A sit-in over Seattle University's Matteo Ricci College curriculum — which some students say focuses too narrowly on Western ideas and history — has stretched into its seventh day.

Share story

For seven days and counting, dozens of Seattle University students have been holding a sit-in in the lobby of a university administrative building, demanding an overhaul of one of the university’s elite programs and the resignation of a college dean.

At issue, they say, is a classical curriculum that focuses on Western ideas and history, in part through the teachings of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

Students say Matteo Ricci College — a small, 194-student college that teaches the humanities — was sold to them as an elite, innovative program that promoted critical thinking and scholarship.

Seattle U’s Matteo Ricci College

Founded 41 years ago, the college is built on a humanities curriculum and offers three bachelor’s degrees: humanities, humanities for leadership and humanities for teaching.

It has 194 undergraduate students and 20 professors. Jodi Kelly was named interim dean in 2011 and appointed permanently to the position in 2012.

They expected Matteo Ricci to help them knit together Seattle University’s commitment to social justice with a rigorous academic program that would leave them well-prepared for leadership and teaching careers.

Instead, the students say, the college’s focus is too rigid and limiting, at a time when a broader understanding of the world is vital.

At least in part, the university seems to acknowledge that the students have a point.

In a letter to the university community this weekend, Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg said the students have raised serious issues, and that the university will address them.

“I cannot pretend to know how deep their pain goes, the amount of harm it has caused or the extent of our own shortcomings as educators and administrators,” wrote Sundborg.

Matteo Ricci’s dean, Jodi Kelly, has said she will do a comprehensive review of the college’s curricula, hire a consultant to assess the college’s culture and climate, and train faculty and staff in racial and cultural literacy.

But students say there’s only one thing that will end the sit-in: Kelly’s resignation.

That’s a demand Sundborg says he will not accept.

In an email, Kelly said she had no intention of stepping down. “Making demands is contrary to everything we teach and what we espouse as a community of learners,” she wrote. “What kind of a model would that be going forward?”

An alumnus of the college has started circulating a petition on change.org in defense of Kelly.

The protesting students say they’re prepared to spend the rest of the academic year — which ends June 10 — camped out in the Casey Building.

Competing claims

The sit-in began last Wednesday when dozens of students calling themselves the MRC Student Coalition took over the Casey Building lobby and first-floor administrative offices.

They set up a shrine in the center of the lobby with a pile of books they said they want the Matteo Ricci curriculum to contain. It includes books on Buddhism, the civil-rights movement, feminist theory, social movements, poverty, mass incarceration, alternative views of American history. They say they want to read and discuss authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Malala Yousafzai, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie.

Instead, they say, many Matteo Ricci courses are focused on close readings of the classics. And that’s not what the students were promised when they signed up.

Zeena Rivera, a second-year student, said she’s read the works of Plato for four different courses already. “When am I going to start reading writers from China, from Africa, from South America?” asked Rivera, who is Filipino. “The only thing they’re teaching us is dead white dudes.”

Kelly challenged that description. She said courses on the ancient and medieval worlds focus on classical texts, including works by Plato and Aristotle but also Confucius and Lao Tsu. The core of the curriculum, she said, includes studies on poverty, and students read African-American and Latino scholars, historians, playwrights and poets.

Seattle University student Robert Gavino, who describes himself as Filipino and queer, said he fell in love with Matteo Ricci College and its method of teaching — at first. He was a star at the school, and was asked to speak during orientations and to help recruit for the college in area high schools.

But Gavino feels he was held up as a kind of “golden child” of the program to discourage other students of color from disagreeing with the college’s approach.

“They said, ‘Why can’t you be like Robert?’ ” said student Fiza Mohammad. She is a fourth-year student from a working-class, immigrant family, who is at Seattle University as a Sullivan Scholar, a prestigious, full-ride scholarship program.

In that way, she and Gavino say, the college administrators created doubt in their minds about whether their concerns about the breadth of the courses were legitimate.

Gavino has since become disillusioned with Matteo Ricci. He is part of the sit-in.

Last summer, Mohammad said, a small group of students met with Matteo Ricci alumni who recounted similar clashes with administrators. “The things they were saying were both heartbreaking and immensely validating,” she said.

They say they have asked for changes during formal end-of-course evaluations, and also through informal meetings with administrators. Their focus is on forcing Kelly to resign because, they say, she has set the tone of the college and is responsible for its failings.

Kelly describes it differently, saying the students gave her a list of demands April 26, and when she responded with initiatives that spoke directly to those demands, the students took over her office and asked for her resignation.

“No other request other than the April 26 ‘demands’ have been put before me,” she wrote.

Sleeping on the floor

To occupy the Casey Building, the students take shifts, with 15 to 20 of them occupying the rooms at any one time. They are still going to class, doing homework and assignments, but they spend the night sleeping on the floor of the administration offices — often staying up until 2 a.m., talking about everything that has happened during the day.

They’ve held teach-ins and workshops, led rallies and marches through campus, and done media interviews. They say they’ve learned more about leadership in a week than they’ve learned in years of college education.

They’re not the only students in Seattle — indeed, in the nation — demanding change from their universities. Last week, student demonstrators marched through the University of Washington campus, saying the university is not moving fast enough to address issues of diversity and equity. Similar demonstrations have taken place around the country.

At Seattle University, “We are not asking for favors to be given to us,” Mohammad said. “We came here for a liberatory education … We want to be represented, we deserve to be represented, all students deserve to hear a narrative that’s not just white.”

Mohammad said whenever she’s raised issues about the college’s teachings, she’s been told that she’s being emotional and aggressive.

Students say their complaints are specific to Matteo Ricci College, and not to Seattle University as a whole. They say the university — which lists undergraduate enrollment as 4,712 in fall 2015 — offers a broad range of classes that address social-justice issues, gender differences, poverty and mass incarceration — but they’re just not learning about any of those things in Matteo Ricci.

Matteo Ricci students don’t take the same core classes as Seattle University students do, meaning that it’s difficult to switch out of the college without losing credits, the students say.

“Seattle University was sold to us as a university committed to social justice; Matteo Ricci College was sold to us as a college that was forward-thinking and innovative,” the students wrote on their Facebook page. “These institutions have failed us, and the administration has publicly acknowledged their failure.”

Kelly says the college, which is 41 years old, began as an experimental college, and “We are still animated by that objective. It assures that nothing is cast in stone. And given our size, we are able to be more nimble and to effect changes more quickly than most colleges anywhere in the U.S.”

President apologizes

Late last week and early this week, as the standoff continued, the university received “vitriolic hate speech” in the form of phone calls directed at the student coalition, according to a message from Sundborg. The students staging the sit-in say some of their signs have been ripped down, and they’ve heard racial slurs shouted at them from outside the doorway.

On Tuesday, Sundborg sent out a campuswide letter that decried students for calling Kelly “our racist dean,” and said such words run counter to the student code of conduct. Among their objections to Kelly, students have said the dean recommended a book to a student that had a racial slur as its title.

But Sundborg also offered an apology “for what has been the experience of some of our students when it comes to race, class, gender and disability in aspects of the university’s academic and social life.”

He also said the university has taken steps to address concerns about the college not being diverse enough, including the formation of a task force on diversity in 2013.

“We can and we will do better,” Sundborg wrote.