George Washington University will force nearly 5,400 students to move out of its Foggy Bottom residence halls during a five-day period surrounding the anti-globalization protests that are expected to swamp the city's downtown this month.
The decision, announced yesterday, is one of the more drastic measures taken so far in preparation for demonstrations on Sept. 29 and 30 that police predict could draw 100,000 protesters to the site of World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings just blocks from the GWU campus.
GWU President Stephen J. Trachtenberg said he reluctantly decided to close the university at the recommendation of city police. In addition to shutting residence halls, GWU will urge students living in private housing near campus to leave the neighborhood. All classes will be canceled and all university buildings closed from the evening of Sept. 27 to the afternoon of Oct. 2.
GW senior Tanya Margolin speaks out against the university's decision to close the campus during the IMF meetings later this month. (Andrea Bruce Woodall - The Washington Post)
University officials said they are asking most students to go home to their families or stay with friends or relatives outside Foggy Bottom. They said they are making emergency travel loans and discount plane tickets available and will provide temporary housing or free round-trip bus transportation for some needy students.
"If the campus is functioning, we add a complication to anybody worrying about how to handle crowd control," Trachtenberg said.
The announcement was criticized by many students -- some who said they see it as a disruption to their studies and others who decried it as a roadblock to their involvement in the demonstrations.
"I think it's completely the university overreacting," said Tanya Margolin, a 21-year-old senior who lives off-campus and is active in the anti-IMF movement. "A lot of students who live on campus were planning to be active and participate in the protests."
Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer denied that the move is designed to stifle students' voices. "They continue to have a right to be involved in activities around the World Bank," he said. "They just won't be able to do it from the university."
With thousands of people working or studying at GWU's downtown campus, the university faced likely "traffic congestion as well as safety concerns" if it operated as usual during the protests, Gainer said.
Much of the GWU campus will be cordoned off behind a nine-foot-tall fence that city police are planning to erect around a swath of downtown as a security measure.
Just blocks from the White House, GWU has been caught up in many of the demonstrations to hit the nation's capital. In the 1960s, students from far-flung colleges unrolled their sleeping bags in GWU's student center when they visited Washington to protest the Vietnam War. In April 2000, during an earlier round of World Bank protests, the university canceled classes and barred overnight guests from residence halls.
Trachtenberg said last year's demonstrations, which drew between 20,000 and 35,000 protesters, provided at most "an inconvenience" for the university -- the campus suffered only minor damage, and no students were known to have been injured.
But with city officials saying that they expect perhaps three times as many protesters this time, police asked the university to "reduce the density of people in the area," Trachtenberg said.
"One is tremendously reluctant to close a university, particularly since we are neutral in [the globalization] discussion," he said. But "when you get a request as we have from the police to close, it's really hard to say no."
In a memo sent to GWU students and staff yesterday, Trachtenberg said that no classes on the Foggy Bottom campus will start after 4 p.m. Sept. 27 and that all buildings will be locked by 8 p.m. Residence halls will reopen at 11 a.m. Oct. 2, and classes will resume at 4 p.m. that day. Makeup classes will be scheduled throughout the semester.
The university's offers of transportation and housing help did little to appease many students.
Senior Billy Tagg, 21, of Great Neck, N.Y., said he was outraged that he would have to abandon his room during his last weekend to study for law-school entrance exams. "They should probably be paying for students to go home," he said. "They should have gotten hotel rooms for everyone."
Some demonstrators said GWU seemed to be sending a message to students interested in the anti-globalization movement that they should just go home and ignore it.
"The attitude of the administration reflects the attitude of the city itself, which is one of batten-down-the-hatches, fear and loathing, paranoia, instead of constructive engagement," said Jay Marx, 31, a Washington organizer.
Staff writer Manny Fernandez contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company