Throughout 2015, students of color have demanded that their universities be held accountable for both the explicit and implicit expressions of racism and racial bias on their campuses. Across the nation, they have organized in protest against the daily interactions with their peers, professors, and administrations that suggest that students of color are not welcome. In the face of often apathetic and silent administrative leadership, students of color have demanded that their universities be reformed in a way that affirms and protects their humanity.
Many campuses are organizing under the name of the Black Liberation Collective, a group of black students “dedicated to transforming institutions of higher education through unity, coalition building, direct action and political education.” Well-known activists DeRay McKesson, Johnetta Elzie, Samuel Sinyangwe, and Brittany Packnett have compiled a public list of the demands made by such groups at 86 universities.
By and large, the demands of the protesters at many of these universities have been specific and well thought-out. As a collective, students have demanded that the percentage of black students and faculty reflect the black population on a national scale. At Bard College, protesters have called for the university to institute mandatory anti-racism training for academic or extracurricular credit. At Tufts, students have demanded a 25 percent increase in the budget of their Africana Center. Students at California Polytechnic State University have asked that professors in STEM-related fields more readily incorporate feminist and antiracist perspectives in their curriculum.
And yet the specificity of students’ demands has, with few exceptions, been met with reactionary, symbolic, and seemingly scripted responses from their respective administrations.
The response follows a too familiar pattern: First, one or two high-ranking university officials apologize for their silence in the face of injustice and perhaps announce their resignation. Then, a committee or task force of students and faculty is hand picked by the administration to “help bridge our differences and promote meaningful dialogue and conversations,” as President Robert A. Brown of Boston University put it. By filling these committees with students and faculty they know—and thus can control—administrators prevent large numbers of more radical students from participating in the transformation of their campuses. Finally, an e-mail filled with buzzwords such as “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “community” is sent to everyone in the campus community in attempt to publicly reaffirm the university’s commitment to supporting its students—all of its students—before going back to business as usual.
The result is that students’ radical demands are diluted, simplified, and re-situated within the same university model that created the very problems that they are protesting.