Will Universities Listen to Students About how to End Systemic Racism?Roundup
tags: racism, higher education, Police, colleges and universities
Matthew Johnson is associate professor of history at Texas Tech University and author of Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality.
The University of Mississippi will soon relocate a Confederate monument from its campus. Woodrow Wilson’s name is gone from Princeton University’s school of public policy. In the face of student and alumni protest, administrators at dozens of other universities are reconsidering mascots, statues and building names that have strong connections to white supremacy.
It is fitting that these protests are unfolding a half-century after hundreds of campus protests against racial inequality, the Vietnam War and corporate greed rocked the nation. Then, as now, campus activism was part of a broader social movement that brought Americans to the streets.
Yet the fact that activists have had to fight this hard, during a pandemic no less, to force changes at colleges and universities reveals how little has changed in 50 years. While it is tempting to read this history as one where higher education has bent to the whims of student protesters, the real story is one of powerful resistance. Universities have shown a deft ability to make reforms that still preserve inequality and exploitation in the face of well-organized student movements.
Consider one of the most successful protests of 1970: the Black Action Movement (BAM) strike at the University of Michigan. On March 18, black student activists called for a class strike that shut down much of the University of Michigan’s academic operations. They gained so much support from students and faculty that 50 percent of classes were canceled at the university’s largest college in the following days. By April 1, administrators conceded to many of the students’ demands, including a goal to increase black enrollment to 10 percent of the student body.
The concession unleashed the wrath of critics, including Vice President Spiro Agnew, who claimed that weak administrators allowed a small group of activists to control university policy. But activists never gained control of anything. Although UM came close to fulfilling the BAM concession of 10 percent black enrollment once in the 1990s, black representation has generally hovered between 4 and 7 percent since 1970. Black enrollment currently stands at just under 5 percent in a state where black 18- to 24-year-olds make up 17 percent of the population.
The numbers are just part of the story. The explanations that administrators crafted to justify the persistence of racial disparities have done great harm to black students’ access. In 1980, when a reporter pressed one UM official about the university’s failure to meet BAM’s demands, he replied, “We owe it to the faculty not to admit dumb kids.”
Even worse, UM officials manipulated evidence about black student performance. Administrators’ favorite explanation for not admitting more black students was that high attrition rates showed that there weren’t enough academically capable black students to admit. But these statements contradicted the university’s own evidence produced after the BAM strike.
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