Chatham Board Shies Away From Sanctuary Campus Label

Author: Emma Honcharski

This fall, a petition signed by over 76 Chatham faculty and staff members and a student-organized march requested Chatham make the declaration of Sanctuary Campus status, joining universities across the country in a movement concerned with the future of undocumented students under the Trump administration. This February, President David Finegold and Jennifer Potter, Chair of Chatham’s Board of Trustees, released a statement covering the Board of Trustees’ decision in response to the petition, deciding against using the label of Sanctuary Campus to describe Chatham.

The statement, posted to Chatham Views, noted that the petition written by Professor Jennie Sweet-Cushman did not specifically use the words “Sanctuary Campus” in the request.  The petition did, however, request for President Finegold and the Board to “investigate the possibility of our campus serving as a sanctuary for our students,” and later, “we urge the University to immediately work to develop a protocol for the University serving as a sanctuary campus.”

The Sanctuary Campus movement has received criticism for the lack of specificity and clarity on what this standing means, as there is no legal definition for the term.

Pennsylvania State Representative Jerry Knowles plans to introduce legislation that would withhold state funding from Sanctuary Campuses, and lawmakers in other states have expressed similar interest with federal funding as well.  

“We’re worried that making such a declaration could not only threaten institutional funding, but also could be a mechanism by which the Trump administration would decide which campuses they were going to go after first,” Finegold said.

The list of schools that have officially adopted the label is a short one, most with significantly larger student bodies than Chatham’s, including University of Pennsylvania, Sante Fe Community College, and Wesleyan University. Undocumented students and those protected by an immigration policy introduced by the Obama administration’s, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), were not specifically targeted in the most recent executive order from the Trump administration regarding immigration.

Pittsburgh Public Schools announced their sanctuary status in January, stating that immigration agents would need permission from the superintendent district’s law department before entering school grounds. Finegold expressed that Chatham’s status is not too different from this.

“We’re not going to actively cooperate or help with the feds if it’s simply a case of saying ‘You have students who are here,’ if there’s a warrant, if there is anything to say that they have committed a crime or they’ve done something illegal, then we would have to,” he said.

Finegold notes that one reason for the Board’s decision is affected by the presence of law enforcement on Chatham’s campus, which works directly with the Pittsburgh Police, a differentiating factor from other schools that have declared sanctuary status.

Without the declaration of sanctuary status, Finegold focuses on the support that will be provided to undocumented students through Student Affairs, ensuring students are aware of their rights, and feel emotionally supported.  

He explains Chatham’s choice as in sympathy with Dan Gilman, Pittsburgh City Councilman, and aims to be “very clear about all the things we can do proactively without adopting a label that could have negative unintended consequences.”

Sweet-Cushman is overall pleased with the Board’s decision, appreciative of the sensitivity to students, noting that it shows “real dedication moving forward to making sure that we’re preserving the type of environment that our students deserve here at Chatham.”

“I have confidence that their intent is to protect our students first and foremost,” she said.

“The caveat is that I am concerned about the dismissal of not saying anything about potential policy changes until the policy changes happen. I think that’s a very reactive approach and even if there wasn’t something actually put in place, I think it was appropriate to talk about and maybe they did, what the proactive response would be. If the policy changes on a Thursday, and federal agents were to show up here on a Friday, we’re not ready for that,” Sweet-Cushman said.

*Maria Diaz, a senior Psychology student and organizer of the march on campus in November,

has redirected her focus to the rest of the undocumented community outside of the push for campuses declaring sanctuary status.

“I understand that the term sanctuary is super vague, so I understand their reluctance to take on a banner that is not exactly super definitive, but in our Campaign Ask we are definitive of what we mean under Sanctuary Campus,” Diaz said. “I also completely understand their reluctance in declaring the banner because of the threat that they might be defunded from federal or state aid.”

Duarte is now working on a campaign across the state to oppose the bill aiming to defund Sanctuary Campuses in Pennsylvania.

“I consider myself an undocumented person of a lot of privilege because I get to be in a safe space, it’s a university, I get to get an education, and I get to be considered by anti-immigrant rhetoric as this deserving immigrant, when in reality it’s not that way,” Duarte said. “All undocumented immigrants are deserving of dignity and respect, and that should be given to them, and when a university does something like declare themselves a Sanctuary Campus, they’re not only siding with me as a student, but they’re also sending a message to everyone, that, ‘hey, we stand with undocumented immigrants and we’re not going to tolerate any attacks on the identities of people and we’re not going to allow the dehumanization and criminalization of hard working people.”

Nikki Mammano, a junior and student activist studying Economics, emphasizes that the Sanctuary Campus label isn’t the only thing that can be done to support the undocumented community, but was still disappointed by the Board’s decision.

“I thought it was really positive at first, and then it started to get more confusing, and I think that they intentionally made it confusing, and then at the end they practically contradicted themselves, and that was really upsetting to me,” she said.

Mammano feels an important step is raising awareness on campus through working with Student Affairs. “They’re always putting on events and they’ve never had a dialogue around that issue [immigration policy and undocumented students], she said. “I know Chatham isn’t very diverse in that sense, but it’s still a very real issue and it’s not right for the administration to not bring awareness to other students about this.”

The conversation of immigration policy affecting students and faculty on college campuses goes on across the country, with new statements from universities and state government officials being released on daily basis.

Chatham has joined over 600 colleges and universities in signing a letter originated by Pomona College, signifying the support for continuing to educate students covered by the DACA policy.

“I think we’re doing everything we can, legally, to protect the safety of our students, if anything I honestly believe that by not [declaring sanctuary status] we increase their probability of being able to finish their studies,” Finegold said.  

Chatham has joined over 600 colleges and universities in signing a letter originated by Pomona College, signifying the support for continuing to educate students covered by the DACA policy.

“I think the letters are less about protecting the students, per se, than they are about being part of a collective action to make a case for why we believe that the current policy is the right policy,” he said.

The conversation of immigration policy affecting students and faculty on college campuses goes on across the country, with new statements from universities and state government officials being released on daily basis.

“In any other time with any other leader at the university, we’d be having a different conversation, and that we’re having the one that we’re having is a testimony to [Finegold’s] leadership, and I don’t say that lightly,” Sweet-Cushman said. “I really do believe that he wants the best for Chatham and the best for Chatham students, and that’s what’s guiding his decision making right now.”

*The name of this individual has been altered to prevent unwanted attention.

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