From its perch atop a hill overlooking Worcester, the College of the Holy Cross has for years dodged the waves of activism that have erupted across other campuses.
While college students from Seattle to Cambridge have marched, held sit-ins, and taken over their campuses in recent years over concerns about free speech, police brutality, gun violence, immigration, and the last presidential election, Holy Cross has remained relatively quiet.
But in recent weeks, the small Jesuit private college has been in an uproar.
This past year, one professor resigned and another lost his position as dean and was placed on leave, in both cases over sexual misconduct allegations. Earlier this month, the college announced another professor was suddenly placed on leave with little explanation of the cause. And last fall, the college launched an investigation into a possible hate crime against a student who was allegedly targeted over sexual identity.
These events have kindled a burst of activism on the Holy Cross campus, the likes of which haven’t been seen since protests by black students in the mid-1990s.
“There has been a build-up of tension,” said Caroline O’Connor, 21, a Holy Cross senior and history major from New York, who helped organize a two-day sit-in earlier this month. “I was personally surprised about the amount of enthusiasm and support we got. Holy Cross is not historically known as a place of protest and a questioning of the administration.”
The sit-in, which started with a handful of students, grew to include hundreds of men and women lining the wood-paneled hallways outside of the office of the school’s president, the Rev. Philip Boroughs. They sang, held up posters, did homework, and called for reforms to the college’s handling of sexual harassment and assault allegations.
They demanded that the college be more transparent about professors who have been disciplined for sexual misconduct; conduct an audit of the Title IX office that handles these harassment complaints; and apologize for its handling of past cases.
It was just the latest recent rebellion on the 2,855-student campus.
A guerrilla Instagram account, sexualassaultonthehill, sprouted up in November with current and former Holy Cross students recounting their experiences with assault and rape by friends, acquaintances, and members of the school’s athletic teams. More than 4,400 people have followed the account since it appeared.
Other students posted a skit, “The Temptation of Father Boroughs,” on YouTube, questioning the administration’s response to the turmoil.
And last fall, growing unrest forced the school to cancel classes for an afternoon so that students and faculty could attend a summit on discrimination and violence.
Students said they are feeling outraged and frustrated by administrators who have provided little information about the professors involved in alleged misconduct, forcing students to find out about the cases through media reports.
In August, The Boston Globe reported that James David Christie, an internationally known organist and instructor, resigned his post as distinguished artist-in-residence at Holy Cross after a group of former students detailed a decades-long pattern of sexual harassment.
In late January, Worcester Magazine reported that former Holy Cross dean Christopher A. Dustin had been demoted after a 20-month long investigation in allegations of sexual misconduct. While the college barred Dustin from conducting private, one-on-one meetings or unsupervised communications with female students or junior employees, including e-mail, he was still allowed to teach, according to the magazine. After the magazine story, the college announced that Dustin was placed on leave pending the investigation of new allegations.
Then faculty members received an e-mail earlier this month from Holy Cross administrators that a philosophy professor was suddenly placed leave.
The college declined to say why but added that “many will have questions. However, we must strike a balance between the desire to know more and the protection of the privacy of our community members.”
With the college providing few details, the case has fueled further concern among students and some faculty. The professor, through his attorney, declined to comment.
Students said they will continue to be vocal if they fail to see changes at the college.
“This came to fruition because people were really, really hurting,” said Mithra Salmassi, 22, a senior from Worcester and member of the college’s student government association.
College administrators say they are listening to the student concerns and have committed to an outside evaluation of the campus climate and a review of Title IX policies and procedures, which govern sexual assault allegations.
“I did express an apology that any student felt we put them in an unsafe situation,” Boroughs said in an interview. “We are opened and engaged with our students.”
Boroughs, who has been president of Holy Cross since 2012, said he went to college during the 1970s, at a time when students were marching against war and for racial equity, and isn’t surprised by the recent student unrest.
It is happening at campuses across the country, he said.
Yet the swift spread of activism at Holy Cross recently through e-mail and via social media networks seems to have caught administrators off-guard.
Boroughs acknowledged that he doesn’t use social media often and that this has been a challenging time in his leadership.
Change at Holy Cross has generally come slowly. The college has prized academics and athletics over activism, faculty said.
Longtime college faculty members said the most memorable protest on campus occurred in 1969, when 65 black students, the entire membership of the Black Student Union at the time, quit school. The students, including future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, were protesting what they considered unfair discipline of black students at an anti-Vietnam War protest on campus. Administrators eventually reversed the discipline against both black and white students who had protested, and the black students returned to campus.
In 1995, virtually all the college’s black students, many of them recruited athletes, boycotted sports and extracurricular activities to protest demands by the student government association that white students be allowed to hold leadership positions in the Black Students’ Union, arguing that language limiting those roles to students of African descent was discriminatory. College administrators overturned the student government and sided with the black students.
Theresa McBride, a history professor at Holy Cross since 1973, said for issues to galvanize a large portion of the campus, “it has to be felt very personally . . . and cuts close to them.”
But McBride said that students, even at Holy Cross, are much more engaged on political and social issues now and expressing their opinions more publicly.
“They want to be involved in social change and hopefully work in the areas when they graduate,” McBride said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Theresa McBride’s field of study.