When the University of Oregon student body became informed that facilities are closed by Safety and Risk Services as of March 17 in an email, a pre-scheduled Board of Trustees meeting still occurred at the Ford Alumni Center. Before this meeting began, a small number of students with the Reclaim UO campaign had assembled outside to make their voice and opinion known in protest.
With medical coveralls, surgical masks, and standing together, you could read across the protester’s torsos in stenciled spray paint, “CAMPUS CLOSED.” The intent in their actions was to non-violently block the north entrance to the Ford Alumni Center and reminding those arriving that campus was closed. That just so happened to be the door Board of Trustees Chairman, Chuck Lillis, chose to enter.
Upon Lillis’ approach to the Ford Alumni Center north doors, he was looking and aware of the four protesters standing directly in front of the doors with intent to voluntarily block someone from entering. Instead of choosing a different route to another set of doors, he slowly charged his way through two of the medical gear-clad student protesters in front of the right set of north doors.
Also captured on video from inside the first set of doors by myself, the incident is viewable in a pinned tweet at @Mindbomb_Media, where Lillis hesitated only for a couple of seconds before he shoulder-charged his way through.
Nick Keough, one of the protesters, assaulted by Chuck Lillis, said in a phone interview, “I didn’t want to press charges, but I’m at a point I’m considering it.” Keough continued, “I was assaulted. But I wasn’t physically hurt. So, to me, it would be that if I were to take that route, it would have a basis on the principle that he approached me with the intent to assault me physically.”
Asking what the trustees could have chosen to do differently that day, Keough said, “I think the right thing they should have done at that point was to postpone all in-person meetings and focus all energies and efforts towards responding to the crisis.” He continued about the meeting by saying, “They attempted to make some changes to make it seem safer, like implementing who can be in the room at a certain time, but still, it was a room with a lot of people in it.”
“They want to add another jumbotron on the other side. Is that a necessity? I don’t think so.” Keough said this about his personal experience of Ducks football games, “I’ve been to a lot of games at Autzen, and it’s been totally fine with just one jumbotron.”
“At that point, we did know that COVID was going to be a huge crisis economically and socially. So, they knew what they were doing, And it was very intentional that they had that meeting to get that final check stamp on their guaranteed tuition initiative and allocate those funds to that jumbotron. Had that meeting happened a few weeks later, I don’t think they would have been so successful. But they acted like they realized the timeliness of it all and decided they wanted to push it through as fast as they could despite what, we the students, recommended what was safe,” Keough said.
At the end of our phone conversation about their protest, Keough concluded by saying, “It was symbolic of, what Reclaim UO is working on, the ongoing privatization of corporate interests, and disregard of students, faculty, and staff.”
As the cancellation of Finals week sessions of the 2020 Winter term due to the spreading concerns of SARS-CoV-2 began, considering what the Board of Trustees had planned, the inevitable domino effect of closing campus all-together would eventually amount to furloughs and layoffs. A few days later, UO put 282 workers on ‘leave-without-pay status’ to help with budget impact while enacting an indefinite hiring freeze, and all senior leadership has taken either a 10% or 12% pay reduction over the next 6 months.
In an email titled “Coronavirus update for March 16” from firstname.lastname@example.org, the first point in the bulletin said, “The state of Oregon is mandating cancellation of events and gatherings of more than 25 people for four weeks (through April 13, 2020), and recommends avoiding gatherings of more than ten people if possible.”
Sarah Pishioneri, an organizer for the campaign Reclaim UO, said in a phone interview, “His (Chuck Lillis) physical response to dissenting students is much like his leadership response to dissenting students.”
“I think there should be a general outrage because it shows his lack of accountability to the student body. Because we don’t vote, there’s no direct vote coming out of the student body, why would he have any accountability to us?” Pishioneri continued saying, “We should demand a board of trustees that are accountable to the student body.”
When asked about what the meeting could have done differently that day, Pishioneri said, “Talk about the emergency, not these funding mechanisms that will change everything for the university.”
Upon reaching out to the UO Board of Trustees office, the Director of Public Affairs and Issues Management, Kay Jarvis declined to make a statement to the assault allegations and the posting on social media the video of the incident. Her directions for questions toward Lillis were via email. I again requested a phone interview to ask Lillis what his reaction is. I have yet to receive a return email or phone call.