Who Can Change the American University?

Who Can Change the American University?

Who Can Change the American University?

Many professors won’t support their students who are protesting campus racism—even when they want to.


From 2006 to 2010, I lived as a faculty fellow in dormitory housing with my undergraduate students at Vassar College, where I am now a tenured professor. I loved living on campus so much that I had to invent off-campus errands just to force myself to leave my place of employment. Sick, I know. Yet, even with the cynicism that time and tenure can create, I still count those years as the most positively formative of my teaching career. Not only did I witness the richness of student life outside the classroom—it’s less raucous than you might imagine—but, in exchanging my privacy for rent-free living among undergraduates, I was also able to begin the process of unburying myself from the mountain of student-loan and credit-card debt that came from spending years of making near poverty-level wages as a black graduate student from a working-class background.

Early in my stint as a faculty fellow, a small noose, fashioned out of the cord of a window shade, was found hanging in a common area. It was the fall of 2007—the same year of the Jena 6 protests, which were responses to the arrest and excessive punishment of six black students in Louisiana for fighting a white student days after nooses were found hanging in a tree at a local high school. Nooses were found all over the nation around that time. Vassar’s administration swiftly sent a campus-wide e-mail, admonishing the act and declaring it incompatible with our supposed inclusive environment. As a scholar of Black Studies and the dorm fellow, thus the “domestic” arm of administration, I worked with a few other faculty members to engage the students in a dialogue about the history of racist terror associated with nooses. We hoped to educate away what we perceived to be a threat of violence. The dialogue, like the campus-wide e-mail, was supposed to vanquish the specter and spectacle of anti-black racism from our campus.

Of course, my own didactic attempt and the larger, administrative attempts to deal with the noose are insufficient for material change, not simply because such spectacles are often mismanaged by institutional players, but also because specters always rematerialize when treated as isolated occurrences.

* * *

Lawrence Ross conjures an assortment of such ghostly deeds on predominantly white campuses across the country in the recently published Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses. Ross, a journalist who’s written on topics as far afield as the porn industry and black international travel narratives, cut his teeth on the topic of blacks in higher education with his book The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities (2001). Blackballed marks Ross’s return to higher-ed and moves forward his thesis: discriminatory hostility is the hallmark of the college experience for black students on predominantly white campuses across the United States.

Detailing decades of incidents, Ross’s evidence mostly includes interviews and anecdotes that detail anti–affirmative action activism and the purposeful exclusion of black women from white sororities, and videos of fraternity members leading chants filled with the N-word and “blackface” and “ghetto” on-campus frat parties. Perhaps because of his earlier work on “the Divine Nine,” the importance of white Greek life in shaping and perpetuating campus racism against black students constitutes the bulk of his focus in this eight-chapter book. Some readers will no doubt find the importance placed on anti-black racism emanating from white fraternities and sororities to be overly stressed, but Ross’s aim is to illustrate how institutional norms sanction the terrorizing of black students by white students. But the offenses, mostly Greek life-related, recounted in Blackballed are so numerous that they form clear and convincing evidence of racist menace on college campuses.

In Blackballed’s telling, college campuses contain both micro-aggressions and overtly racist acts that have been normalized and legitimized by predominantly white administrations, mostly by way of benign neglect. As Ross points out, “colleges and universities are reactive and not proactive to the racism on their campuses.” From my own experiences dealing with such issues, proactive problem solving at the administrative level is very difficult. Schools often have institutional priorities that typically supersede what one could dismiss as interpersonal frictions; moreover, there is a general lack of institutional will and imagination to center the lives of traditionally marginalized people on college campuses.

In his last chapter, “We’re Mad As Hell … And Were Taking Over The Building,” Ross moves beyond diagnosis to offering suggestions for addressing racial hostility: Administrations should prioritize campus race problems over securing donor funds, install moratoriums on defunding black student unions and African-American studies departments, and, if all else fails, black families should refuse to send their young people to predominantly white institutions. These suggestions are good, but they also ring a bit hollow. Ross frames campus protests by black students as a type of revenge-plot, rather than collective action for change. And, more urgently, student protesters have already proven themselves more courageous and imaginative than most college administrators.

