Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Student ‘takeovers’ over race are forcing change in some surprising ways

WASHINGTON POST   |  November 20, 2015 by Susan Svrluga

Student protests over race and bias are gaining intensity at colleges across the country, generating some backlash — and, at some campuses, forcing real change.

At Princeton, the president agreed Thursday night to something surprising: Initiating a conversation with the board of trustees and the campus community about the legacy of one of its most honored former leaders, Woodrow Wilson — even considering changing the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, to the horror of some alumni.

Students from the Black Justice League at Princeton have long been pushing to erase Wilson’s name and mural because they say the 28th U.S. president was a racist, a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer, and now acts as a powerful symbol of the university’s history as a place barred to anyone but white Christian men. But seeing the success of protesters at the University of Missouri and Yale, they decided to escalate their demands. So they marched into Nassau Hall and refused to leave the president’s office until he agreed to their demands. Thirty-two hours later, they had a signed agreement — not everything they asked for, but forward momentum on all demands.

At the University of Missouri, the chancellor and university system president resigned after protests, and the new system president is working toward addressing student demonstrators’ demands to improve the racial climate on campus. At Yale, the president announced major new initiatives this week in response to heated protests.

Most college presidents talk about the importance of diversity on campus, said Ray Cotton, an attorney who works with college presidents and boards. “Very few put assets behind it. This president did — significant assets.

“Yale is really the leader here. … I don’t know of another school in the country,” that has made such a tangible commitment, he said.

Many celebrated the growing strength of the protesters. Others felt the balance had shifted too far.

Anne D. Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, expressed concern about some of the impacts on some campuses. “Certainly serious issues have been raised that deserve thoughtful and sustained discussion.” But “capitulating to force is not a good way to make change. We’re calling on trustees to stand firm in defense of the First Amendment, to show leadership, and to insist on the rule of law.

“…while dissent and protest are welcomed, they do not advance a genuine discussion when students’ freedom to study is undermined or trespass occurs without consequence. …There’s a real need for leadership here – so the changes aren’t being made at the end of a gun but after some sustained and real discussion and a real commitment of focus.”

At Towson University, in Baltimore, on a day when a coordinated national effort to hold demonstrations used the hashtag #studentblackout, with people wearing black and marching and shouting slogans at dozens of campuses, a group of black students who had been trying to raise awareness about problems with race on campus for well over a year launched a “takeover” of the president’s office.

The first thing that happened, according to sophomore Bria Johnson, was that the door closed and top administrators had a meeting without them. “I guess they were trying to figure out if they were going to kick us out,” she said.

Students were angry and upset, talking about incidents when they had heard racial slurs or seen white students wearing blackface, she said.

When interim President Timothy Chandler saw their list of 13 demands, his first response, according to Johnson, was to the effect of, “I can’t sign this — some of these are not in my power.”

But what happened next was surprising to both sides.

They kept talking, and they listened.

“It was a learning experience for both of us,” Johnson said, something university officials echoed.

“It was a really incredible situation to see unfold,” said university spokesman Gay Pinder.

“They were telling us how the system works,” Johnson said. “They helped us create more tangible and measurable demands, which was kind of shocking.”

Students were there from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m., when Chandler signed their list of demands.

They ended up with more than they had asked for originally, she said, including changes such as “increasing the tenured and tenure-track black faculty and retaining them by 10% in 2018.”

There was plenty of backlash, Johnson said, from students who argued there isn’t a race problem at Towson, felt they only cared about the issues of minority students, and disagreed with their tactics. “We’re working on getting more support from the community,” she said.

“This is what universities are supposed to do,” Chandler said in a written statement. “We are supposed to help students express their opinions and find solutions to problems. I’m extraordinarily proud of this group of students, who want to make this a better place, not just for them, but for all of us.”


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