, I wanted to know? “You have to remember how inept the university was, and how it betrayed the students,” he told me.

“Faculty should have been between the guard and the students, stopping things from happening, and that includes the president and the vice deans. And they weren’t there.”

Fast forward 50 years. Kent State students are still protesting needless deaths. The United States still, somehow, has a president content to strip citizens of their freedom of assembly by sending in federal agents to disperse so-called “riots” with so-called “less lethal bullets” and tear gas, a weapon banned in international warfare. Students are still concerned for their safety, only now it’s because campus is a place where racists feel emboldened to leave threatening messages in plain sight and where a highly-contagious, potentially deadly virus could thrive.

And Kent State’s president still could not be bothered to show up—at least, not to the first wave of protests.

Last month, Diacon was absent from a town hall meeting and two demonstrations on Sept. 10 and 11, prompting students to chant “Where’s Todd?” at the window beneath his office.

Yes, he participated in the demonstration on Sept. 14, but it raises questions about why this protest and not the others. Why not take the first possible opportunity to say loud and clear, “I care about Black students’ safety,” given Kent State’s record of being a hostile environment for them?

What change can we expect to happen if leaders only show up for events organized on their terms, at their convenience? Keep in mind, we are not talking about some obscure interim vice president or dean. We are talking about the face of the university. 

What’s more, what change can we expect if Black administrators who consistently show up for students, like Lamar Hylton and Amoaba Gooden, have to act as a shield for white leadership, offering excuses for them and insisting that they care?

Why should Black people have to continue to explain and apologize for the inaction of white people?

I get it: The university is taking steps (albeit long overdue) to modify policies so students feel safer. But, as two students rightly pointed out, the university’s bureaucratic way of helping often makes it “appear as though they are combating the issues at hand, when in reality, they are doing nothing to change the structures that created them.”

And policy is not a replacement for presence.

When students chant, “Where’s Todd?” they are not asking, “Who is going to put together a task force for me? Who is going to circulate a press release or develop a strategic plan for me?”

What I think they’re asking is, “Does the most powerful person at this school see me, hear me and support me? Not with apologies, buzzwords and platitudes but with their presence?”

In my mind, the chant “Where’s Todd?” captures not only the university’s past failure to come between literal bullets and its students but its present hesitance to step in front of another threat to their lives: the coronavirus.

“What really shocked me was that it seemed like every single person did exactly the wrong thing,” Tyrrell said of May 4. “The university did the wrong thing. The guard did the wrong thing. The generals should have been put in jail because they were so incompetent. The students were wrong — but on the other hand, they were students. They’re supposed to be guided.”

This summer, when Kent State announced it would resume in-person classes, outbreaks were cropping up across the nation at summer camps, on college sports teams and in off-campus student housing. I was reading, almost daily, about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 could have on students of color.

Administrators stressed that students didn’t have to return. They had a choice, the same way they have the choice to take on immobilizing amounts of student loan debt without understanding the implications of that decision. 

To be fair, the university has been clear with its messaging about the Flashes Safe Seven and has drawn a hard line when it comes to enforcing it. Plexiglas and social distancing decals were set out. Classrooms, bathrooms and waiting areas are receiving enhanced cleaning. 

But five weeks into school, many questions directly related to students’ safety have gone unanswered: What research and data modeling did administrators base their reopening decisions on? Why wasn’t it released to the student body?

Why are only 30 COVID-19 tests available per day when research shows ample and frequent testing is the best way to prevent outbreaks? Who is conducting the testing? Who is paying for it? Officials talked to trustees about potentially expanding testing, but as of Oct. 5, offered no concrete details

If the university is asking students to put their lives at risk to return to campus, to participate in this experiment to see if COVID-19 will behave the same way with 20-year-olds as it does with everyone else, it owes them transparency. It owes them assurance administrators have a solid plan.

On Sept. 17, students received an email from the university with links to articles congratulating itself for a successful reopening. Qualify successful for me, because that same day, Gov. Mike DeWine credited Kent State students for spiking cases and raising Portage County to a Level 3 Red public emergency. (Portage has since moved down to Level 2 Orange.)

Qualify successful for me, because this is what I’m seeing: no deaths, yet. At least three dozen students testing positive for (and potentially sickened by) a virus experts say you do not want to contract. That information relayed not by the university but by elected state officials. Over 100 students quarantined. The National Guard, a group that has historically harmed Kent State students, called in to administer COVID-19 testing, which may have been avoided had the university had a clear, adequate testing plan in the first place. And hundreds of students chanting, “Where’s Todd?” because they want to feel secure and don’t.  

I’ve never held a position of power at an institution, so maybe this criticism is harsh. We only have so many resources, so much manpower. 

But in my mind, it costs leaders very little to show up, tell the truth, say it urgently and say it plainly. 

Let it not be said of them, “They weren’t there.”

Lyndsey Brennan is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected] 

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Hi, I’m Lauren Sasala, a senior journalism student from Toledo. I’m also the editor in chief of The Kent Stater and KentWired this semester. My staff and I are committed to bringing you the most important news about Kent State and the Kent community. We are full-time students and hard-working journalists. While we get support from the student media fee and earned revenue such as advertising, both of those continue to decline. Your generous gift of any amount will help enhance our student experience as we grow into working professionals. Please go here to donate.