Every Saturday at 1 p.m. there could be a gathering of students in the forum taking turns talking on a soapbox, drawing on the forum in chalk and exchanging ideas amongst themselves.
This is one of many ideas expressed by junior Neil Maneck from the soapbox last Friday afternoon. He and others heard second hand through facilities employees that President Edward Ayers had said he would allow chalking on the Forum to continue without repercussions.
As a result, they started a Facebook group around 9 p.m. on Thursday. The group acquired 168 members in a matter of 18 hours, Maneck said. Now the group is 269 strong. On Friday and throughout the weekend, students contributed to a fully decorated forum surface by signing their names, drawing pictures, playing tic-tac-toe, writing to their friends.
"I think it's really important that we talk and have the opportunity to express ourselves," Maneck said.
Richmond College Dean Joe Boehman also joined the Facebook group. Around 3:15 p.m. on Friday, Boehman was on his way to a meeting and signed the forum as well, giving his apparent approval of the chalking. He wrote "Y'all Rock."
"I thought it was an appropriate way to support free expression," Boehman said. "I believe individuals misunderstood my stance on the matter, and I wanted to set the record straight."
Ayers and Steve Bisese, vice president for student development, similarly moved to support freedom of speech in the Forum. During a weekly cabinet meeting last Tuesday morning, Ayers asked how Bisese felt about chalking in the forum and if it was something he should be concerned about. Bisese said he didn't think so.
The two ultimately decided to create some sort of statement to the university community, which is being published for the first time in this week's Collegian. It is printed in its totality next to this article. The vice presidents of respective departments attended the meeting. The associate vice president of facilities, John Hoogakker attended the meeting, which is likely the reason Maneck and his friends heard from facilities employees that the use of sidewalk chalk on the forum was okay. He said he was surprised it wasn't allowed in the first place.
"What strikes me is that we don't have any traditions here," sophomore Alex Donoho said.
He mentioned institutionalized University of Richmond traditions such as Ring Dance and Proclamation Night. Other schools have similar mediums for expression on campus such as a rock at the University of Virginia students can paint on whenever they want. The University of Mary Washington does the same on its campus.
"It seems to me to be an insult to tradition, because the forum is traditionally where people expressed themselves," Donoho said.
According to multiple dictionary definitions of "forum," it is considered a place where members of the public can discuss and debate topics of public interest. In the ancient city of Rome, the Forum was a place where business and judicial affairs were decided in the presence of the public. Students were not discussing matters as pressing on Friday. They were merely releasing tension by being creative, by revisiting their childhood and thinking happier thoughts than thoughts exam week likely had to offer. The administration supports this type of use of the Forum space. "I think the Forum should be a place of expression," Boehman said. "Considering time, place and manner restrictions."
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The letter written by Bisese states that vulgar or obscene uses of the forum will not be tolerated. No such words or phrases have been used yet. If there were, they would have been washed away because of the rain. Chalk, more than any other medium, is a temporary problem and for that reason Bisese said, "chalk is relatively harmless."
Students more than drew and sign their names with chalk on Friday. They made use of the soapbox, which has been at the Forum since its unveiling. It hasn't gotten much use, but it was broken in by students reading the "Chalker's League" response written on the Forum and featured in last week's opinion section in The Collegian. Maneck and Donoho said they didn't know who wrote that.
Others hopped on the box to encourage passersby to pick up a piece of chalk and "let it out." Maneck said speaking on the soapbox was empowering. Donoho said that support for chalking has grown since an article was published in the Feb. 21 edition of The Collegian, "Students punished for chalk drawings at forum." Afterwards, students continued to draw despite of the administration's disapproval. Last week's opinion section and the Facebook group have only been catalysts for support, Maneck and Donoho said.
"I understand the need for a general aesthetic," Donoho said. "But we live here, and the administration only works here."
Bisese said he hopes the recent chalking and subsequent conversations will expand the purpose and significance of the Forum on campus.
"I don't think it's been used to its full extent," Bisese said.
He foresees the colorful chalk writing and artwork encouraging students to look at the forum in a new way. The space should be looked at as less of a formal venue for ceremonies and the like, he said. The space should be used for student programs, one of which could be an open chalking forum on Saturdays.
Bisese mentioned a Westhampton student he talked to who actually used the space to create a piece of artwork. She spent an entire hour on the piece. It relieved stress, and she introduced herself to a number of students she may have never met if she hadn't taken the time to pick up a piece of chalk and draw at the heart of campus, she said.
"The Forum seems alive right now," Maneck said last Friday, referring to the people, their ideas and the colors of their words, ideas and drawings in chalk. Bisese and Maneck both said they hope the Forum continues to progress in the direction of artistic creativity, increased student interaction and overall campus generated expression.
Contact staff writer Megan Wilson at email@example.com
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