Monday, June 15, 2020

Black Lives Matter on campus

The rather strange confluence of COVID-19 closing campuses while the Black Lives Matter movement grew in prominence left higher education out of the headlines during the summer. Especially with many journalists noting the parallels that can be made in BLM protests to the civil rights protests of the 1950s and anti-war protests of the 1960s, not seeing protests on university campuses seemed odd.

Some educators prepared strategies and devised programs to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement ahead of students' return to campus. Based on the racial crisis at the University of Missouri in 2015, researchers indicate that a "Collective Trauma Recovery" approach is needed to respond to the emotional trauma that can occur when racial tensions arise. Others advocated a "Trauma-informed" approach to the mental health deterioration that Black students often experience. James M. Thomas warned in an interview about his book, Diversity Regimes: Why Talk is not Enough to Fix Racial Inequality at Universities (Rutgers University Press), that when students return to campus, "Colleges and universities should expect conflict, plain and simple. A not-insignificant number of our minority students will have actively participated in the protests themselves" and will likely seek to bring their concerns back with them.

While it did not conclude a cause and effect connection, a recent study found that HBCU enrollment increases correlated with reports of hate crimes. The findings reflect the hyperconsciousness of students of color to campus and surrounding climate. If there is evidence of hostility or fear associated with attending university, why would students not choose a campus that by its very definition is a more welcoming place? As enrollment figures emerged, HBCUs saw significant increases for fall of 2021.

An important element related to the BLM movement is the disadvantages faced by Black students before they begin their higher education. The way U.S.A. history was conceived and is portrayed in academic publications and courses is a pervasive complication once students begin their university coursework. John Thelen recommends facing past racist history by considering name changes for institutions and entities within them. Steve Mintz recommends serious examination, including recognition of many institutions' problematic histories, by evaluating if the perspectives being advanced are rational/liberal, multicultural, or a new and more radical view. Even disciplines such as music are now experiencing questions about scholars who demonstrated racist views in their work and college presidents' roles in desegregating or racializing higher education are being examined.

How a university's responds to faculty who display racist views is a very important signal that can either support or threaten marginalized students and faculty/staff. Faculty can help by anticipating more contentious classrooms, paving the way for more positive exchange. One of the most difficult issues will be the "fragility and inflexibility" of many of those within the hallowed halls of academe. From students who come with delicate sensibilities that are coddled or reinforced to professors who have hair-like triggers that send them off into entitled tirades of unexamined bias, colleges and universities have a responsibility to change their cultures as well as their content.

Positive signs emerged amid the continuing BLM crisis, such as college athletes raising their voices for social justice by threatening to "withhold their labors" and the faculty strike for racial justice, which advocated "brave spaces" to examine racial injustice. Eleven non-Black faculty (most from the University of Colorado in Boulder) issued a "Dear Professor" letter urging faculty to consider how they can incorporate anti-racism into their classrooms. The University of Virginia initiated a "place-based" faculty development program to address racial inequities, a Duke University law professor urged faculty to "Debias Yourself to Debias Your Teaching," and others proposed anti-racist practices to create more inclusive learning. A donor campaign kicked off at Howard University resulting in a $1 million gift that will hopefully increase to $5 million for a Center for Women, Gender, and Global Leadership.

Protestors are challenging names placed on campus buildings or monuments that reify confederate heroes and they are gradually being removed. An exception is at the University of Richmond where double-naming buildings was proposed, a move that Black students characterize as creating a false equivalency between prominent former advocates of slavery and the very slaves they oppressed. Even after their protests, Richmond maintained the posture of double-naming, resulting in a coalition of Black students and other supporters declaring that they will withdraw from participating in University organizations and administrative groups if the policy is not changed by March 25. Others advocate partnerships between racial justice advocates and inter-faith organizations as well as urge decision making that carefully considers students' needs. As demonstrated by the denial of the University of Dallas of a racial justice club, not all institutions are ready to explore questions related to Black students' comfort on campus.

Since students from minority backgrounds incur more debt and have a harder time paying off educational expenses and are presently experiencing greater mental health challenges, guidance on concrete steps that can be taken by faculty and administration to challenge systemic racism is welcome. While it's important to recognize that dismantling systems of marginalization and oppression is in everyone's interest and is everyone's responsibility, the essay by Aomawa Shields captured how becoming tenured helped her to find her voice in confronting racism. Access to a university education is important but it isn't the only concern. The accompanying problem is that success in the most selective fields with greatest return on investment have lower diversity representation.

