Fence restoration rallies students to take action

Erin M. Burns Mar 27, 2011

A group of first-year art students used a hacksaw on the Fence Monday afternoon to carve away some of its layers of paint. In response, Tim Hieter, a master’s candidate in materials science and engineering, created a Facebook event — “Operation Heal the Fence” — that attracted hundreds of students to the Cut that night to reclaim and repaint the Fence.

Hieter, after hearing about what happened to the Fence, began discussing his reaction with friends. “We see it as the one real, easily identifiable symbol of Carnegie Mellon, and everyone loves it,” he said.

The Facebook group began as a way to organize his friends, but after only two hours, nearly 300 people had committed to attending. By the end of the night, this number had climbed to almost 1,000.

Those who arrived at midnight took turns painting the Fence black, adding the message “Don’t mess with our Fence” on the side facing Forbes Avenue, and writing personal messages of support on the opposite side. Nicholas Petrillo, a senior in mechanical engineering, painted the first stroke, explaining through a megaphone while standing on the nearby picnic table that the Fence would be captured by the traditional rules and that no one was to begin painting until midnight. As Carnegie Mellon’s website and the Student Handbook outline, groups must capture and paint the Fence between midnight and daybreak.

Many students pointed to these rules in condemning the accused vandals. Additionally, Hieter felt that “painting the Fence is adding to its history” and that by removing layers of paint, “they were taking that history away.” Other students echoed his sentiments.

Will Weiner, a sophomore economics and social and decision sciences dual major, and Jay Rockwell, a junior biomedical and chemical engineering major, were some of the first to notice when students began cutting into the Fence. Weiner, Rockwell, and others confronted the students, who were then escorted away by university personnel. Weiner described the Fence as “the definition of school spirit” and noted that “everybody felt hurt” by the destructive actions.

Indeed, many attendees at Operation Heal the Fence expressed their anger and called for disciplinary action. Kong Wong, a junior chemical engineering major, said it was “an act of vandalism, and expulsion of the students should be on the table.”

In an earlier e-mail, Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno confirmed that her office was investigating the incident for potential violations of university standards. She declined to name the students involved or discuss any details of the investigation, citing the confidential nature of the process.

While Operation Heal the Fence’s Facebook wall attracted support for Hieter’s efforts to reclaim the Fence, it also became a sounding board for students’ anger toward the accused students. Some comments bordered on threats, something Hieter called an “overreaction.” He hoped students would use the event for “showing school spirit as opposed to blaming.” He consequently deleted many of the threats.

One student, however, claimed that her non-supportive but non-threatening comments were deleted. Casey Li Brander, a senior art major, said that she posted comments describing the not-so-happy history of the Fence. Originally, the Fence separated Margaret Morrison Women’s College and the Carnegie Institute of Technology. As the plaques in the Maggie Murph Café testify, the college routinely denied women’s requests to enroll in math, science, and other high-level courses deemed inappropriate or too difficult for women.

Brander protested that the Fence “builds a sense of community only if your membership in a community is based on fetishizing this object — who sets this criterion?” Indeed, while many at the event could recite the rules for painting the Fence, none mentioned its history as a symbol of gender inequity.

Operation Heal the Fence celebrated the aforementioned community.

Club music blared while underclassmen, graduate students, and student government members mingled and recaptured the Fence. Hundreds of — but not the nearly 1,000 — students dropped studying for a night to show their support.