* * *

What Ross perhaps could not have anticipated is what ultimately makes the reality of student mobilization more meaningful than any collection of anecdotes in book form. Black student protesters are calling for more than the mere accounting of racist campus incidents and rejecting post-incident discussions that appease without promising institutional change. During the past academic year, at large state schools like the University of Missouri and small, private liberal-arts colleges like Ithaca College, black students haven’t been simply protesting; they are organizing, and laying bare the mental and emotional fatigue that many endure from feeling devalued in educational settings. Instead of merely diagnosing the problem of campus racism, they are making concrete demands of their institutions and mobilizing across campuses.

Take the Black Liberation Collective (BLC), which consists of “black Students who are dedicated to transforming institutions of higher education through unity, coalition building, direct action and political education.” Inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s and the Black Student Leadership Network of the 1990s, this collective serves as the national mobilizing and support front for nearly ninety black student groups from campuses across the nation invested in addressing institutional inequity. In addition to compiling the lists of demands from the individual campuses, the national collective has three, clearly articulated demands: black student and faculty institutional representation in parity with national demographics; free tuition for black and indigenous students; and divestment from prisons and investment in communities.

It’s hard to say how effective the BLC can be at holding colleges and universities accountable for their demands; yet the collective does offer a way to assess what sets this moment apart from the recommendations made in Blackballed. The students’ presumption that incidents like those that Ross highlights are well-established and widely known might be a faulty one, but it is necessary to frame campus racism as an institutional problem rather than an interpersonal one. Now the student protesters have moved toward a model of inter-institutional organizing, with the practical aim of shifting institutional logics and the financial practices that result.

* * *

Since a common demand across these student lists is the call for more black faculty members, it stands to reason that black faculty must have a horse in this race. The Boston Review’s recent publication of Robin D.G. Kelley’s “Black Study, Black Struggle,” and the responses it engendered, represents an extensive public consideration of the effect that today’s student movement is having on the academy, especially among black professors. The most intriguing aspect of Kelley’s essay and its responses is the way they throw into relief whether or not black-faculty labor can be mobilized in this movement. Kelley, citing Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, argues for what, in a different century, W.E.B. Du Bois described as being “in,” but not “of,” the university. Kelley, Moten, Harney, and various other faculty members imagine a radical fugitive stance against the university, one in which the university becomes a place where one works, but not the site of ones entire social frame of reference, not a home. This view is appealing in its allowance for certain faculty members to perform distance without losing the compensatory benefits that comes from institutional employment.

As a first-generation college and doctoral student, my own experience with debt in pursuit of a career that no one ever imagined for me looms large. I am not unique, especially if one considers how easily black Americans fall out of the middle class and the precariousness of black financial stability. As the school-student relationship increasingly turns into one between service-provider and customer, I wonder how many black professors (the laborers in this schema) are actually willing to risk their financial security for a “customer” who won’t be around in a few years. Couple this with the fact that tenure is as evasive as ever—76 percent of the new appointments in higher educations instructional workforce, according to a recent American Association of University Professors report, are non–tenure track faculty members, who are often poorly paid and whose work must often be fixated on contract renewal. Many black faculty members across all sorts of institutional contexts and holding various contractual relationships may feel encouraged to opt for the safety of a paycheck by supporting our students behind closed doors, educating them in the history and ways of protest, but never publicly bargaining for them, black staff, black communities, and themselves. Or as Aaron Bady contends in his response to Kelley, it’s faculty, not students, who are “in danger of acting on behalf of the institutions—of mistaking its identity for their own.” The current demands go far beyond diversity, but the chances remain high that institutions will continue to meet demands for radical change with frail forms of diversification that ignore the many forms of inequality in our society.

Black faculty members, many of whom were once student activists, and many of whom teach principles of direct action and organizing, should demand that our institutions shake free from their neoliberal, racist foundations. And in a nation where inter-generational poverty mostly governs mobility, any move to organize must begin by addressing the looming debt that many first-generation faculty members have when beginning these jobs, including the ways that gender plays a role. Black women, at the intersection of both gender and racial institutional devaluation, are historically held in greater debt than most of our gender and race others.

Blackballing on college campuses across the nation extends far beyond the frame of student-to-student interactions. It’s not merely about micro-aggressions, though those wear on the soul; it’s also about the precarious nature of black financial life. Administrators at academic institutions, like employers for nearly every job in our country, know this. Their power depends on individuals’ paying the price of radical change. If black faculty members, especially those of us at predominantly white institutions, are to collectively become radical mentors, active supporters, and risking comrades of change with our students, we have to be (debt) free or we have to be organized. Right now, we are neither.

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