Contemporary Student Activism
In 1636, Harvard University was the first college established in the United States. When it was first founded, only upper-class white males were allowed to enroll. Three hundred and eighty years and over 2,000 established universities later, and things have still not changed completely. Higher education used to be dominated by men, especially Christians who planned to go on as members of the clergy.
The College of William and Mary, for example, was led by clergymen to teach the next generation of religious leaders. There were no options for women or people of color in higher education until years later.
Lack of inclusion like this has not dissipated completely and many student protests are occurring for that historically outdated reason — a lack of diversity represented among students and faculty. According to a Huffington Post article titled “Diversity in College Faculty just as Important as Student Body,” Dr. Matthew Lynch, professor and editor of education site The Edvocate, writes, “While nearly 30 percent of undergraduate students around the nation are considered minorities, just over 12 percent of full-time faculty are minorities. That number drops to around 9 percent for full-time professors of color.”
Throughout the fall of 2015 alone, student protests have taken place across the nation at campuses such as Princeton University, Claremont McKenna College, Johns Hopkins University, University of Missouri, Oberlin College and Ithaca College, to name a few. The students’ lists of demands are similar, a call for greater inclusion of people of color in the student body and faculty. More importantly, a fair treatment of marginalized individuals that are already on campus has been a huge demand.
University of Missouri protests, thought to be the spark that created the fire of student activism around the country, revolved around the systematic oppression of black students on campus. These racist accounts trail all the way back to 2010, when students allegedly vandalized the Black Culture Center’s quad with cotton balls.
Princeton students are calling for their university leaders to remove the name of former President Woodrow Wilson off of the public and international affairs building around campus. Wilson helped expand the university into many schools but he was also a supporter of segregation. There are differing opinions on Princeton’s campus because although he had a huge influence on the school itself, he is known historically to have reversed pushes toward integration and equality.
At Claremont McKenna, a resource center for students of color was a focal point for their protests and students are calling from peers of all backgrounds to join in on the fight. Students called on the administration to offer a space for marginalized individuals to feel more represented and be able to interact with others who have had similar experiences as them on campus. The Claremont McKenna Forum reported that a female Chinese student, who remained anonymous because of the previous misrepresentation of her views in the media, said, “We are all in this together, maybe not by the same approach, but what we all want is indeed to ‘look at people by who they are, what they do, nothing else.”
The Johns Hopkins student body called for more women and professors of color in the women, gender and sexuality program on campus. The Johns Hopkins Hub published a piece outlining the protests, highlighting one sign that read, “Why don’t my professors look like me?”
Oberlin College’s protests have been made popular due to the mention of possible cultural appropriation in some of the dining options, but the problem is much deeper than that and reflects systematic oppression on certain students despite the school’s proud historical impact on civil rights.
Specifically, students all over the nation have been calling out their schools’ administrators and professors for the persistent microaggressions some students find to be integrated into their daily education. Microaggressions as defined by the North Carolina State University are “the everyday, verbal or nonverbal slights, snubs or insults whether intentional or unintentional that communicate hostile … negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” The presence of microaggressions on college campuses has become more recognized, and these everyday uses of bias led to the many student protests of the recent months.
Of course, dissatisfaction within any campus community is not a good thing, but for Oberlin College, the microaggressions and alleged cultural appropriation that targets minority students is especially surprising due to the school’s esteemed history.
Oberlin’s diversity and social justice mission statement states, “Oberlin College recognizes and actively supports the distinctive cultural identities and histories of individuals and groups, while encouraging them to transcend these boundaries through encounters with those whose experiences and perspectives are different from their own.”
In the midst of the problematic occurrences — which include, but are not limited to, the school’s investment in prisons and a lack of recognition for black sponsors — that lead to the student body’s 14 page list of demands, the administration’s alleged support mentioned proudly in their mission statement can be questioned.
In 1884, Oberlin graduated their first black student, which was a progressive move considering the Civil Rights Movement would not take place for another hundred years. The school’s website proudly states in their history that the college also had ties to the Underground Railroad, acting as an integral stop along the way toward freedom for slaves seeking a new life. This history, closely linked to the fight for equality, is what leads to some of the surprising dissatisfaction with what the school has done since and if it has continued to live up to its impressive history.
Many campus leaders and outsiders have negative reactions to student activism, going as far as to say all millennials are spoiled and naive. Headlines such as The New York Post’s “Spoiled students think gourmet lunches are a right” and list-based articles titled, “25 Nutty Demands from Racism-Obsessed Student Protest Groups” have overpowered those that express agreement or empathy toward the student activists. Many of these pieces describe modern college students as being over privileged and ignorant about the work it takes to lead an entire college. But there are other campus officials who believe student interest can lead to an active mutual conversation about progress.
In response to the recent protests, Dr. Elizabeth Lehfeldt, dean of Cleveland State University’s Honors College . She talked about her opinion on how leaders on college campuses should take their students seriously and use their interest in activism as an opportunity to open up the conversation about the processes that go into running a university.
“Colleges and universities are environments where faculty and students start with a shared common ground and goal: education… that comes with a level of engagement and trust that faculty and students have with and for each other. That does, of course, mean that any violation of that engagement or trust can be particularly damaging,” she said. She believes that the university environment is ideal for forming mutual respect relationships between faculty and students.
Lack of diversity in numbers is not the exact problem, but rather it is the handling of diversity and inclusion in higher education. At the schools that yield student protesters, it’s more of an industry problem rather than a unique issue due to the consistency of events. This ongoing problem is why the Association of American Colleges & Universities exists to promote equal treatment of all types of students on every campus. Similarly, some schools have taken measures to include more people of color on search committees, and the title of Chief Diversity Officer has emerged on campuses such as the University of Missouri, Clemson University, and the University of Connecticut, in order to expand inclusion initiatives on campus.
In a time when diversity is a problem, some universities are seeing more clear results towards inclusivity in faculty and the student body. According to BestColleges.com, Rutgers University, Stanford and Notre Dame are the leaders in student diversity in the United States, with various programs and initiatives such as diversity credit requirements, resource centers, and culturally based residential living centers.
What these schools as well as others that made the cut have in common, are various outlets for minorities to further explore their own identities, and opportunities for white students to learn more about inclusion. Rutgers’ Office of Institutional Inclusion and Diversity puts together on-campus programs that host speakers on diversity, mentor programs from minority students and faculty alike and engagements with recruiting potential students.
On the opposite side of the country, Stanford is using a similar tactic to tackle this industry problem. They have various centers on campus that appeal to students of color, international students, women on campus and give the choice of living in a residential community with a focus on any of the aforementioned community groups. This inclusion could be what appeals so well to the minority students. What needs to be remembered, though, is that on campus there must be adults that are easy to relate to for the students. This is exactly why hiring faculty members that belong to minority groups is so important for the educational environment, a statement that Elaine Maimon, provost at Arizona State University, stands by in an interview with DiversityWeb.org. “A diverse faculty enriches the experiences of all students,” she said. “Not only do a variety of perspectives have scholarly importance, they also prepare students to live in a global society.”
Hiring more diverse faculty members can improve campus climates, but it cannot rectify the underlying problems in higher education completely. Safe spaces and campus-wide events to teach students of all backgrounds about different cultures are a necessary step to promote an appreciation of students of all backgrounds.
Alexis Morillo is a freshman journalism major who uses her education to dismantle institutions of higher miseducation. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.