Campuses are pushing deeper into racial healing, summarized in an AACU report and campuses/systems that require ethnic studies courses of all students may be on the rise. Land grant institutions are being urged to look at the "land grab" from native peoples that established their campuses. The Knight Commission has published recommendations for addressing racism in college sports. Publishers are beginning to provide direction to rectify institutionalized racism to authors that will correct decades of misinformation. The 1619 Project has raised both attention and ire (from the Trump administration) as a way to begin to portray a more accurate history of America's early days. Models of how to progressively demonstrate more commitment in resolving racial injustice offer helpful perspective and a real sense that this critical work can be accomplished, and it is critical that this social justice work be more than lipservice.

One of the challenges to moving forward with anti-racism work is the challenge from conservatives who view these actions as discriminating against them. The student who wore a "White Lives Matter" mask to his student government inauguration at Wichita State University is one kind of protest. Trump's mandate that diversity training in federal agencies cease fed this narrative and some campuses began to change or discontinue their diversity and inclusion programs, although the specifics of Trump's mandate is anything but clear. Trump officials later clarified that training "designed to inform workers, or foster discussion, about pre-conceptions, opinions, or stereotypes that people - regardless of their race or sex - may have regarding people who are different, which could influence a worker's conduct or speech and be perceived by others as offensive" was acceptable. However, when Princeton University's President restated a commitment to continuing its efforts to address systemic racism, the U.S. Department of Education responded that the statement was a "'serious, even shocking' admission, which 'compel[led] the Department to move with all appropriate speed" in their investigation of the University. Trump's mandate persisted even after President Biden rescinded it, leaving some institutions (Boise State) and states (Iowa) in a quandary about what to do.

Higher education has generally stood for freedom of thought and expression, which is core to most liberal arts/education models. However, not all students feel safe engaging with others about controversial topics, which may or may not be a result of the campus environment. Examples of conservative students targeting professors who they view as liberal have increased with the founding of Turning Point USA in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, the lead-off speaker for the 2020 Republic National Convention. Turning Point has done everything from forming the "Professor Watchlist" to advocating that donors cease to support "liberal" colleges. While claiming to keep expression open, Kirk's rhetoric, characteristic if staunch conservatives, emboldens those who seek to intimidate and harass scholars. An example is a professor at Washington & Lee in Virginia whose course gained national attention in conservative media, resulting in hostility and threats toward him.

Steven Mintz' review of Mathew Johnson's Undermining Racial Justice criticized senior administrators in elite liberal arts institutions for perpetuating racism through their actions. "...senior administrators had two overarching goals: To transform the campus into a true multiracial community, while doing nothing that might endanger the campus' elite status or undermine selectivity, merit, and qualifications in admissions. By portraying the university as a victim of a racist and inequitable society, which bore responsibility for the campus' racial disparities, and by creating a host of offices directed by Black staff members, the university's leadership sought to coop and channel pressure for radical change and prevent student activists from disrupting institutional priorities." Such a critique highlights the difficulty of striving for authentic change that goes beyond surface accommodations in racial justice work.

Unfortunately, reactions to protest can be very divisive as is the case when President Shapiro of Northwestern University berated demonstrators who reportedly had attempted to get the University's attention for weeks and then resorted to more violent means. Angered by Shapiro's response, organizers of the protest asserted, "Morty does not have the knowledge, tools, or desire to engage with our demands or to address the needs of Black students. He double down on his anti-Black email, refused to abolish NUPD or to engage with us directly." This specific example reflects what can happen when an institution may not have prepared nor taken seriously the angst that students, faculty, and staff feel around issues of racial injustice.

The BLM movement grew more intense when Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times during an attempted arrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Armed militia entered the picture with a 17 year old using a rifle to kill two demonstrators, adding even greater weight to the original shooting of Blake. This unfolded during the four days of the Republican National Convention, resulting in President Trump and multiple speakers calling for "law and order." Van Jones, former Obama White House staffer, warned about the rhetoric being used by VP Pence and Trump and encouraged greater attention to the three dimensions of the crisis: 1) police brutality toward people of color, 2) high-jacking of peaceful protest by agitators, and 3) white supremacist vigilantes who are emboldened by talk of threats to the "American way of life."

The bottom line is that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work is ongoing work and reasons to hope that BLM will last should be lauded and advocated. Evidence indicates that campus diversity, inclusion, and social justice work has an impact, with college athletic teams being one of the most responsive settings. Building capacity and using crises to positively advance this work should be a commitment that higher education leaders make now instead of waiting for discord to emerge.

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